6 Dallas-area restaurants with the coolest and most varied music playlists
Dallas restaurants are constantly looking for new ways to stand out from the pack: innovative concepts, chic interior designs, locations like the 49th floor of a skyscraper.
So why are so many of them playing the same music?
A distinctive playlist can help create an unforgettable dining room. But many restaurants in the city are content with top 40 hits, pop standards or pre-made lists from services like Spotify. Hip-hop instrumentals and the Pandora station “Hipster Cocktail Party” have become staples.
To shake Dallas out of its sonic slumber, I spoke to restaurateurs in town whose dining rooms are a treat for the ears. Here’s what I learned about creating a great restaurant playlist.
The dining room: sunny, airy, with an oyster bar and full of floral and bright pastels
Music: Oldies, blues, soft house rhythms
“I think music creates the culture that you want to incorporate into your concept,” says Connie Cheng, co-owner of Krio at Bishop Arts. Its Asian-Cajun seafood restaurant is notable for attracting and accommodating a wide range of customers across social and demographic boundaries.
“I don’t want to scare anyone,” Cheng said. She and the restaurant hosts monitor the dining room and adapt accordingly. In the afternoon, the stereo plays classics, including blues cuts that date back to the 1940s. Sunset and happy hour bring what Cheng calls “chill house music,” followed by contemporary airs at the end of the evening.
Apple Music technology allows owners to remotely update restaurant playlists, many of which are over 30 hours long. Last week, at a party, Cheng heard a cool new track and added it to the Krio mix within seconds. Its staff also contributes to this.
“You want the staff to enjoy the vibe as well as the customers,” she explains. “Some of my younger employees come up to me and say, ‘Hey, did you hear that?’ And I will say that it doesn’t match Krio, or, let’s add that now. They love being able to put their 2 cents in it.
Oldies aren’t exactly the hottest genre of music these days, but Krio’s choice makes perfect sense for its relaxed, heartwarming atmosphere — and with its co-owner’s life story.
“I’m a first-generation Cambodian American,” Cheng said. “My father learned English through music. I grew up with the Bee Gees and Neil Diamond and all that. These are happy memories for me. I feel like these elders, pretty much any age group, can sing along to it, whether it takes them back to a memory from their childhood or a memory from their parents, their grandparents.
The Dining Room: Lively but cozy, with dark wood, brass, and an indoor-outdoor bar
Music: 80s pop rock, British invasion, 90s hip-hop
Playlists tell the story of Matt McCallister’s restaurant career. Although we now consider his first kitchen, FT33, a milestone in Dallas restaurant history, it began as a rebellion against the dining standards of the time. As a result, the playlist was a mix of youth hip-hop, often with vulgar lyrics. In the bathroom, the volume was even louder.
Now the leader is older, wiser and more relaxed, and Homewood’s music reflects that fact. It features songs that he, his staff and many of his customers used to listen to when they were younger.
“We had people dancing on the patio swaying to the playlist,” says McCallister. “Once I noticed it was starting to happen, I kept playing songs like that, no matter what we were playing at the time, to keep going.”
Like Krio, Homewood uses several very long playlists, adjusting the mood and volume to fit the scene.
“On a Wednesday, I don’t rush 90s hip-hop when it’s usually an older audience that arrives at the first service,” explains the chef. “I’m not going to replace them with Wu-Tang because they’re not in it. If staff like the tunes more than guests, they can mount a separate kitchen-only volume knob.
McCallister enjoys seeing chefs express their identity through musical choices and has fond memories of a $700, three-Michelin-star tasting menu at Season in San Francisco, all about yacht rock.
He has not so good memories of a 2013 Dallas Morning News restaurant review from another chef, Spoon. The critic at the time argued that it is “hard to imagine” that someone paying $350 for a bottle of champagne would enjoy hearing the Ramones and Led Zeppelin while they eat.
“I was like, leave them alone,” McCallister recalled of that incident. “Music is an opportunity for the chef or owner to express their personality.”
The dining room: a jazz concert stage with plush booths and walls of bookshelves
Music: International pop, jazz, bossa nova, classic country
Windmills, The Colony’s upscale jazz club, craft brewery and Indian restaurant, bolsters its eclectic business concept with North Texas’ most diverse playlist. The music leaps across decades, genres and continents, reflecting the extraordinary taste of one man: renowned architect and brewery founder Kamal Sagar.
“I grew up listening to everything from Pink Floyd and Deep Purple and Ahmad Jamal and Los Paraguayos, Los Indios Tabajaras from Brazil, Ricardo Carosone from Italy, Dolly Parton,” Sagar says. “My band back in college, we did a lot of Southern rock, Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. A bit of The Doors.
At Windmills, every track is handpicked from Sagar’s own collection, every album he auditioned to assemble a single mammoth playlist. The brewery plays over 8,500 tracks, including a staggering 961 by Ahmad Jamal. Benny Goodman, the Grateful Dead, Wilco and classic country bands are also big contributors.
With such an eclectic mix, duty managers and staff members complained to Sagar about wild mood swings from song to song. A driving electric piano solo by Eumir Deodato can give way to a tragic ballad by Loudon Wainwright III.
Sagar sticks to his philosophy: “Each piece has its own story. It’s so beautiful that you can’t sort it by tempo and say we have to play it at that time of day.
He asked me what I thought of the mix, and I told him about Dallas’ first crazy head DJ, Stephan Pyles, who became famous for combining ’80s megahits with Mozart operas. Like Pyles’ mixes, Windmills’ music speaks of a singular vision and personality, and that’s another way his restaurant is unique.
Three more restaurants with unusual playlists
Rotas Las Almas
mood: Classic Mexican music from decades past. Staff members change the mix every night, but co-owner Shad Kvetko says, “We have one maxim: you can’t go wrong with cumbia.
mood: Always so trendy and stylish. McCallister suggested The Charles, noting, “The first time I went there, they were playing East Coast hip-hop, and I was like, that’s cool. It really fits their vibe, how cool they are.
mood: Argentinian cocktail bar. Unsurprisingly, this Bishop Arts spot uses an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary South American music that suits both the food (empanadas and steaks) and the decor (paintings of Messi and Maradona).