When the Line Hotel opened in Washington, DC, last December, the cocktail bars, gourmet coffee shops, and restaurants that fill its cavernous lobby drew a lot of buzz. Housed in a century-old church, the space was also reputedly beautiful.
My first visit in February confirmed that the Line was indeed as sleek as my friends and restaurant critics had suggested. There was just one problem: I wanted to leave almost as soon as I walked in. My ears were invaded by a deafening din. I felt like a trapped mouse, tortured with loud sounds for the purposes of an experiment. The noise was so irritating, I asked my husband whether we should go before our drinks arrived.
We ended up lingering for about half an hour at the Brothers and Sisters restaurant, straining to hear each other. On the way out, I tried to mention the tough acoustics to someone at the restaurant’s front desk. I don’t think he heard me.
This experience is by no means unique; it’s become a fixture of dining out in America. “What did you say?” “Can you repeat that?” and “It’s so loud in here” are now phrases as common as “Can I take your order?”
Both Zagat and Consumer Reports surveys have found that excessive noise is the top complaint diners have, ahead of service, crowds, or even food issues. Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic for the Washington Post, also told me noise is “by far” his chief complaint about the restaurants he reviews.
“I’ve been harping on this for a decade by now,” he said. “It’s a constant — a constant irritation.”
But here’s the thing: Loud restaurants aren’t just irksome — they’re a public health threat, especially for the people who work at or regularly patronize them. Being exposed to noise levels above 70 and 80 decibels — which many restaurants boast these days — causes hearing loss over time, Gail Richard, past president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, told me. This kind of hearing loss is “preventable, but it’s also irreparable,” she added.
In reckoning with this underappreciated health threat, I’ve been wondering how we got here and why any well-meaning restaurateur would inflict this pain on his or her patrons and staff. I learned that there are a number of reasons — and they mostly have to do with restaurant design trends. In exposing them, I hope restaurateurs will take note: You may be deafening your staff and patrons. I also hope restaurant patrons will start, er, raising their voices about this, or voting with their feet.
1) “No one wants to walk into a mausoleum”
Everyone I spoke to for this story pointed out that some level of noisiness in restaurants is intentional — and you can thank (recently disgraced) celebrity chef Mario Batali for that.
In a great New York magazine article about loud restaurants, Adam Platt points out that the “Great Noise Boom” in eateries started to flourish in the late ’90s, around the time Batali began pumping the music he and his kitchen staff enjoyed working to into the dining room at Babbo in New York. “Over the next several years,” Platt writes, “as David Chang and his legions of imitators followed Batali’s lead, the front-of-the-house culture was slowly buried in a wall of sound.”
Batali has explained his penchant for loud restaurants: He feels the sound conveys a sense of vibrancy and energy, feelings diners associate with eating out in New York. So the raucousness is by design.
Today, restaurants still use loud music to achieve that same dynamism. As Sietsema told me, “When I go around town to hot restaurants, they are all pretty noisy, for a lot of reasons, I think. But partly I blame it on restaurants, because you’re looking to create buzz or energy in dining rooms. No one wants to walk into a mausoleum.”
Indeed, quiet restaurants can be as unwelcoming as noisy ones. Remember the awkwardly silent haunts you’ve walked into that feel limp, where you had little privacy to speak freely? You probably wanted to leave as quickly as I did from the ear-piercing hotel in DC.
Still, there’s a difference between spirited, ebullient sound levels and ears-on-fire, screaming-over-the-table, lip-reading clamor — and many restaurants fail to strike the right balance. In a New York Times investigation, a reporter got a decibel reading at 37 venues across New York City, including bars and restaurants, and “found levels that experts said bordered on dangerous at one-third of them.”
For this reason, Sietsema started carrying around a decibel meter (he also added sound ratings to his reviews) 10 years ago. Since then, he thinks restaurants have maintained a steady level of uncomfortable din. In other words, despite the years of complaining and awareness about the problem, it’s not getting any better.
There’s at least one other potential explanation for that: Noisy spaces may increase turnover, and there’s some evidence that they do encourage people to drink more and faster. So despite the discomfort and annoyance the noise causes for some people, it may still be good for the bottom line.
2) Good acoustics can be expensive
I used to think acoustics were an overlooked feature of restaurant design in America. So I was surprised to learn that they’re among the first thing restaurateurs think about when planning a new restaurant.
But doing acoustics right, it turns out, can be really expensive. You have to hire acoustic consultants or engineers, who case the geometry and surfaces of a space to figure out which materials and treatments might create a sound that’s pleasing to diners’ ears. Like any design and construction project, the more sophisticated you get, the more you drive up the cost.
Greg Keffer, a partner with the Rockwell Group, an architecture and design firm, has worked on a number of restaurants with good reputations for acoustics, including Union Square Cafe in New York City. He noted that many common sound-controlling treatments — like spray-on foams or sound panels — “don’t look like a beautifully finished material.” So making sure your restaurant doesn’t feel or appear like a sound studio means investing in subtle sound-absorbing materials and treatments, which tend to be expensive.
For example, a custom acoustical finish system like Fellert can masquerade as stone or concrete and tamp down noise levels — but it costs a lot more to put in place than just leaving a ceiling raw. Simply sound-paneling a big ceiling can cost upward of $50,000.
“There are a lot of products that address acoustics now in a way that can be beautiful and can be hidden, so you’re not feeling like they’re surrounding you and can really complement your designs,” Keffer added. “But it’s ultimately down to budget and whether [restaurateurs] want to invest.”
Most restaurants aren’t exactly minting money, so owners need to think about what they’re going to prioritize in the budget. Because good sound treatments don’t make the splash that beautiful chairs or special artwork do, they can easily get punted to the bottom of the list.
“Sound absorption can cost a lot,” Sietsema said. “I can see chefs and restaurateurs thinking, ‘I can either buy these sound panels people aren’t going to notice visually or I can hire an extra line cook or piece of equipment or somebody to do my pastries.’ It’s certainly a trade-off.”
3) A shift in restaurant aesthetics has had a huge impact on our ears
Having said that, there are also low-cost techniques that can tamp down noise levels: carpets, table cloths, wall tapestries, drapes, plants. But they’ve mostly fallen out of fashion.
Think about the last few trendy restaurants you visited. There’s a good chance at least one of them was housed in an industrial space, with minimally decorated brick or concrete walls, bare tables and floors, high ceilings, and exposed ducts. The explosion of new restaurants and the shift in aesthetics — down to the very spaces restaurants now commonly occupy — has fueled the restaurant noise boom.
In a 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal, reporter Katy McLaughlin documented how the move toward eating in concrete boxes coincided with a shift in decor and other design features, turning many restaurants into “noise traps”:
Upscale restaurants have done away with carpeting, heavy curtains, tablecloths, and plush banquettes gradually over the decade, and then at a faster pace during the recession, saying such touches telegraph a fine-dining message out of sync with today’s cost-conscious, informal diner.
And as these sound-absorbing elements went out of style, many restaurants introduced open-concept dining, with open kitchens or attached bar scenes, that helped turn up the volume.
As acoustically challenging as these settings have been for the ears of diners and restaurant workers, they’ve also been difficult for designers — which brings us back to the Line Hotel in DC.
4) Some spaces — like former churches — will always be noisy when filled with people
I called one of the designers on the Line Hotel project — Drew Stuart, a partner at Inc Architecture & Design — to ask him about what acoustics challenges he faced, and why the lobby was so loud. Stuart and his colleagues seem to have done everything right: They worked with an acoustics engineer “from day one,” he said, and looked top to bottom to find ways to control the sound.
They built high-tech sound-absorbing finishes into the ceilings and underneath the tables. The floor was originally pitched at an angle. “When we flattened the floor, we put in an acoustically isolating floor system,” Stuart said.
But the venue they were working with was really acoustically tricky. A former church, centered on a vast, open room with vaulted ceilings, it was created to be reflective, so that an entire congregation could hear the voice of the preacher with little amplification.
“The [church] was designed for many to hear one,” Stuart added. “Now it’s been inverted so that many will hear the one across from them as opposed to the singular person addressing the room.”
5) Americans are loud
A final point about why restaurants are so loud. This has nothing to do with restaurateurs or designers or acoustic engineers. It has to do with Americans — who I believe are a slightly louder people, on average.
As a Canadian working in the US, I am often struck by how much louder my fellow diners in restaurants seem to be, and how much more loudly the people I’m walking near on streets speak to one another or into their cellphones.
This is not a scientific observation, but it’s one that’s fueled Reddit discussions and even a ban on “loud Americans” in a pub in Ireland. Sietsema, for one, also agreed with my view. “When Europeans imitate Americans, they shout,” he said. “We tend to be louder people — we’re louder talkers; we’re bigger with our expressions.”
Economist Tyler Cowen mused about this article at his blog, Marginal Revolution, and posited six interesting hypotheses for American loudness:
1. At least originally, Americans had much more space than did Europeans, and this is still true to some degree. That induce norms of loudness, which have to some extent persisted.
2. America is a nation of immigrants, with English-language proficiency of varying quality, including historically. For whatever reason, good or bad, we tend to shout a bit when the listener is not fluent in our language.
3. Taleb has suggested that higher status people shout less, talk in more hushed tones, and are more likely to whisper, to grab the attention of the crowd. Perhaps America has fewer high status people to set social norms. Or perhaps our high status people derive status from their wealth, and feel the need to emit fewer cultural signals, just as wealthy Americans often dress more poorly or eat a worse diet than European elites.
4. Characters on TV speak more loudly, and Americans watch more TV and admire and mimic it more.
5. Americans command a broader personal space, keeping a greater distance, and thus they have to speak more loudly to each other (and they feel Italians are intrusive with respect to how close they stand).
6. Loudness is perhaps a byproduct of individualism.
7. American culture values “forthrightness and self-confidence.” Plus maybe it’s a regional thing?
For fellow diners who aren’t used to American decibel levels, this noisiness can be particularly irritating — and it has been for me. One night at a pizza place in DC’s Georgetown neighborhood, I tried to compete with the howling of a woman at a neighboring table and felt myself screaming at my friends.
This factor, perhaps driving the noise in restaurants here, can’t be controlled for, but there are other things diners can do to protect themselves.
How to protect yourself from the noise
There is some consolation for restaurant-goers who cringe at the cacophony. A couple of recent developments may make dining out more pleasant.
At least at the high end, noise levels may be going down in restaurants. According to Devra Ferst at Eater:
In the decade since loud restaurants have become ubiquitous, small to mid-sized, casual restaurants — often with less backing — still embrace and work around the din, while a new generation of fine-dining and higher-end places with deep pockets are going back to if not a hushed dining room, one that allows for across the table conversation.
These restaurants have reintroduced noise-blotting carpets and tablecloths — and they’re making quiet dining a luxury for those who can afford to pay, Ferst writes. Hopefully this trend trickles down through all rungs of the restaurant population.
Decibel-reading apps have also proliferated. Some, like SoundPrint, crowdsource users’ decibel readings to rate venues so that people who are hard of hearing or sensitive to noise,can find quiet spots. (In DC, for example, I found some popular restaurants with sound levels below 70 decibels, according to the crowdsourcing, and others that were “very loud,” over 80 decibels.) The NIOSH Sound Level Meter also allows you to measure sound in restaurants or your workplace.
Since I downloaded a decibel reader, I’ve checked the sound in coffee shops, at the gym, in restaurants, even on the metro. It’s given me a sense of the relative loudness of various environments and which ones I might want to avoid.
I also returned to the Line Hotel for a sound check. I found the noise less bothersome this time. The lobby’s bars and restaurants were pretty empty — about half as crowded as during my first visit, which coincided with the hotel’s opening months. But the sound still registered just above 80 decibels. (This is similar to what SoundPrint users have found, rating the Line’s Brothers and Sisters lobby restaurant a “loud” 79.)
There are even simpler things you can do to avoid loud restaurants or manage noise while you’re out:
- Go early: This one isn’t very fun. Who wants to eat at 5 pm? But if noise really bothers you, restaurants tend to be less heavily trafficked — and therefore quieter — before 7 o’clock.
- Request a quiet table: Not all tables are equal. If you’re seated in what you think is a particularly loud spot, ask to move. You can also request a quiet table in advance.
- Ask for the music to be turned down: If you feel the music is blaring in your ears, there’s a good chance others do too. Ask for it to be turned down.
- Complain: If restaurant managers field enough complaints about the noise, they may understand that they’re doing something wrong. Consider registering a complaint with management before you leave.
- Find your noise nirvana: If you know of a restaurant with decibel levels that please your ears, keep going. If you’re having trouble finding your noise nirvana, try SoundPrint to search restaurant venues by sound level.
I’d also urge restaurant owners to get a decibel reader to find out how much they might be torturing their patrons. Together, perhaps we can defeat the Great Noise Boom.