How to Make a Restaurant-Quality Party Playlist

A great soundtrack can make or break a movie, a romance and definitely a party. Whether you’re toasting friends with an at-home happy hour or entertaining the whole family over a holiday dinner, the playlist you create will set the tone throughout the party. With that in mind—and the summer celebration season swiftly approaching—we turn to top chefs and restaurateurs known for their expertise in keeping everyone’s toes tapping to learn their secrets to crafting the perfect playlist for every occasion.

Brunch & Lunch

During a daytime affair, you’ll want to keep the music upbeat but unobtrusive to encourage guests to focus on the food and one another. With outposts in London, Miami and New York, global Japanese izakaya restaurant Zuma takes its music seriously, appointing French DJ Adrien Callier as its official Music Director. He takes both the music and restaurant experience in consideration to make a “lunch playlist will always be discreet and blend into the background so guests can have a normal conversation and be able to hear each other speak. It’s more relaxed and comfortable but still a lively ambiance.”

Chef Laurence Edelman of New York City’s West Village darling, Left Bank, echoes this sentiment, emphasizing that “the sound has to be full. For brunch, I love the sound of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman.”

Happy Hour

Since it’s technically still daytime, a pre-dinner cocktail party soundtrack should sound like the one made for brunch or lunch. But because it’s later in the day, don’t be afraid to pick up the beat a little bit. “I have a Southern restaurant in what looks like a New Orleans-style mansion, so I’m trying to throw house parties pretty much every night. The happy hour list is full of mostly upbeat songs to get people in the mood to party—i.e. drink—but nothing too aggressive” explains Kelly Rheel, marketing manager and partner of NYC’s Mr. White.

“I play a lot of fun jazz and Motown from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Right now, I have a bunch of Bo Diddley songs that I love in that category,” she says. “Then maybe some light hip hop or remixes. The Rae & Christian version of Dinah Washington’s ‘Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby’ is a great crossover song from happy hour to later in the evening.”

Dinner & Beyond

Holding a longer party? If it’s an evening event and has food and drink, maybe even a little dancing, you need a playlist with progression. Giuseppe de Francisci, managing partner of Evelina, walks us through musical journey of a typical evening in the trendy Brooklyn boîte: “We always start with a jazz playlist at 5:00 p.m., then we move to some indie rock around 8:00 p.m. and a light house playlist on busy nights. Beck, Allah-Las, Bronze Radio Return, Bad Suns, Blood Orange and Cayucas are on our dinner playlist and Flight Facilities, Gotan Project, Sylvan Esso, Studio 15, SBTRKT, Quarion and Mark Farina are played late night.”

Callier says that as the evening unfolds, the music should become “more engaging with an increasing energy. At night, our DJs enter the scene with an electrifying atmosphere, filled with music offering thrilling basslines, seductive melodies and tantalizing vocals. Our current playlist includes tracks like Sofi Tukker’s ‘Best Friend’ featuring NERVO, The Knocks & Alisa Ueno and The Weeknd’s ‘Hurt You’ featuring Gesaffelstein.”

House and pop aren’t the only ways to pump up the jams. Edelman says classics can be effective as well. “Django Reinhardt is usually what we open with,” he says. “His gypsy-jazz style is energetic and exotic without being too loud about it. After things fill up, depending on the night of the week and the feel of the room, we’ll go to a mix, which can include anything from The Rolling Stones to Linton Kwesi Johnson to Wilco, to Linda Ronstadt and EPMD.”

Rheel explained: “In a nutshell, playlists have to be part of a progression. I’ll always start out the day with music from artists like Ray Charles or Marlena Shaw but if I’m not playing Wu Tang by 11:00 p.m., I feel like I haven’t done my job” which is really the benchmark we should all hold ourselves to, isn’t it?