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Local restaurants are getting choosier about the music they play—and even bringing in experts to help

The reel-to-reel from the back bar at Young Joni.

The reel-to-reel from the back bar at Young Joni. The Restaurant Project

Six months ago, someone named Kyle decided to go online and write a three-star review of Boludo.

He wasn’t dissatisfied with the empanadas or the pizza that make up the bulk of the restaurant’s menu. Instead, Kyle had one request: “Just turn down the music a bit.”

Sorry, Kyle. Not gonna happen.

“Without music, Boludo would be completely different,” says Facundo Defraia, the restaurant’s chef and owner. “I understand these reviewers want to be in a calm place, but my idea of bringing Boludo to Minneapolis is about bringing a culture.”

Born and raised in Argentina, Defraia originally came to the United States to play music. He’d grown up hearing his grandmother sing along to tango on the kitchen radio “in this beautiful voice she had.” But the cooking he helped with on all those afternoons influenced him too. Working as a chef, Defraia didn’t have a lot of time to perform, so when Boludo opened in 2018, he wanted music to be integral to the restaurant experience.

“To me, cooking and music go hand and hand,” DeFraia says. “When I’m in Boludo I’m singing, I’m playing guitar. People think I’m crazy, but it’s how I express myself. This is what you’re going to find in Argentina all over the place.”

Boludo’s playlist, which can be found on Defraia’s own Spotify account under the name “BOLUDO,” currently includes Bad Bunny, Gustavo Cerati, Carlos Gardel, J Balvin, and SUMO.

“It’s the music I grew up with. You can listen to some tango, some rock, some reggae. It’s the music that influenced me to be in this industry and influenced me in my life.”

Defraia is just one of the many restaurateurs who’ve taken DJ duties into their own hands. Why run the place, after all, if you can’t control the aux? At Grand Cafe, chef and owner Jamie Malone curates the playlist. At Spoon and Stable the responsibility was recently placed in the hands of some cool hostesses. Other spots, like St. Paul Bagelry and Five Watt Coffee, are known for their music as much as their sips and bites: The former’s menu items are named after famous artists; the latter has its own radio station.

Chef Isaac Becker doesn’t let anyone near his restaurants’ sound systems. “It’s a pretty personal thing to me. It was always something I looked forward to before opening my own place—being able to choose the music,” Becker says.

The chef and co-owner of 112 Eatery, Burch Steak, Snack Bar, and Bar La Grassa, Becker has created two playlists: one for evening dining, one for brunch at Burch. But though all his restaurants use the same nighttime playlist, it’s unlikely each location will sound the same—the selection currently has around 2,000 songs.

A list of artists recently added to the playlist includes Gesaffelstein, ZZ Top, Lil Keed, Robert Fripp, Peggy Gou, Mr. Oizo, Los Tigres del Norte, Kim Gordon, Amanda Lepore, and some Michael Gira solo stuff. All bets are off when it comes to genre, but Becker typically tries to keep songs under six or seven minutes. “If I put on songs that are 12 or 15 minutes long, more than anything I think it drives the employees crazy,” he says.

Though Kyle has yet to weigh in, the chef’s musical tastes are definitely not free from guest criticism. “Some people don’t like—really don’t like—heavy metal,” Becker says. But there’s been positive recognition as well. Guests often ask about songs that are playing, eager to write down names of unfamiliar artists. And once, TV on the Radio heard something they apprciated while dining and offered up free concert tickets.

“I think music can create energy in the room. I like a lot of obscure stuff, so it’s fun when a customer recognizes it and comments on it,” Becker says. “I don’t pick and choose places I go based on what music they play, but I can tell if it’s someone’s personal choice.”

Young Joni is one of the restaurants Becker cites as offering particularly good music, and that’s no surprise: They brought in professionals. Their playlist was specially designed by Uncanned Music—a company dedicated to the curation, design, and implementation of music and music systems in restaurants.

Co-owned by Scott McNiece and David Allen, Uncanned started as a business for custom playlists. McNiece had been doing the work for years, first as a food runner with good taste and the go-ahead to put some songs together, and soon after as a full-time music curator for Hogsalt Hospitality. As other restaurants began to take note, he partnered with Allen, an audio engineer.

“You’re basically giving someone a flavor they didn’t ask for,” McNiece says of creating a soundtrack for a restaurant. “Music affects how everything tastes, feels, looks. It’s the one thing that people are consuming in a restaurant that they didn’t actually order.”

McNiece has read all the studies about what music fits each particular season, or how the right music can create specific emotional effects, but he says in the end none of that matters.

“You’re the one having a dinner party here. And everyone is the guest. Some restaurateurs want to detach. They’ll ask, ‘What does the target market want?’” says McNiece. “I want to work with people who have something artistic to say.”

So the process starts with a chat, to understand the proprietor’s personality. When it came to Young Joni, conversation turned to the restaurant’s name—a tribute to the mothers of co-owners Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur.

“There was a familial, intergenerational vibe. I was playing Ann this Korean song from the ’60s, and she said it reminded her of something her mother would play,” McNiece says. “We essentially built the first playlist to be what Ann Kim’s mother’s eight-track might be playing—if she continued to collect eight-tracks until today.” It was called “AK8Tracks.” (AK for Ann Kim.)

After Kim mentioned to Uncanned that she wanted Prince on the playlist, McNiece added the Numero Group collection of Twin Cities ’70s R&B Purple Snow to the mix. This playlist became “Northeast Soul.”

In the back bar, Uncanned took the project further by fully installing a reel-to-reel system. “Part of that concept was wanting the space to feel like a cabin that Conrad’s parents had,” McNiece says. Today, the bar adds a new tape to its rotation every few months—about as often as the restaurant overhauls its digital playlist.

“Music is often people’s first perception of a place. If you hear the food is good but walk through the door and hear a song you hate, the chances of the restaurant leaving a good impression are pretty low,” McNiece says. “People have options. They can just click on some Spotify playlist and have it play forever. But for us it’s about having a unique personality and creating that unique experience.”

What matters is the flavor—or should we say “good taste”?