Ask the question "could you turn the music down a little please?" in a place of entertainment and you might as well hang a sign around your neck announcing "I'm a party pooper". But what if the offending loudness is in a restaurant owned by one of London's most innovative food entrepreneurs and it's the establishment's own hip young staff who are complaining that the decibel level is giving them a migraine?
A friend who moves in elevated circles had three weeks' worth of gossip from the party conference season to impart. So where better to meet for an early bite to eat and a glass of wine than one of these informal, no-reservations, sit-down-and-order-small-plates kind of places that started appearing in central London a couple of years ago to much ooh-ing and aah-ing from the critics. They're the kind of restaurant you'd be thrilled to stumble on in a back-street of Naples or Thessaloniki a humble, family-owned bistro perhaps, where the menu is simple but made from the finest ingredients. Only you don't have to go to Italy or Spain for the cosily shabby interiors and reclaimed cutlery any more, there'll be one opening near you soon.
Ordering food was certainly informal a lot of shouting about fennel and pork fillet with hazelnuts. We moved on to the political gossip but progress was slow. I caught "sting operation" "left her husband" "entrapment" but the conversation was doing battle with pulsating indie rock. Eventually, hoarse from shouting, we felt justified in asking the server to take some of the din out of our dinner. It wasn't late after all, barely 7pm, and this wasn't All Bar One but a place with a Michelin Bib Gourmand award. "I hate it this loud myself," he sympathised, "but we're not allowed to change it." We declined his offer of a complaint to the manager, but he seemed very keen on a complaint. "Please," he mouthed, "it would help me."
The boss arrived and delivered a policy statement I sum up as: very loud music is part of the vibe we want here, and if you don't like it, well, you know what you can do.
Brutal and inhospitable, but at least honest. As he noted, gesturing at the busy room, "We have no problem filling tables." Boss gone, the young minion hastened over for an update. He looked crestfallen when told of our failure to change policy.
Music can help create the right buzz wherever people gather and our venue's playlist wasn't bad. But even Mozart's Lacrimosa played at volumes favoured in the interrogation rooms at Guantanamo would be anti-social.
What leaves an even sourer after-taste is how, in seeking to emulate the ethos of casual, inexpensive but chic dining the reinvented Madrid tapas bar or the Venetian bacaro Britain's restaurant kings and their investment fund backers are merely substituting one form of corporate standardisation for another. In a fiercely competitive business environment, they are, of course, forever chasing a Holy Grail, that magic formula a "concept" that brings high turnover at low cost. Once found, the temptation must be to milk it for all it's worth.
So everything, from the music volume (deafening, either to keep out old people or because if they can't actually talk, people will drink more) to the way in which staff are ordered to exude informality, is rigidly controlled.
Good food at keen prices is attractive in austere times but I wonder if people realise, as they queue for a formica table, that what they are getting is a construct. It may look like unpretentious authenticity but behind the scenes it is as ruthlessly uptight and corporate as McDonald's. And tough if the staff don't want to be deafened by Arcade Fire at industrial volume; they'll have to seek employment elsewhere.
- THE INDEPENDENTBy Katherine Butler