A diner strolling into Shaw’s Oyster Oyster might expect a soothing soundtrack of meditation music at a vegetarian place that prizes sustainability.
Instead, chef-owner Rob Rubba plays tunes from hundreds of artists, including Tina Turner, Queen, and Kaytranada at his Michelin-starred tasting room. One of his playlists spans seven decades. It includes everything from American pop star Billie Eilish to bossa-nova pioneer Antônio Carlos Jobim, with songs from Quincy Jones, Beastie Boys and The Cure thrown in too.
“With our music it’s more lively, it’s more worldly — we take an approach where it’s fun. We want songs that make you feel good and vibe with [the] energy of our staff, food, and cuisine. I think that’s really important not to have any rules there,” says Rubba. “It’s not to knock down dressing up, but it’s not required.”
Rubba says his random, unconventional soundtrack pushes him to create dishes that also surprise eaters, such as oyster tartar with turnips, apple, and seaweed emulsion. Those dishes, he says, are just as uncommon in a Michelin-starred restaurant as eating an eight-course meal over an instrumental version of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.”
The 2023 James Beard winner for outstanding chef is using Oyster Oyster’s soundtrack as a signal for customers to come as they are. While sampling restaurants to see what other great chefs were doing, he remembers feeling a need to “put on clothes that I don’t feel comfortable in” and being in an environment “where I feel like I’m lower than someone is.”
But if guests want to come dressed to the nines for dinner, that’s OK too.
“We love that because we all want to feel special, we all want to have those milestones to go out and celebrate,” says Rubba.
Restaurants with Michelin stars are widely considered among the world’s most elite — and expensive — places to eat. Every year, Michelin inspectors give the coveted award to restaurants that demonstrate outstanding cooking, and Washington is home to 24 such restaurants. Michelin Guide’s annual crowning of D.C. stars takes on a new format this year, announced alongside two other cities (New York and Chicago) at an invitation-only ceremony on Tuesday, November 7 in TriBeCa.
Every restaurant sets the tone for the dining experience with the music they play — if they play anything at all. People usually associate fine dining with sharp suits, white tablecloths, and expensive, fancy cuisine. The types of music that typically pairs with that environment are classical, jazz — or nothing at all.
This generation of chef-owners wants to make their restaurants more inclusive, reflective of themselves and part of a holistic experience, said Devon Powers, a professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. This is why some are shifting away from “traditional music.”
“You want the music and the decor and the lighting and the plants and the food to be all harmonious,” said Powers, who’s also a former music journalist. “If you have a fine dining restaurant serving soul food and you’re playing Bach, those two things don’t really go together necessarily.”
Rubba is just one of several chef-owners at Michelin-starred D.C. restaurants who’s using music to challenge the conventional fine dining structure and what it can sound like.
Chef Danny Lledó, who helms Michelin-starred Spanish showpiece Xiquet, says he always plays Spanish rock during service. Lledó grew up in Montgomery County and Spain, and plays Spanish rock not only to enhance the dining experience but also to expose his guests to the music he grew up with in the 1980s.
His favorites include “La piedra redonda” by El Último De La Fila, “Lolo-hombre en París” by La Unión and “La Chica de Humo” from Emmanuel.
Old school hip-hop and R&B have also found a place in some top restaurants. Nicholas Stefanelli, chef-owner of Michelin-starred Italian spot Masseria, has built his soundtrack with some of the genres’ biggest ’90s hits.
Among his favorites: “Electric Relaxation” by A Tribe Called Quest, “I Wanna Know” by Joe, and the entire “Diary of a Mad Band” album from Jodeci.
Stefanelli grew up on this music in high school in Beltsville, Maryland, and continued listening to it as he worked in night clubs while he was in culinary school. Listening to those throwback tracks today remind him of those times.
“I was young and trendy, but now the ’90s are classic,” Stefanelli said.
Hip-hop turns 50 this year and has reached the echelon of classic American music, Powers said. So it’s not surprise to hear it in high-end dining rooms, she said.
“Jazz music wasn’t always the rarefied music that it is today, and I think the same thing is happening with hip-hop,” Powers said. “You might be hearing some curse words but you’re not going to be hearing a lot of the hypersexual, some of the new stuff that you might be hearing on TikTok. It’s probably Biggie, and that stuff is classic at this point.”
Customer comments can also affect what restaurants ultimately play. Cranes chef-partner Pepe Moncayo, who gravitates toward power singers such as Whitney Houston and country singer Chris Stapleton, originally created a soundtrack for his Michelin-starred Spanish-Japanese restaurant that was heavy on flamenco.
But after a few customer complaints, the Barcelona native switched things up and hired someone else to build a playlist of ambient music. Think Devendra Banhart, Glass Beams, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth and other hip-hop instrumentals.
“Flamenco is such … soulful singing that reaches to the deepest parts of my heart,” Moncayo said via email. “Unfortunately for the few guests that paid attention to it, the feeling was as [if] someone was screaming for help while getting killed. Nowadays, I have an expert curating the playlist and [am] getting very nice feedback.”