If you go out to eat and find yourself saying "What?" and "Pardon me?" more often than "My, this free-range chicken is tasty!" you're not alone. In their quest for a hip young crowd, a growing number of restaurateurs are turning up the music, jamming folks into tighter spaces and designing their places with open kitchens, high ceilings and hardwood floors--all of which can turn pleasant background buzz into cacophonous din.
We can place some of the blame on chains, such as the Hard Rock Cafe and Rainforest Cafe, which have turned dining into event-style entertainment, replete with waterfalls and bossa nova. Eatertainment, as it's known, has spurred less gimmicky places to pump up the volume to compete. Result: a sonic boomlet.
But a backlash against the sounds of "scene dining" may be under way. In Zagat Surveys of diners in Boston; St. Louis, Mo.; on Long Island, N.Y.; and in New Jersey, noise is the No. 1 complaint. (In New York City, where subways and traffic are background music, noise is relative, and it is No. 2 on the complaint list, behind bad service.) Annoyed critics have started ranking noise levels in reviews, and it isn't uncommon to read blistering acoustics-based pans. "I was prepared for loud but not for the level I had to deal with," wrote a foodie for the American-Statesman in Austin, Texas, reviewing a Truluck's steak-and-seafood house last summer. "The noise is so overwhelming that it ruined the dining experience." Michael Bauer, food editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, carries a sound meter to rate restaurants on a four-bell scale. "New places in San Francisco often measure 75 to 80 decibels on my meter," he says. (Normal conversation is around 60.) "To carry on a conversation at that level, you have to raise your voice." Or scream.
In the nation's food capitals, a few restaurant owners are responding with design changes. At Marika, a 10,000-sq.-ft. place recently opened in Manhattan, owner Don Evans and his partners spent $3 million on a renovation that included specially padded chairs, ceiling panels, a padded back wall and triple-insulated glass between dining room and kitchen. "We worried it would be too loud," says Evans. "But you can talk softly when it's full." At another new Manhattan restaurant, Chinoiserie, architect Wid Chapman upholstered the ceiling and padded the back wall to mitigate the waterfall's rush and DJ's tunes. And at Azie, in San Francisco, architect Cass Calder Smith installed acoustical tiles below the ceiling and carpeting in the mezzanine.
To many restaurateurs, silence isn't golden: they flaunt a boisterous atmosphere so that diners will think they're in a happening eatery. "In a lot of places, high noise levels are built in," says Tim Zagat, publisher of the dining guides. "It's part of the shtick." Reed Goldstein, manager of an Angelo & Maxie's steak house, is quite happy that his restaurant is known as one of New York's noisiest. "As the night goes on, it gets louder," he says. "We turn up the music. We don't get a lot of complaints. It's a happy feeling." For those who missed that last part, Goldstein said, IT'S A HAPPY FEELING.