By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor
Aaxte, a Spanish-style tapas restaurant opening in the Swedish American Hall building earlier this year, has been one of San Francisco's most buzzed about restaurants of 2015. It's not hard to see why: the restaurant resides in a beautiful, street-level building directly off of Market, the city's busiest thoroughfare. The space feels both industrial and lived in, despite having just been completely renovated. The cocktail menu is extensive and thoughtful, highlighted by a selection of 50+ gin and tonic based drinks. And the menu, designed by Ryan Pollnow, features a fantastic selection of small plates and larger format dishes, all infused with creative, Basque-inspired flavor combinations that are both approachable and engaging.
The restaurant has also gained attention for its thoughtful attention to music. Music, like a choice of interior design or menu format, can greatly affect a restaurant's ambiance, and most restaurants put some level of thought into the music played for their diners. From the classic jazz played at an upscale bistro to the death metal pumping out of speakers at a divey beer hall, music helps restaurant operatorsentrench their identity in the minds of their consumers, furthering the reach and depth of the concept and experience they are attempting to provide. Music plays an important part in the lives of most restaurant patrons, particularly the hip, culturally attentive Millennial consumers who make up a large part of the current restaurant consumer market. Appealing to these diners is key, and attention to music has proven an effective tool for restaurants such as Aaxte.
I spoke with Aaxte Restaurant Partner and current Music Director David Steele about the music concept Aaxte is attempting to create, his musical background, and what goes into selecting a night's playlist. Aaxte's music, which is composed entirely of 90's hip hop, may seem out of place, but that's precisely the reason it was selected. Like a fine meal, Steele wants the ambiance and overall experience of his restaurant to offer a variety of differing experiences, keeping patrons simultaneously engaged, comfortable, and ready to revel in continuing contrasts.
“It's all about juxtaposition and contrast for us. Like food, where we try to contrast flavor and texture and colors. The music... is an exercise in contrast and the unexpected: Spanish food and 90's hip hop? While also trying to play to our target demographic who want a lively and non-serious atmosphere,” said Steele. When I asked if a certain demographic was the focus of his musical choices, Steele offered up an answer that pointed more to a state of mind than an age range or status level: “Yes, but not by age and income, but more for those that want to take food and wine and booze seriously but also have fun while doing so.” This attitude points directly to the type of diners who have flocked to restaurants like Aaxte, which offer first rate dining experiences in a setting that rejects pretension or stuffiness. The use of 90's hip hop is also certainly appealing in terms of nostalgia the music invokes in young diners who likely grew up listening to the genre.
Steele, who is a managing partner for the Ne Timeas restaurant group and curates the music for other beloved San Francisco restaurants like Flour + Water and Cafe du Nord, is the son of a composer and percussionist, which helped cultivate his life-long love of music. He's also a partner in the Noise Pop music promotion/production company, organizer of San Francisco's annual Treasure Island Music Festival. The festival lineup is typically split between indie rock, electronic, and hip hop.
Music's Impact on Atmosphere
The attention to a wide range of musical styles has helped inform his conceptual decisions at Aatxe, even within the relatively narrow genre of 90's hip hop. When asked if he varies the musical style according to the time of day or week, Steele pointed out the range of the style.
“Each restaurant is different but for Aaxte, it's hip hop, which can be intense at times. We try to have the beginning of night be a little more jazzy and intellectual. Maybe some Tribe Called Quest or Arrested Development. We wait a bit before we bring on NWA.”
The restaurant business is notoriously competitive, as many perfectly fine food spots fail to survive their infancy. This makes critical attention to every detail of a concept, from design to lighting to menu, extremely important, and operators who are successful are often adept at finding ways to give their concept an edge. Aaxte's pursuit of creating a thoughtful musical concept that can enhance their customer's dining experience, as well as the restaurant's impressive initial success, is something that operators around the country should take note of. Simply picking a Pandora station or Spotify playlist might be good enough, but attention to musical detail can be one of the many important factors that can make a good concept great.