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Thread: How Restaurants Got So Loud

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    How Restaurants Got So Loud

    How Restaurants Got So Loud
    Fashionable minimalism replaced plush opulence. That’s a recipe for commotion.

    KATE WAGNER
    NOV 27, 2018

    Let me describe what I hear as I sit in a coffee shop writing this article. It’s late morning on a Saturday, between the breakfast and lunch rushes. People talk in hushed voices at tables. The staff make pithy jokes amongst themselves, enjoying the downtime. Fingers clack on keyboards, and glasses clink against wood and stone countertops. Occasionally, the espresso machines grind and roar. The coffee shop is quiet, probably as quiet as it can be while still being occupied. Even at its slowest and most hushed, the average background noise level hovered around 73 decibels (as measured with my calibrated meter).

    That’s not dangerous—noise levels become harmful to human hearing above 85 decibels—but it is certainly not quiet. Other sounds that reach 70 decibels include freeway noise, an alarm clock, and a sewing machine. But it’s still quiet for a restaurant. Others I visited in Baltimore and New York City while researching this story were even louder: 80 decibels in a dimly lit wine bar at dinnertime; 86 decibels at a high-end food court during brunch; 90 decibels at a brewpub in a rehabbed fire station during Friday happy hour.

    Restaurants are so loud because architects don’t design them to be quiet. Much of this shift in design boils down to changing conceptions of what makes a space seem upscale or luxurious, as well as evolving trends in food service. Right now, high-end surfaces connote luxury, such as the slate and wood of restaurants including The Osprey in Brooklyn or Atomix in Manhattan.

    This trend is not limited to New York. According to Architectural Digest, mid-century modern and minimalism are both here to stay. That means sparse, modern decor; high, exposed ceilings; and almost no soft goods, such as curtains, upholstery, or carpets. These design features are a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears. No soft goods and tall ceilings mean nothing is absorbing sound energy, and a room full of hard surfaces serves as a big sonic mirror, reflecting sound around the room.

    The result is a loud space that renders speech unintelligible. Now that it’s so commonplace, the din of a loud restaurant is unavoidable. That’s bad for your health—and worse for the staff who works there. But it also degrades the thing that eating out is meant to culture: a shared social experience that rejuvenates, rather than harms, its participants.

    Luxury didn’t always mean loud, and there are lessons to be learned from the glamorous restaurants of the past, including actual mid-century-modern eateries. From the 1940s through the early 1990s, fine-dining establishments expressed luxury through generous seating, plush interiors, and ornate decor. But more important, acoustic treatments themselves were a big part of that luxury.

    Surfaces that today’s consumers now consider old-fashioned were still relatively new and exciting in the interwar and postwar periods. Just as stainless-steel tabletops, slate-tile floors, and exposed ductwork seem au courant today, so did wall paneling and drop ceilings with acoustic tiles in the 1950s and ’60s.

    Architects also had different conceptions of what ideal work and leisure spaces should sound like. In the early to mid-20th century, designers were startled to discover that they might have some control over the aural impression of a physical space. Just as automobiles and kitchen appliances were seen as technological solutions to problems of everyday life, so ambient noise shifted from a symbol of progress in the machine age to a problem it produced—one that demanded a solution.

    Early acoustics materials focused on absorbing sound—soaking up sonic energy rather than reflecting it. That approach produced its own idiosyncratic soundscape. As the science historian Emily Thompson explains in her book The Soundscape of Modernity, absorptive materials removed reverberation, producing “clear and direct” sound. “In a culture preoccupied with noise and efficiency,” Thompson writes, “reverberation became just another form of noise, an unnecessary sound that was inefficient and best eliminated.”

    Absorptive design found its way first into schools and offices, where acoustics products were marketed as essential to creating quieter interiors and thus more efficient and less distraction-prone workers (or students). These products were advertised as “sound-conditioning” devices that would purify an environment of “unnatural” sounds. In catalogs for commercial and home interiors, sound-absorptive surfaces were linked directly to comfort, sophistication, and luxury.

    Today’s interior designs are often seen as throwbacks to classic mid-century-modern spaces—sparse and sleek, with hardwood floors and colorful Danish chairs with tapered legs seated beside long, light-colored wood tables. The contemporary revival of this style tends to highlight these features to excess. However, photographs of restaurants from the 1950s through the 1970s reveal that interiors were opulent in the more luxurious lounges and supper clubs. Trends that today’s diners associate with luxury, such as hard surfaces and open kitchens, were, in mid-century, mainly relegated to lowbrow spaces such as cafés, cafeterias, and diners. The finest eateries—such as French and specialty restaurants, exclusive lounges, and cocktail bars—were the most highly ornamented and plush. Even high-modernist interiors made extensive use of soft goods, including cloth tablecloths, heavy drapes, carpeted floors, and upholstered seating. Across the board, mid-century restaurants had low ceilings, often with acoustic ceiling tiles.
    Much more.

    Mr. Snaps is bothered by restaurant noise. I don't like it myself since I assume talking is a big part of eating out.

    Increasingly, our favorite places tend to be quieter so conversation isn't strained.

    Atlantic
    "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gingersnap View Post
    Much more.

    Mr. Snaps is bothered by restaurant noise. I don't like it myself since I assume talking is a big part of eating out.

    Increasingly, our favorite places tend to be quieter so conversation isn't strained.

    Atlantic
    This morning, I was telling HRH a story about a long-ago conversation in a local pub, and she asked, "Were bars different back then? Could you actually have a conversation, like on TV?"
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    Only one local restaurant comes to mind as being too noisy due to the way it's designed, and it's a double-whammy because not only is it minimalist (concrete floors, metal signage, lots of glass) but it's also a sports/wing place so there are umpteen TVs and there's always a game on the stereo system. During football season it's best to avoid the place completely because it can get headache-inducing.

    Luckily, the rest of our local restaurants haven't succumbed to these new design fads quite yet. If they're noisy, it's because they are popular, or have live music, or didn't bother to do any decorating in the first place. I'm of the mind that I'm there for the food; I can't eat the décor, so who cares what it looks like? One of the best meals I've had in recent months was at a cinder block converted former VFW. The floor was commercial grade basement-dollar flat carpet, the walls were exposed block and save for a single chalkboard listing the specials, the walls were pretty much bare. But the food was fan-friggin'-tastic and that was what matters.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Servo View Post
    Only one local restaurant comes to mind as being too noisy due to the way it's designed, and it's a double-whammy because not only is it minimalist (concrete floors, metal signage, lots of glass) but it's also a sports/wing place so there are umpteen TVs and there's always a game on the stereo system. During football season it's best to avoid the place completely because it can get headache-inducing.
    Ban thos3e friggin' TVs in restaurants! Horrid!

    Maybe the noise doesn't so much matter any more because people just look at their phones and don't talk any more.

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    We do go to hipster places in Denver and a lot of them are louder than normal (metal tables, big expanses of glass, etc.). One of my favorite restaurants is in this class. I adore the food but the noise is incredible.

    By contrast, we also like a lot of European eateries and it's a completely different experience. Tablecloths, lots of plants, framed art, etc. You hear the murmur of conversation and the clink of wine glasses and maybe some classical music played low in the background but that's it.

    You can talk easily.

    In the summer, we try to eat outside if it's really noisy place.
    "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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