Pipe down: How and why restaurants should consider reducing noise

At Brat, the new East London Welsh-ish concept by Tomos Parry, the restaurant has gone out of its way to reduce the noise produced in its dining room. Virtually unheard of for a Shoreditch joint, acoustic tiles, matching the restaurant’s décor, have mitigated noise reverberation by 50%.

To many diners, this is a welcome consideration. The current trend of bare brickwork, hard floors, and industrial fixtures means there’s not much to soak up the acoustics produced by music, diners’ conversation, and the general bump, squeak and clank of any dining room.

Fine when the place isn’t that busy, but not when it is. Known as the ‘cocktail party effect’, when there’s noisy music or an audible hubbub, people talk over it, then people talk over the people talking over it. And so it continues until everyone’s voices are straining over each other’s. This is bad enough, but when it gets to a point where the server has to lean in to hear you, or comes out with the wrong order because he thought you said the chocolate mousse, not the confit goose, then there’s something very wrong here.

These businesses could learn a thing or two from what’s happening in California. Michael Baur’s reviews at the San Francisco Chronicle include a rating for ‘decibel levels’ (as has been the case for the past 20 years). Readers of the newspaper so often complained about noise levels at restaurants that the paper decided to do something about it. Maybe it’s due to this scrupulousness, but these days Californian restaurants have entered some unofficial competition among themselves to see who can be the quietest. A welcome notion which has the potential to go too far – no one’s going to like it when the waiter stoops to whisper ‘may I take your plates?’ in their ear.

There are other rebellions against unwarranted clamour. A new app called SoundPrint allows users to name and shame restaurants based on the decibel level recorded from the phone’s microphone. Then, in Spain, hearing charity ‘Hearing is Key’ set up a campaign to get restaurants to be more friendly to their guests’ ears, especially for those hard of hearing. As we speak, they have 54 establishments across the country signed up, including the highly acclaimed DSTAgE and La Finca.

Noise as a conversation ruiner is one thing. But restaurateurs need to realise it has wider repercussions. According to one 2011 study in the Journal of Food Quality and Preference, excessively loud background noise had an undesired effect on the taste of food, supressing saltiness and sweetness, but also, bizarrely, boosting umami. With a louder than comfortable dining room, a kitchen might put out the most perfectly balanced food in the world, but the guests wouldn’t know it.

So what can be done? While carpet is fantastic for acoustics, it’s generally a bad idea for restaurants. Increasingly establishments, keen on the natural look of weathered wood, are going for cork flooring – it’s comparatively inexpensive, looks just like wood, while very sound at absorbing sound. As far as walls are concerned, even a few acoustic panels make a dramatic difference on how sound travels across a room. As in the below video, not only do they dampen the noise, they sharpen it too.

 

Of course, originally the brutalist, minimalist decor many restaurants have since adopted was more about saving on cost than being ‘trendy’ per se. Still, many would like to keep it that way. One option would be sound-reducing paint, which is applied in two coats (extra mass equals extra room for abortion) before applying a top coat of the desired colour.

Worryingly, a Zagat survey conducted this year found that excessive noise is now the most bothersome aspect of dining out, above overpriced food and poor service. Is it any wonder? Ambient noise certainly contributes to the atmosphere of a restaurant, and the allure of conviviality. We all know restaurants are social spaces, but maybe this is an impression they’re trying too hard to give.

 

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