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Say it Loud: ‘Restaurants, Turn Down the Volume’

Even after thirty years, I remember the first time I felt assaulted by a restaurant’s acoustics.

It was the early seating for a New Year’s Eve dinner at City restaurant in Los Angeles, a trendy eatery helmed by the team of Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, two rising stars on the local culinary scene. The menu was stridently eclectic, with influences ranging from Asia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Latin America. And the room was cool with a capital C: a converted open-plan industrial space with exposed beams and ducts, and a painted concrete floor.

The food was sublime. The service was spot-on. The company was congenial. But the noise level was stratospheric. Deafening. Afterwards, I was hoarse from shouting above the din, and there was an unpleasant buzzing in my head. A special, and rather expensive, evening had been spoiled by the restaurant’s roar.

Ever since that night, I’ve been acutely sensitive to the issue of restaurant acoustics, both in theory and as they affect my own dining experience.

As far as my own experience goes, it’s simple: The less noise, the better. I go to restaurants to relax, to converse with friends, to savor the chef’s handiwork. A restaurant is not a sports bar, or a disco. An overloud room degrades the quality of my experience. (When dining alone, I’ve taken to bringing my earbuds along; if the noise level is distracting, I plug into my iPhone’s music collection to drown out the racket.)

The closest I’ve come to a unified theory of restaurant acoustics was a long-ago restaurant review that made passing reference to an industry consultancy’s suggestion that elevated noise levels were desirable, because they gave patrons the impression that they were attending a particularly lively party. Such conviviality… I must be having a great time, right? The follow-on recommendation was that not only should restaurants be designed architecturally to boost noise levels, but that sound systems should be cranked up to add additional decibels to the ambient room roar.

Whether consciously or not, the restaurant industry seems to have absorbed that message. Over the past few decades, average noise levels have risen. And there’s no sign that that trend will reverse anytime soon.

Does anyone care? Or rather, does anyone care enough to do something about the problem?

Richard Vines, a restaurant critic for Bloomberg, cares, and recently penned “Why It’s So Difficult to Turn Down the Volume at Popular Restaurants,” which concludes with these four words: “Turn down the volume.” Amen to that!

But Vines undermines the case for audio moderation by proposing that noise intolerance is principally an affliction of the aged. Here’s his conclusion after visits to some of New York’s toniest dining establishments: “Babbo, DBGB, Employees Only, Fatty Crab: All were too loud for me, and I realized this was the soundtrack to getting old. Music and conversation bouncing off walls held no appeal.”

He then proceeds to quote aging males who share his distaste for dining din, including the 50-something actor Stanley Tucci, who’s no fan of over-the-top restaurant blare.

In other words, in Vines’ view, it’s an old-fogey problem. That’s certainly self-defeating—an issue that only affects a small segment of a business’s customer base isn’t likely to be addressed, especially if the solution would diminish the all-important conviviality quotient.

More significantly, Vines is just plain wrong to see this as an elder problem. It’s a diner problem, and solving it would be a boon (if not a boom) to the great majority of restaurant goers, whether they’re shaggy Millennials or hairless oldsters.

Turn down the volume!

Reader Reality Check

What’s your desired restaurant noise level: a) quiet; b) moderate; c) loud; d) deafening?

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