Puccini with a shrimp cocktail starter tonight? Little Lloyd Webber with linguine? A growing number of London pubs and cafes are putting live music and performance on the menu to entice regular customers to eat out.
This trend, which has also been mirrored in other British cities where the cost of living crisis threatens to keep customers at home, now includes classical music and musical theatre. It’s no longer just jazz musicians who regularly play dinner at London venues like Soho’s Pizza Express or Toulouse Lautrec’s Elephant and Castle. Even circus performers take to the small stages that are set up in some restaurants.
“The market is changing to reflect the desire for more expertise,” said Michael Keel, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA). “People want more excitement for their money, so if you can offer more with music and food, you’ll probably attract them.”
The high cost of concert tickets, along with the fuss of reserving a table for a quick and expensive meal either side of the performance, are reasons to stay instead. A relaxing evening in only one venue, in contrast, offers more value for money. And soaring energy prices and pandemic lockdowns have put many living places at risk or out of business.
Rafaelo Morales is among those counting on this increased appetite. His clients want to combine dining with music that is much more than background sound. A musician and conductor, he is the founder and music director of Café Fidelio in Clerkenwell, Central London. “Classical music is not an art form that should be enjoyed in restricted surroundings,” he said.
“It can be intimate. It helps that a lot of people who would never go to a concert venue or opera house happily go to a restaurant or café.”
His café in Clerkenwell Street near The Piano Works on Farringdon Road is a music bar where spectators choose what the band plays.
The Morales Foundation, which opened three and a half years ago, has built a name for attracting some of the world’s best classical artists, including violinist Nicola Benedetti and pianist Imogen Cooper. “The challenge in the beginning was convincing people that this could be done at a high level,” he said.
A maximum of 50 customers can book in advance, either for drinks or a full meal. “Luckily, we got an early buy-in from some big names. It’s still a challenge to start a restaurant, but the money from dine-in helps sustain the model. We’re just looking to break even and then make money from the special events we run, like weddings and birthdays. Birthdays and corporate events.
Performance standards are so high, that parties are over before meals are served.
Last October also saw the opening of The Theater Cafe Diner, an extension of the West End’s Theater Cafe. At this two-story restaurant on Shaftesbury Street, diners enjoy seemingly impromptu performances from the wait staff, all trained musical theater stars in the making. Climbing up a central elevated walkway, or scurrying past chairs and tables, they block supply stoppers before returning to taking orders.
Even more amazing are the full-on acrobatic shows that the circus venue Aeronaut in West London brings right to your table. Shocks are also served as a regular side dish at the Faulty Towers Dining Experience, which moves from the capital to a hotel in Manchester at the end of February.
Most live venues make an effort to set the scene, despite size limitations. Both The Theater Cafe and its sister are decked out with theatrical memorabilia, and at Fidelio Cafe, Morales took a similar approach: “The idea was to have a high-class classical music performance in a casual 19th-century, kind of cafe setting. And people get drawn in when they see Pictures of Shostakovich and Brahms on the wall. They became interested.”
For the NTIA, Kill said, these smaller venues are a symptom of lower disposable income and a 40% increase in the cost of heating venues. “People have to think outside the box. We are seeing the ‘doughnut effect’ in the leisure activity, where people are staying closer to where they live and avoiding expensive city centres.
“We really need these independent, creative companies because they are the heart of any region.”