Music Critic

One of the more frequent call-in complaints restaurant critics hear on KCUR 89.3’s The Walt Bodine Show isn’t about food or service but about restaurants being too noisy. For a long time I brushed off the gripes as petty irritations, but lately I’ve noticed a new trend in local restaurants: background music played at ridiculously loud levels.

What gives? Is it a way to cover up the bustle and noise — glasses clinking, silverware clattering, customers laughing and chatting — customarily heard in a dining room? Or is something more sinister going on? A friend of mine insists that the louder a restaurant, the more mediocre the food. “You’re spending so much time wishing that you had earplugs,” she says, “that you don’t notice the food sucks.”

The noise level in a restaurant helps set the tone of the entire dining experience. A sports bar, for example, should be boisterous. But some local restaurants are so noisy that even their fans have given me an earful, blasting the volume at 40 Sardines, California Pizza Kitchen, Grand Street Café and Macaroni Grill.

Until last week, I had never walked out of a restaurant because it was too noisy. But baby, I’ve been to rock concerts that didn’t leave my head pounding the way it did after my visit to the tiny dining room at Puffy Taco (10028 North Ambassador Drive) near Kansas City International Airport. And I felt guilty for leaving, because the food was very good. Hmm, I wonder if owner Arthur Mora cranks up the CD player in order to drown out 747s taking off nearby.

I loved my puffy tacos — made with a light corn tortilla that puffs up when it’s fried — and a terrific bowl of creamy guacamole. But the noise level in the little joint (which wasn’t even half-full) was migraine-inducing.

“Go ask the bartender to turn down the music,” my friend Bob said as he dipped a tortilla chip into the guacamole. I did, and the gentleman gave me a grim look — part surprise, part horror — as if I had asked him to stick a burrito up his ass. The music stayed at the same level, so we asked our server to pack up the food. Maybe I’m a puff duddy for not wanting a side of tinnitus with my tacos, but food tastes better without earplugs.

Sometimes it’s not just the pumped-up volume but also the choice of music that drives diners — and servers — crazy. In the 1980s, I worked at a noisy midtown restaurant where the owner played the soundtrack to the film St. Elmo’s Fire so often that I finally hid the cassette. Ditto for the vegetarian restaurant where the owner played Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” over and over. When I hid that tape, he replaced it with Judy Collins. Then I quit.

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