What’s that?  I can’t hear you.  Please, speak up!  Look at me so I can read your lips!  That’s what I’m overhearing at restaurants these days. They’re becoming more noisy with every new opening.

It’s a problem if you want to converse with your dinner companions. Among restaurant patrons who have lived beyond their rock and roll youth, it’s a hot topic.  Noisy restaurants can be fixed.  It’s a matter of will and money – sometimes a lot of it.

Industrial chic can be noisy.Industrial chic is in.  Dining rooms are finished with sound reflecting concrete, metal, stone, and glass. Gone are the days of carpet, table cloths, and drapes that absorb voices, the clatter of dishes, and the background hum of a working restaurant.

When the server has to go to each side of a table of four to announce the specials, you know you’re in trouble.

Some of the racket is intentional, built in by design.  Restaurant operators feel that a buzzy and vibrant sound level adds energy and excitement – drawing in the young and hip.  And there’s some truth to that. I’ve been in places that were too loud for me but perfectly acceptable for the younger crowd.  

Nonetheless, in conversations about restaurants, sound level almost always comes up.  Some places are criticized for being too loud, while others are praised for more moderate sound levels.  Some restaurant critics carry a decibel meter with them and make the volume part of their review.  It’s a fine line between lively and loud, between exciting and exhausting, between ambiance and annoying.

I asked Elise Maclay, long time restaurant reviewer for Connecticut Magazine, how it seems to her.  “What we eat where and when tell us a lot about the era we live in – and we live in an unprecedentedly noisy era. Modern restaurants are loud because everything else is. (Read more here)

Lots of windows can create some buzz

Lots of windows can create some buzz

Restaurant consultant and publicist Linda Kavanagh has a different take on the issue.  “Personally, I love a noisy restaurant.” she says.  “I enjoy the energy of it. Quiet restaurants make me feel uneasy, and I find myself
editing my conversation and not speaking in a normal voice”.  

I agree that restaurants should have energy and be exciting.  I’m not looking for the hushed atmosphere of an English club.  Conversation should be private even though the tables are close together (a topic for another time), but you shouldn’t have to shout either.  

Background music, including the much maligned Muzak, was there to fill the aural spaces in a less than full restaurant and then disappear into the background as conversational levels rose. When music is cranked up as the restaurant fills, it only adds to the cacophony.

Recently, at a trendy pizza restaurant where the tables were filled with a mostly over 60 crowd, the throbbing music was cranked up for the benefit of the hip tattooed and bearded staff. Before we had a chance, the table of six next to us asked for it to be turned down. No problem.  We all enjoyed our excellent pizza and good conversation.  Sometimes it’s easy to solve the noise problem.

Leather and wood absorb sound

Leather and wood absorb sound

Other times it can be quite hard. Paul Fetscher, a restaurant broker and consultant in New York, has been present at the birth of many new restaurants. He explained that in the design process noise, if it’s considered at all, usually takes a back seat to style, positioning, trends, and the owner’s ideas. Sound-bouncing concrete, granite, and glass, along with high ceilings and exposed, noisy duct work are all the rage now, but the din they create is often surprising when the restaurant opens.

Sound-absorbing material can be added after the fact, but the fix is often make-do, not efficient, and expensive to install. The National Restaurant Association has a page on its site titled, “Tips for reducing noise in your restaurant,” with ideas like installing fabric under tables and chairs, adding drapes, and laying carpet in high traffic areas.

Table cloths soak up sound

Table cloths soak up sound

Fetscher thinks that designers and owners are increasingly aware of built- in noise problems and are giving it more consideration in new projects.  It seems to him that the sound levels have peaked and are trending down.  But, he cautioned, operators in bistro-style restaurants are still going to want a high energy ambiance that encourages casual dining and rapid table turnover.

In the 2016 Zagat survey on the State of American Dining, noise was cited by 25% nationally as a pet peeve. In New York, Boston, and Portland, OR over 30% complained about noise.

I hope Paul Fetscher is right and the noise problem has turned a corner. In the meantime we can only give our constructive feedback to restaurants we enjoy. And don’t be afraid to ask for the music to be turned down.