At Thamee, Music Has Always Been an Essential Part of the Restaurant Magic
At Thamee, the D.C. restaurant that Simone Jacobson opened with her mother, executive chef Jocelyn Law-Yone, and Eric Wang, music is an absolutely essential ingredient — as important as the pickled tea leaves that fortify Law-Yone’s lahpet thoke, or the vibrant Burmese textiles lacquered onto the dining tables.
Before Thamee opened in May 2019, Jacobson rang up Marcus “Shmoody” Moody with a proposition: Would he serve as Thamee’s in-house music director? For Shmoody, an accomplished musician and founder of The Shmoods (formerly known as the Underground DMV Hip-Hop Orchestra), it was an offer he couldn’t refuse: “It’s a dream to score a film. So to score real life, every night, is awesome. It feels like I’m cheating.”
Shmoody, who also worked as a server at Thamee, eventually amassed an eclectic playlist that encompasses 457 different songs, ranging from artists like Solange and Frank Ocean to Daft Punk and Paul Simon. While it’s very much his own list, it was also influenced heavily by the multi-generational, BIPOC staff, with nods to Law-Yone’s penchant for disco and Jacobson’s love of hip-hop.
When the pandemic struck, the music stopped at Thamee, just as it did in thousands of dining rooms across the country. In July, Thamee reopened for takeout and delivery and the restaurant, Jacobson says, is “in survival mode.”
She can’t wait to welcome diners back for a meal, complete with music, someday soon. Until then, though, she hopes Thamee can still make you feel like you’re dining with them, and sharing that same space — even if it’s through takeout.
That’s why, from December 7 to 12, diners are invited to dine at home with Thamee: Each day, you can order a never-before-seen multi-course meal from Law-Yone, paired with a special playlist by Shmoody, inspired by the food. Both the menu and playlist change daily. American Express Card Members get early access to ticket sales on Nov. 18. General ticket sales begin on Friday, Nov. 20.
“With the playlists and the takeout series, we want to send this love letter to our diners to give them as close to what we feel is the Thamee experience, which includes food and music, always,” says Jacobson. “Music is never an afterthought. It’s never elevator music, or background music. It’s never just there. It’s not a filler. It is as much a part of who we are and what we care about.”
For a sneak peek into what you can expect, and to learn more about their creative process, Jacobson and Shmoody discussed the importance of music in the dining experience.
Simone Jacobson: There’s a movement around who gets to play what music, just like who gets to cook what food. When you’re opening a restaurant, you’re thinking, “What do I want people to feel?” Not just the smells or the sights. It was really important to us that the music reflects not just the food, but also the feeling that we wanted people to have, both for our diners and our staff.
Shmoody: At the beginning, I felt a lot of pressure, but over time I got way more comfortable with it. I loved seeing how people’s moods would shift when a certain song came on. I’d think about situations people might find themselves in at the restaurant, like those awkward moments on a first date or maybe when you have to break some bad news to someone, and what kind of music could remedy something like that.
One of the most important things I thought about was the mood of the staff. We have to ingest so many emotions. We kind of need a buffer that can either absorb some of that or will distract us from taking in as much as necessary.
Jacobson: We wanted our staff to be their most authentic selves. Because when a person gets to bring their whole self to their workplace, they reflect that joy. So it’s reflected in the music, and it’s reflected in the food, and in the service.
Even though we’re the only Burmese restaurant in D.C., having a 100% Burmese playlist wouldn’t make sense to me. You can’t really cut and paste everything about Burmese culture like that. It had to be a little of this and a little of that. Our restaurant is in a primarily Black neighborhood with a 95% Black and brown staff.
And we really try to be inclusive. My mom really likes disco so there has to be, you know, disco and when it’s the holidays, Moody and I kind of battle it out about how much Christmas music is too much. Shmoody is laughing because I’m always like the loud voice saying, “We have to be inclusive.” And my mom is just quintessentially a huge, huge Christmas music fan.
Shmoody: She definitely is.
Jacobson: With the pandemic, I think we miss gathering, we miss ritual, we miss celebration. But what we miss most of all, is the experience of sharing space with others. It’s every part of that experience, including the music.
The team at Thamee has always been collectively aware of music being so essential. Maybe it’s because we’re all artists: Eric, my mom, and I are all writers. My mom was a painter. I was a dancer. My mom taught art history.
The first thing I’ll do when I walk in is turn the lights up and down and turn the music up and down. Because every small detail makes a difference, from the warm lighting to the right music. You can change your entire experience, your mood, with that one song.
Shmoody: I think if I were to try to explain the mood we were going for at Thamee, I think it’s more of a moment. Like when you do something embarrassing on a date, but then they think it’s cute. It’s genuine. I wanted people to feel cozy.
Jacobson: Yes, to feel cozy or welcome.
Maybe as a diner, if you came in, you didn’t know anything about Burmese food, or about the pandan or butterfly pea flower ingredients in the cocktail, but you told yourself, the bartender’s friendly, and the music feels good; I feel good in here.
Music was what connected the front-of-house and our back-of-house kitchen staff, too, since we have this open bar and kitchen. You could feel that lack of a barrier there. The music translated into every part of the experience.
Shmoody: I remember how one of our sous chef’s favorite songs to close the night on is “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole. So when I could remember, I’d queue that up. Like, if there were just a few tables left, or on an especially hard night, I wanted to create a little moment like that because it’s almost like magic.
When you know the song’s about come on, you can find the person and just be like,”You ready?” with just a glance, a shrug of the shoulders, or just a tug on the apron. It’s a powerful thing. I don’t take it for granted. I really miss it.
Jacobson: To me, there’s a difference between having somebody on staff who makes playlists, and having a music director. When we had weddings, Marcus was responsible for creating entirely new playlists. There’s a lot of thought that goes into that.
Any accolade that we’ve received is about the total package. It’s about the cocktail menu, it’s about the food menu, of course. But also, it’s really about people feeling good, feeling cozy, and welcome in our space. That’s what they will remember. It’s as much about the music, the way that people are serving you, and cooking your food, or responding to that music. It’s a domino effect.
Shmoody: I just got the menus from chef JoJo and I’m working on the playlist for the takeout series now, and I really want to make sure there’s a distinguishable trait about each playlist, audibly. Not just one kind of genre.
Jacobson: I think of these takeout meals as our gift to people to say, “Remember what it feels like to eat in a restaurant that cares about you, you know?” By that, I mean that there’s no detail that’s been left to chance. That’s what I love about hospitality. Before service, we’re literally adjusting things by a fraction of an inch on tables, minutes before people walk in the door. I miss giving people all the ingredients to feel good.
Shmoody, do you want to talk about the video you’ve made that comes with each meal?
Shmoody: It’s a love letter to working at restaurants, especially as a creative.
Jacobson: So many creatives work in restaurants or in hospitality. It’s something that anybody who’s ever worked in a restaurant can really relate to.
Shmoody: I don’t want to say too much, but I really feel like you’re really gonna enjoy it. You’re gonna laugh a bit. You’re definitely gonna cry, but it’s gonna be like a happy cry.
Jacobson: I’m easily prone to tears.
Shmoody: It’s a love letter to restaurants but also, specifically, a love letter to my time at Thamee. I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 14, when I was a BJ’s cart boy and hot dog guy. And then I worked at Houlihan’s, and a bunch of different restaurants in New York.
At a lot of restaurants, the only thing you really have control over are your pants and your shoes. And in terms of making suggestions about music, forget about it. And even if you were around all these people every night, it wasn’t necessarily a community.
So coming home to D.C., and being at a place like Thamee where everyone eats there and everyone’s enjoying the music, and even having some of the artists from the playlist dine there, it was something I’ll never forget.
Jacobson: It’s been a struggle for us this year, but I just hope the community comes together to get excited about these kinds of collaborations because all of us small, independent restaurants, we’re just trying not to let the melody get in the way of the groove. The groove is the groove, regardless of whether we serve it to you in a brown paper bag, or at your table on plates that we wash for you later. It’s the same groove.
That’s really the message we want to get across: We’re still here. We’re gonna keep fighting, and we hope to see the other side of it so that one day, we can be a full-service restaurant for our community again.
Deanna Ting is a Resy staff writer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.