To some, the opening bars of “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens sound like a station identification break from some long-forgotten, Deco-era radio station, the kind of tinkling glockenspiel theme you’d hear played live, every 15 minutes. But to me, that song will always sound like milky coffee and scones.

Not so much because there’s anything about the music that brings to mind percolation or thickly rolled tranches of sugar-glazed, buttery dough, but because I associate it with Sunday mornings at Maine coffee shops.

I must have first heard the song at Maple’s in Yarmouth, a café/bakery where scones are mandatory, and where music overhead triggers points of connection that take you by surprise: Donovan is to Sylvan Esso as Fleetwood Mac is to Tame Impala.

Omi’s in South Portland is a coffee shop spawned from the same sonic DNA, although when piped across speakers in the rambling, renovated Victorian house, there’s an extra bounce, a little extra pep to the playlist. Maybe that’s due to an extra shot of Lizzo, or maybe it’s just the house-roasted espresso.

Last week, when Spotify randomly shuffled that wistful Sufjan Stevens track into my kitchen, it was nearly time for dinner. I had Melissa Clark’s outstanding spice-rubbed spatchcocked chicken in the oven, perfuming the air with the scents of smoked paprika and crisping skin – but the moment I heard that tinkling intro, all I wanted was a lemon-raspberry scone and a latte.

In an instant, music had realigned my appetite.

Festina Lente in Kittery is a small space with hard surfaces, ergo, echo-y sounds, making the soundtrack for the space challenging. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The strongest form of magic

Music makes people come together. Restaurateurs understand this power. Some wield it better than others, but there’s a common consensus that what you play on your speakers influences what your customers experience.

“I think of it as one of the most important tools I have to create an atmosphere, if not the biggest,” Flood’s owner and Palace Diner co-owner Greg Mitchell told me. “Lighting is another key pillar, if you consider the food and beverage to be a given. But more than almost anything, music really sets a mood.”

To achieve an ambiance that suits each space, Mitchell uses the Spotify music streaming service at his two restaurants to play radically dissimilar playlists. At Biddeford’s Palace Diner, customers perch on vintage swivel stools at a melamine-and-steel counter. No surprise, the soundtrack harkens back to the golden age of diners (late 1950s to early-mid 1960s), when car radios burbled with the sounds of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Wanda Jackson. Over the restaurant’s six years, its breakfast playlist has swollen to nearly 650 era-appropriate songs: more than 31 hours of music.

Flood’s, Mitchell’s Portland cocktail bar/restaurant, strives for a more sophisticated, swanky-yet-hip atmosphere. “It’s a little more mercurial in the selection of music,” he said. “It’s a little less of a neat box (than at Palace Diner), and there are more factors to consider. I’m drawn to stuff that has good rhythms, interesting but not too challenging: classic rock, A Tribe Called Quest, some Nigerian rock from the ’70s. It has to work in a small space.”

The tiny dining room at Festina Lente in Kittery poses similar challenges for chef/owner Sam Ostrow. “Not only is it a really small space, but it’s a hard restaurant, too, with cement floors and angles. I don’t like a lot of fabric, so without a lot of bodies in there, it can get echo-y and loud,” he said. “But I pay attention to it. I’m a control freak and control the music choices and the volume. It gives me another way of curating the experience for a customer. I don’t think everyone even notices, but that’s a good thing.”

Ostrow also employs a more dynamic approach to how music is queued at Festina Lente. Whereas most restaurants construct their soundtracks out of mosaics of individual songs from dozens of artists, he opts to stitch each evening-length playlist from whole albums. Depending on the mood in the kitchen (which boasts its own independently controlled speaker) and the dining room, he’ll occasionally skip over artists whose records he had planned to play.

“Sometimes I’ll pull together a long list of 20 albums, but that’s so I can jump up and down in volume and mood,” he explained. “When the kids come in, sometimes I’ll sneak on an album they like, or a customer I know, I might play something just as a little innuendo just for them.”

Going with the flow
At More & Co., a coffee shop and art space in Yarmouth, co-owner and resident DJ Christopher David Ryan (known as CDR) also eschews track-by-track, mixtape-style playlists in favor of entire albums. Yet in the café’s hygge-supercharged space, CDR and his staff take things a step further by eliminating streaming technology altogether. In their place: an old-fashioned analog turntable and speakers.

“I’ve been collecting vinyl for years. I always wanted to have my records and equipment in a space where we can create an ambiance similar to a party in someone’s living room,” he said. “Vinyl produces a warmer sound than digital, and it’s nice that we can hear the cracks and scratches. It’s a feeling, just like the relationships between the records we play. You listen as it plays and you see the context and just know what’s going to come next. You create a narrative that starts to make sense.”

Mornings often begin with mellow sounds like ambient electronica or soft jazz that eventually give way to Motown or funky soul from the 1970s. “You want something that’s not too jarring as a gentle way to start the day,” CDR said. “So we are thinking of the whole day as a journey, letting the music flow. Play your records and let the music do the work as the day moves along.”

At 44 North, a roastery and cafe in Stonington, days possess a different sort of rhythm. Because the shop doubles as a two-story production space where beans are roasted and packaged for shipping, every day offers a midafternoon deadline imposed, not by the setting sun, but by heavy machinery and the U.S. Postal Service.

“When people walk in, they hear a loud blower motor going and the sound of people packing coffee,” co-owner Melissa Rafferty told me. “On most days when we’re cracking out web orders and wholesale, we tend to play uppity stuff, with lots of booming bass. Customers are in the small café for maybe five minutes, so we let the production crew listen to whatever they need to to make the 2:45 post office deadline. We go for the heavy hitters when the work needs to get done.”

Once Rafferty, co-owner Megan Wood and their team cross the street to unload garden carts sagging from the weight of bags and boxes of coffee, they are able to return to 44 North to relax a bit. The shop’s soundtrack often reflects this midday ebb, whiplashing from J Balvin or Alice Cooper to the melody-driven pop of Mereba, or even Norwegian ’80s heartthrobs A-ha. 

Please, no requests
Even after the vibe at 44 North slips into something a little more comfortable, a little more like what you’d expect to encounter in a café, the aural atmosphere might still surprise you, just as it does Wood and Rafferty from time to time.

“Some of our employees built our first playlist in Pandora (another Internet streaming service), then now the one in Spotify. They’re able to build it and shape it as the year goes on. We give people pretty much free rein on what they want to listen to, as long as it’s not super-explicit,” Rafferty said.

“It’s important for us to let them choose whatever feels right for them, for the day,” Wood added. “If you set up your own soundtrack, it makes you more motivated to do your job. But we did once have an employee who wanted to listen to German or Russian opera, so we had to address that pretty fast!”

At Hilltop Coffee on Munjoy Hill, the playlist tends to be shift-specific, according to co-owner Stella Hernandez. Photo by Stella Hernandez

Perhaps the ideal configuration is when a café or restaurant’s playlist nurtures its staff and clientele in equal measure. At Hilltop Coffee in Munjoy Hill, the daily soundtrack overhead is a Pandora-driven pastiche mutually agreed upon by the duo of baristas behind the counter.

Co-owner Stella Hernandez explained, “It tends to be shift-specific. Our staff gets to pick within a pretty broad set of parameters, and they wind up finding their musical overlap. They learn where that overlap lives, and they match that with their good sense of hospitality. We’ve had very few complaints.”

Things were trickier at Lolita Vinoteca + Asador, a neighboring restaurant that Hernandez and her husband, Guy Hernandez, shuttered in early September. Creating a sonic landscape in the understated, yet elegant, mostly Spanish restaurant demanded a bit more needle-threading.

“We had one woman who was totally offended because we were playing ’80s music. And then another, when I didn’t think anyone was paying any attention, and a guest came up and said ‘Thank you for playing that,’” Stella Hernandez said. “But I do feel like I had to think about music a lot more at the restaurant, to be much more deliberate. There’s a finer line between getting the vibe you want, between volume and tenor of what’s playing. People are either attuned to it or tune it out completely.”

Having dined in more than my fair share of restaurants and having forgotten more playlists than I remember, I’d argue that we bring that focus with us when we walk in the door. When volume isn’t a factor, we hear what we want to hear and ignore what we don’t on a restaurant-by-restaurant, playlist-by-playlist basis.

Perhaps this is why we can’t quite evoke the same spirit and mood with our own music when we order takeout or delivery meals. Even when we set the table with nice (or at least mostly unchipped) dishware, we soon discover that the food is right, maybe even the wine, but without music, the experience still feels makeshift.

To help bridge the gap in these days of dining in, not out, a few of the restaurants and coffee shops mentioned in this article have shared their playlists, including that ultra-quirky 44 North set, a sampler of the best of Festina Lente, and a late-night list from Flood’s.

At Cong Tu Bot in Portland, the kitchen favors a syncopated soundtrack. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

I have also created three playlists of my own, each more than two hours long – plenty of time for a meal at home – in an effort to conjure a little of the ambiance at some of the state’s most evocative dining spaces. They are on both Spotify and Apple Music. Shuffle them or play them in order: your choice.

The first, “Place Setting,” includes quietly immersive, broody songs I associate with memorable meals at Nina June in Rockport, The Garrison in Yarmouth, Elda’s in Biddeford and Hugo’s and Central Provisions in Portland, among many others.

The second, “Working the Pass,” delivers a dose of danceable, (mostly) 1990s hip hop: the syncopated soundtrack you might hear bouncing from the kitchen of Portland’s Pai Men Miyake or Cong Tu Bot, even on a busy weekend night at Sammy’s Deluxe in Rockland.

And last but certainly not least, “Eclectic Espresso,” a playlist built, in part, from my Shazam archives, of some of the audio highlights from visits to bakeries and third-wave coffee shops across the state, including Lil’s in Kittery, Portland’s Bard Coffee and 123 Main Street in Northeast Harbor. Scone and latte not required.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.