It’s been a long, long time since we’ve sat inside a restaurant over a spread of plates, watching people flirt at the bar, servers weaving through tables while music plays over many muffled conversations. Music is a fundamental part of the experience of dining out: People will pick restaurants for the atmosphere they provide, be it alt-millennial, nostalgic, funky, or serene.
Music is also a major influence on restaurant workers, something that will drain someone of their energy or keep them moving throughout the night. Kitchen lines come up with inside jokes surrounding certain songs played during prep. Bartenders argue over the best closing song to play at 2 a.m. Bussers will groan over that one song that plays over and over on a playlist, one they memorize unintentionally after the 1,000th play during service.
So, as a tribute to all the meals we didn’t eat out at restaurants last year, we asked chefs, bartenders, and servers for the songs that played in their dining rooms or in the kitchen, the songs that got them ready for a shift or created the mood for the night. We took requests on Instagram, sent out calls on Twitter, and even dug up some old Portland restaurant playlists. And, despite the current futility of the concept, we created the ultimate Portland restaurant playlist.
Now, this playlist, obviously, doesn’t cover every Portland restaurant; the scene is rightfully multifaceted, of course. But we took the songs we saw on repeat and tried to recreate the general moods of an evening shift, from the 4 p.m. mellow to the peak-of-the-night bangers to the late-night cooldown. It’s not perfect, and we probably need to do an entire second playlist just for dive bars. Nonetheless, you can find the playlist-building basics from the people who create the vibe at the restaurants you love and miss.
The Music Chefs and Restaurant Workers Play While They Work and Prep
“LCD Soundsystem, Daft Punk, anything that is high tempo is usually my go-to. So much of what I love about being a chef has to do with the frenetic pace and adrenaline rush from working in an extremely busy environment, so finding music that not only fits that but can even propel you through your day is very important. ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ by LCD is a particular favorite.” -Garrett Benedict, G-Love chef and owner
“I’m kinda old so I tend to listen to ‘70/’80s Rock and Punk: Talking Heads, The Clash, David Bowie, Queen. That kind of stuff.” -Jasper Shen, XLB chef and owner
“Personally, I gravitate to more Funk and Soul like Cookin On 3 Burners anthem ‘This Girl’ (love the particular remix done with Kungs), but honestly our musical tastes span everything depending on the mood. I grew up a ‘90s kid, so that, for me, is in heavy rotation, especially the grunge era like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, Nirvana.... but I also love the beat, so Hip Hop, R&B is a good mix. If it’s any indicator, the popular stations on my Pandora are Janet Jackson, STP, and Jamiroquai.” -Carlo Lamagna, Magna chef and owner
“Yo La Tengo kind of became our workplace house band, but for particularly amped-up days there’s a lot of cheesy ‘70s bands like Dio and Supertrap.” -Sean Cohan, Little T Baker, front of house
“My work playlists typically head either the CCR or LCD Soundsystem direction, depending on what era fits my mood. Today’s gloomy weather definitely calls for some Laurel Canyon longhair albums.” -Summer Triato, Bar West owner
“From this past year: loved almost anything from Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia or Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure; a bunch of tracks from Haim’s Women in Music III; all of Jump Rope Gazers by The Beths; “Bad Friend” by Rina Sawayama.” -Handsome Pizza, via Twitter
“I never used to listen to music during prep as I found it distracting, but in an effort to make the atmosphere a little more enjoyable for my staff, I asked my sous chef, Sky, what music she’d like to hear. She requested Bruno Mars or Justin Bieber, so we’ve had those two on rotation ever since.” -Vince Nguyen, Berlu chef and owner
The Music Playing in the Dining Room
“During service, I always try to find playlists that center on the ‘70s. The ethos of G-Love is really rooted in positivity and I think Disco, Soul, and Funk as genres all really embody that positivity that we are trying to project.” -Garrett Benedict, G-Love
“We ease into it: Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Debarge. Then, as the night progresses, we move into lo-fi Hip Hop, then hit them with heavier stuff like Kendrick or Ludacris. Same goes for other genres: Maybe start off with heavy acoustic music like Jose Gonzalez, Neil Young, or Fleetwood Mac, then usually leading into ‘90s rock or early ‘00s like Third Eye Blind or something.” -Carlo Lamagna, Magna
“The closest thing to our anthem was playing Ginuwine’s ‘Pony’ and Prince’s ‘Private Joy’ back-to-back. Because they both start with ‘P,’ they ended up next to each other on an original playlist, and eventually it just became a thing to play them back-to-back. We would wait to play them until the middle of service when the dining room was full, and once that ‘bowp bowp bowp’ of Ginuwine came on, the energy of the room would just explode. It always felt like being in a movie for me, in all the magical ways.” -Brent Braun, Ok Omens sommelier
“When we first opened as a tasting menu, I would play the Currents album by Tame Impala while guests were arriving up until the first course was served. I find this album extremely calming, especially the song ‘Yes I’m Changing,’ and would play this album during this time to help relieve the nerves of service. Any time during the day I’m stressed out I’ll put on that song.” -Vince Nguyen, Berlu
“I think the Bill Withers Spotify station is the ultimate dining room playlist. Classic R&B and Soul songs are timeless, relaxing, and universally beloved. That said, Sunshine Noodles has its own flavor and was a little edgier musically. I think Toro y Moi played more than anything else, but I loved hearing ‘Nightcall’ by Kavinsky in the space at night. It summed up the Blade-Runner-meets-Hello-Kitty vibe that we were going for with Sunshine.” -David Sigal, Mian amd Sunshine Noodles
“Bar West’s heavy rotation tends to feature tunes to drink great wine and eat fancy fries to, but we have definitely been known to crank Beyonce for brunch. Personal favorites would be Neutral Milk Hotel or David Bowie, but everyone on the crew is passionate about music, so it does get obscure.” -Summer Triato, Bar West
“For me, Billie Eilish has become synonymous with Berlu. The Berlu playlist was predominantly Billie Eilish, so anytime I hear a Billie Eilish song it brings me back to service nights at Berlu. I played the playlist a few times during the Berlu at Home pick ups and we all felt shifted into ‘service mode.’” -Vince Nguyen, Berlu
“At work everyone has a chance to play whatever they want. We get a good range at any given time, from Thundercat to Toro y Moi to Blood Orange. They are all younger and cooler than me so I get introduced to a lot music that isn’t usually on my radar.” -Jasper Shen, XLB
And, Last But Not Least, The Playlist
Please feel free to send other song recommendations to our tipline, or just turn this on over a meal of takeout.
• The Ultimate Portland Restaurant Playlist [Spotify]