It Used To Be Merely Annoying. Now It's Nearly Intolerable
As I frequently remind readers – and family and friends and just about anybody else who will listen – sono vecchio: I'm old. And sometimes cranky and ill-tempered as well, especially when something gets me started on a path toward a rant. And one such thing is the current trend toward ludicrously loud restaurants.
Now, in fairness to myself, it's not just a matter of temperament. Within the last year or so I have developed something the audiologists refer to as “hyperacusis,” defined as “a highly debilitating hearing disorder characterized by an increased sensitivity to certain frequencies and volume ranges of sound (a collapsed tolerance to usual environmental sound).” Thankfully, mine is a very mild case and its only manifested itself in one ear. But believe me, it's enough to make me wince, cringe, and occasionally cry out when, say, the screams of an infant echo off the hard, bare walls, floors, and ceilings of a modern eatery and reverberate through my skull. Before hyperacusis, I found this merely annoying. Now it's nearly intolerable.
Once upon a time, restaurants – finer dining establishments in particular – were lush, plush places. There were rich draperies adorning the windows, carpeting covering the floors, paneling on the walls, acoustic tiles on low ceilings, thick padding on the chairs and booth seats, heavy fabric table linens, and wall hangings of various sorts. If there was music playing, it was of a soft background nature. All of this cushiness resulted in a gentle, refined, muted atmosphere. One in which you could sit down in quiet enjoyment of the food on offer and engage in conversation with your companion or companions.
Nowadays? You're lucky if you can hear yourself think.
Used to be, two of Guy Fieri's three “D”s – diners and dives – were the only spots where this was a problem. Usually a little farther down the upscale spectrum, such places were pretty low-fringe. Lots of tile and chrome and plastic and very few plush accoutrements. You generally expected a noisy atmosphere and you were seldom disappointed. But today it seems like even the finest of five-star establishments are out to strip down to the bare walls and to be as “industrial” as they can be.
Case in point: Meril on Girod Street in New Orleans. Billed as a “casual Emeril Lagasse spot” serving “New American” fare, the service at Meril is unreproachable and the food indescribable. I had an Iberico ham dish I'm still praising weeks later and my wife still salivates over her perfect rib eye. But if you've ever been in a packed sports bar in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on an Iron Bowl game day at the moment the Crimson Tide definitively rolls over the Auburn Tigers to clinch the win, you'll get an idea of what the atmosphere at Meril is like on an average Friday dinner service.
My wife and I sat at a beautiful hardwood table in beautiful hardwood chairs amidst a plethora of hard, unyielding surfaces at a roughly ninety-degree right angle to one another, hands touching above the table and knees touching beneath, scarcely an arm's length apart and completely unable to hear one another without leaning in and shouting in each other's ears or faces. Romantic it was not. When the waiter came over and shouted at me regarding my order, I shouted back at him, attempting to explain my hearing difficulty and directing him to attempt to communicate with my wife, who could at least nominally understand what he was saying/shouting. She would, in turn, point, sign, and shout to me and thus convey whatever information the server was striving to disseminate. There were at least two large tables nearby filled with people celebrating birthdays or something and being served dishes that featured literal fireworks. And even at the surrounding “quieter” four and six-top tables, diners were all reduced to shouting at one another, adding to the general din of unrelenting sound bouncing off unpadded, unadorned walls, floors, windows, and ceilings and hard furnishings. We were expecting my son to arrive in town at any moment and when he called me, I felt rather than heard his call and had to step out into the relative peace and quiet of a busy New Orleans street to answer it, the crowd gathered outside being much quieter than the one inside. Four of my five senses will always remember fondly the experience they had at Meril. The fifth one? Hearing? Not so much.
And it's not just the high-dollar, big city places. There's a new eatery downtown in the tiny rural hamlet where we live. My wife and I decided to check it out the other night. Shades of Meril! Brick walls, stone floors, high metal ceilings, wood furnishings. Only this was a “family” bar and grill, so in addition to the boisterous bedlam created by the adult diners, there was the added element of screeching children and bawling babies factored in to the general cacophony. The food was good, but as we were leaving we noticed an adjacent outdoor patio. Guess where we'll sit next time. Even if it's raining.
On the other side of the coin, we were dining at one of our favorite family-owned Italian places recently. And it was packed; easily a hundred-twenty people or more occupying nearly every available seat. And yet, as we sat in the midst of this sea of noisy humanity, we were able to talk to one another and to interact with our server in normal, conversational tones. Why? Because it's “old school:” low, acoustic-tiled ceiling, padded seats, draped windows – lots of sound-absorbing elements in the construction and décor.
It's not just me being annoyed by this raucous new trend. Others are noticing and commenting on the same thing. A quick Google search of “loud restaurants” yields numerous results: How Restaurants Got So Loud - The Atlantic; Why restaurants became so loud — and how to fight back – Vox; Why Are Restaurants So Loud? - Eater; Are Restaurants Getting Too Loud? | Here & Now – WBUR; Why Restaurants Are So Loud These Days | HowStuffWorks; It's not just you: Restaurants really are louder than they used to be; and a host of other similar offerings on the subject. Respondants to restaurant surveys by both Zagat and Consumer Reports list excessive noise as their number one complaint.
Several sources cite the same motive behind the noise: profit. They claim that restaurateurs are deliberately cranking up the volume in order to turn tables more quickly, the theory being that you'll find the loud atmosphere so unpleasant you'll simply wolf down your food and leave. Could be: I didn't linger at either of the aforementioned loud restaurants one second longer than I had to.
Another reason for the unreasonable noise has to do with the personal tastes of upscale chefs like Mario Batali, David Chang and others. Back in the '90s, Batali was among the first to inflict his personal musical taste on his customers. Restaurant kitchens have always cranked up the tunes for kitchen employees even though more subdued music usually played in the dining area. Batali felt that his head-banger faves “energized” the overall atmosphere and created what he considered a “New York vibe.” And it wasn't long before other chef/restaurateurs followed in the aural assault.
But the main factor behind the noise seems simply to be the newest architectural “trend.” Whereas in the middle of the last century, “upscale” and “elegant” were equated with plush opulence, today's “high-end” establishments follow a “minimalist” or “industrial” trend started in the 1970s. Lots of glass and steel and exposed brick. Soaring high ceilings featuring open ductwork. These are the “elegant” spots of the new dining era. And they're killing us. Or, at least they're not doing us any good.
The author of one of the Googled articles took a calibrated decibel meter into several places and found that the noise level in a brewpub situated in a rehabbed fire station reached ninety decibels. That's approximately as loud as an approaching 737 or a DC-9 one mile out. It's as loud as a motorcycle that's twenty-five feet away or as loud as a running newspaper press. And more important than the aggravation factor is the health concern for people who have to put up with it for extended periods of time. Exposure to ninety decibels can damage your hearing after several hours. Okay, so diners don't sit at tables for six or eight-hour stretches, but employees are another matter.
Even short-term exposure is not altogether healthy. Acoustic engineers studying what one MIT engineer terms “aural architecture” have discovered that the atmosphere, the noise level, the “voice,” if you will, of a space can adversely affect the physical and mental health of people occupying the space. Scientific research suggests that noisy settings have been proven to annoy people, and noise annoyance itself has been linked to depression and anxiety. I know extremely noisy places have always tended to set my teeth on edge. And now, with the additional complication of my hearing problem, well......I've been known to pull out an earplug and stick it in my ear just to get through dinner.
One more factor contributes to the overall noise problem in American restaurants and that factor is Americans. By and large and with few exceptions, Americans are the loudest, most boisterous people on the planet. I've been around groups of Chinese who might come in a close second, but most folks who study and evaluate such things agree that Americans are a bunch of loudmouths. Theories on why this is so vary from Americans being accustomed to having a lot of space, hence the tendency to shout, to Americans loudly expressing their individualism to cultural and social influences. But for whatever reason, put two or more Americans in a quiet room and it won't be quiet for long, especially if you lubricate their vocal cords with a little booze. Even stone cold sober, though, Americans tend to exhibit an “I'm having a good time, dammit, and to hell with anybody who doesn't like it” attitude, and if you're unfortunate enough to be seated near a group of these individualists, well......
The solutions to the problem aren't abundant nor are they very promising. You can always complain to management, which will usually get you a polite if insincere apology and very little else. You can “shush” or stare angrily at offending noisemakers – as long as you have A) good health insurance and/or B) bail money. You can go at “off peak” times: personally, I love having dinner at three in the afternoon. Or you can avoid noisy places altogether: in other words, eat at home.
Seriously, people who like a more tranquil dining experience, one with perhaps a bit less “energy,” are pretty much stuck bucking the still-growing trend toward minimalist industrial chic. And it's a trend which I doubt a few complaints to management is going to reverse. Restaurant owners have jumped on the bandwagon big time and they're not getting off until the next big thing comes along. For one thing, it's cheaper to go “industrial.” Sound dampening elements cost money, although there are a few customer conscious innovators out there who manage to be “trendy” while still keeping the atmosphere in their establishments from deafening their patrons and employees. Kudos to them, but good luck finding them. No, we're basically screwed. The noise is going to continue unabated until enough diners lose their appetites – or their hearing – to make it stop.
In the meantime, stop by a Walmart or a sporting goods store on your way to dinner at that fancy “upscale” place you've been wanting to try. Earplugs are cheap.