Since the early 2010s, excusing yourself to a restaurant bathroom has brought the possibility of walking into a unique soundscape. You might find a musical genre different from the one blasting from the dining room speakers. Or you might be greeted with a spoken-word performance or a single song on repeat. Unlike the main restaurant space, which is beholden to the demands of dining comforts, the restaurant bathroom is truly a place to play. And the soundtrack doesn’t have to be music at all. At René Redzepi’s Noma in 2015, the bathroom played a 67-minute “sound piece” that was recorded at a farm and the restaurant and featured both the bucolic sounds of clucking chickens and the murmurs of a staff meeting.
Whether these are the noises most customers wish to hear while attending to their needs in a bathroom is almost beside the point — a unique soundtrack makes a trip to the bathroom mandatory, whether you have to go or not. And years later, even if we remember nothing else about the dining experience, we will likely remember the bathroom that piped in the sounds of barnyard animals or a TV theme song or a Korean fairy tale.
TV theme songs
In the earliest days of my blogging at Eater — we’re talking spring 2013, when Obama was president, Cronuts were new, and the Hunger Games movie series was still going — one of the coolest places to be was at Mission Chinese on the Lower East Side. (This was before we knew the extent to which the kitchen culture was utterly dysfunctional.) And as far as I knew, the Mission Chinese bathroom was the first to make full use of an unexpected pop culture soundtrack: a never-ending loop of the Twin Peaks theme song. This was a bathroom that was committed to the bit, too. It was dark and tinted red, and there was a framed portrait of Laura Palmer on the wall. The whole vibe was equally kitschy and hip; Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic theme just as easily provided the background music to a party kid’s line of coke as it did the escape from a bad OkCupid date. It was totally out of left field, transportive, and tongue-in-cheek. It ruled. Then, Mission Cantina, which opened later that year, went arguably weirder and scored the postage-stamp-size bathroom with the Friends theme song. Peeing, for me at least, was suddenly a timed sport — it’s not an easy song to listen to, and in a confined space, I can’t say it made me linger. But it did make me laugh. — Hillary Dixler Canavan
A bedtime story
The bathroom at Arlo Grey within the Line Hotel is a loving tribute to chef Kristen Kish’s mother. When Kish, who is adopted, was younger, her mother used to read her Cinderella. And since the restaurant is really an expression of the chef’s life story, a Korean version of the fairy tale is played over the bathroom speakers. The English translation of that specific story is also written out all over the white walls and stalls of the bathroom. There is something intimate and soothing about hearing a woman recount this story in a language foreign to me. Just as Kish intended, it’s as if I’m overhearing a mother reading a bedtime story to her daughter. — Nadia Chaudhury
The single-song playlist
I couldn’t tell you about many of my first special New York dining experiences. But it would be pretty much impossible to forget the experience of stepping into the bathroom at Lalito for the first time. The since-closed California-ish, Mexican-ish, Southern-ish restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown went through a lot of culinary transformations during its time, but its bathroom never changed. The closet-size room was almost too dark to actually use without fear of some terrible accident. Fake plants covered pretty much every square inch of real estate, and when you tried to use the hand dryer, the hot air pushed the entire wall of plastic ferns up, lashing you in the face. But the most incredible aspect of that bizarre bathroom was the soundtrack — which was really just one song, Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight,” playing over and over and over until last call. Lalito may be nothing more than a memory, but that bathroom and its one-song playlist lives on in the mind of every New Yorker who had to pee during dinner. — Elazar Sontag
There’s no greater reminder that you’re inside Seattle’s Coastal Kitchen than a visit to the restroom. Coastal Kitchen’s gimmick is a rotating breakfast and lunch menu featuring seafood dishes that spotlight regional cooking around the world, so the soundtrack blaring into stalls is designed to train listeners in the language of the coastal region featured on the restaurant menu that day. That means one day you might be listening to a Spanish language course after dining on Barcelona specialties and, on another, learning French before going back to a table filled with French Caribbean cuisine. I’m not sure it’s exactly “transportive,” but it’s an amusing touch that has stayed in my memory for a long time afterward, kind of like a good vacation. — Brenna Houck
A voice from beyond
During the four years I lived in San Francisco, it seemed like restaurant designers would do anything to one-up each other, particularly when it came to bathroom ambience — no potted plant, high-thread-count hand towel, or aggressively patterned wallpaper was spared. But it wasn’t until I visited Bird Dog, a meticulously appointed restaurant in Palo Alto, that I understood just how high the stakes had become. When I walked into the bathroom, I was greeted by the melodious chortle of Julia Child, a recording of her voice piped through the loudspeakers. It was jarring and deeply strange: I felt less like I’d entered the loo than another dimension, one in which Julia Child was somehow watching me pee like Moaning Myrtle. But it was also oddly comforting, in the way of a lullaby sung by a benevolent ghost. While I have no idea if this was the intended effect of whoever decided that would be the bathroom’s soundtrack, another, perhaps more obvious, goal had been achieved: While I can’t remember anything I ate at the restaurant, I will never forget its toilet. So to whoever was responsible for that quirk of design: Congratulations, you won. — Rebecca Flint Marx
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor; Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin; Elazar Sontag is a staff writer at Eater; Brenna Houck is an Eater cities manager; and Rebecca Flint Marx is a senior editor at Eater.