Ten years ago, Richard Rourke opened Ricardo's Café Trattoria to harmonize his four passions: food, music, people, and wine.
The boutique restaurant at 110 Gorham St. in his native Lowell offers a menu ranging from sautéed mussels, fresh from Prince Edward Island, to veal scaloppine with shrimp prosciutto and artichokes to a glass of Sicilian Ajello Majus Rosso Nero served with a long, cool side of jazz.
"We've been offering live music every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night since the day we opened," said Rourke. "I'm committed to jazz, but sometimes we have a little soul."
One warm summer Friday evening, a friend and I were comfortably seated in the crowded dining room enjoying insalata del giorno so elegantly sculpted it looked as if it belonged in an art exhibit.
Over cold Belgian beer, we experienced our main course, ahi tuna, with the ultimate accompaniment: live jazz. The Charles Harris Band, consisting of a stand-up bass, keyboard, and vocalist, played classics such as "Blue Moon," and "The Lady Is a Tramp." Despite limited space, one couple found room to dance.
During the second set, Rourke's friend Laura Smith took over the mike for a song.
Like most of the restaurateurs mentioned in this column, Rourke does not charge a cover fee. In his mind, live, quality performances are as much a diner's right as clean silverware. Increases in fuel and food prices are starting to sting, he noted, but he has no immediate plans to stop paying the band.
Opportunities to savor elegant cuisine while feasting one's ears on live music are limited, but not unheard of, in the Globe NorthWest area. In the past few weeks, I have found three restaurants, including Ricardo's, where musicians are almost as crucial as chefs on at least a few nights, and in one case, one morning, a week. Here are three others worth noting.
Fody's Great American Tavern: 9 Clinton St., Nashua. Between tending bar, managing a busy restaurant, and cleaning tables, owner Paul Foden makes sure his guests are treated to live music every Tuesday through Saturday nights.
"We've always had music," he said, since opening Fody's four years ago in a tall brick building built in 1833. "It's evolved more and more."
One Saturday night, a friend and I sat in the cozy dining room, scooping goat cheese, feta, blue cheese, and three-olive tapenade onto crostini while Mad Express set up their bongos and other gear and did sound checks.
As we took the last bites of our entrees - ale-battered fish and chips and pan-seared black peppercorn chicken - we were treated to a sinful helping of soul and a side of blues.
Tight harmonies and a passionate lead singer did justice to the Temptations' "Get Ready," Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright," and the Doobie Brothers' "Takin' It to the Streets." My friend sipped coffee while I just absorbed the sounds.
"It's kind of a neat thing," Foden said. "People come in with their neighbors and stuff, and they can have dinner. While they're sipping cocktails after dinner, the music plays. People start dancing around, and we have a good time."
Glory Restaurant: 19 Essex St., Andover. Andover resident Steve Brickman isn't old enough to order a drink at this swank eatery on an unassuming side street in his hometown, but that doesn't stop this 20-year-old saxophonist from taking center stage in the lounge.
"I put a post on Craigslist saying that I have a group looking to play," said Brickman, who composes funk and jazz pieces, and performs standards with his band, Steve Brickman Organ Trio. The folks at Glory, and their guests, lucked out when taking a chance on these college kids.
Comfortably propped up with throw pillows on a leather bench in the lounge, I sipped Shiraz and sampled mixed country olives with a friend while listening to Brickman's band play "Stella by Starlight."
Soothing originals filled the room as we ate spa salmon and Angus sirloin. Crème brulée tastes even sweeter with a little home-grown funk in the air.
Brickman, one of many performers who rotates weekend gigs at Glory, said he enjoys playing there because the music easily flows from the lounge to the bar, and to the main dining room. "If everyone is connected, everyone feels like they're part of the music."