Are restaurants getting too loud? Or are their customers getting too old?

A visit to a local restaurant causes me rethink how they are designed. From MNN, April 2018.

It’s that ’80s show — exposed ducts, conduits and lights. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

My wife and I went out for dinner at Cano, a local Italian joint, the other night; when we got there, we were the only people in the place. We were seated at a table right under the speaker and it was loud. I asked the server if she could turn it down and she did (In jest, suggesting that if it was Friday night she wouldn’t have), but even though we were the only people in the restaurant, every sound bounced around — off the tile floors, the hard surfaces. I found it quite unpleasant.

The funny thing was, the restaurant had exposed ducts and conduits, industrial RAB lighting fixtures, and looked very much like the restaurants I designed when I was an architect in the high-tech years of the early ’80s. Visually, I felt right at home but aurally, I was in a different world.

Coincidentally on that day, Julia Belluz of Vox wrote a post titled Why restaurants became so loud — and how to fight back. She writes that excessive noise is one of the biggest complaints diners have, even bigger that complaints about food. Tom Sietsema, restaurant critic for the Washington Post, tells Julia:

“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.”

Belluz points to an article by Adam Platt, who complains about noise and writes:

Most restaurant scholars will tell you that the Great Noise Boom began in the late nineties, when Mario Batali had the genius idea of taking the kind of music that he and his kitchen-slave compatriots listened to while rolling their pastas and stirring their offal-rich ragùs (Zeppelin, the Who, the Pixies, etc.) and blasting it over the heads of the startled patrons in the staid dining room at Babbo. Over the next several years, 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.

This was the high-tech bible. (Photo: High-Tech)

I would argue the point; it started earlier than that. We were doing it in the ’80s, and after Joan Kron and Susanne Slesin’s book came out, everybody was.

I would in fact argue that what has really changed isn’t the design of restaurants, but the clientele. The baby boomers have all the money and are the real backbone of the restaurant industry, and 30 years ago they loved the loud, boisterous restaurants as much as I did, that’s why we all designed them that way.

But as you get older, your tolerance for loud noises decreases. One study subjected victims to Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and found that “At each intensity, the older subjects gave the music higher numerical ratings based on loudness than the younger subjects.” The study explained:

As many people age, they develop a common hearing loss condition, called presbycusis, in which hearing gradually deteriorates and certain sounds become distorted. The elderly’s perception of high frequencies diminishes, and low frequencies — like the bass and drums of rock music — are magnified.

But the study also notes that “emotion also plays a role in auditory perception, [Professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences Donald Fucci] said. In previous studies, Fucci has found that if people dislike a certain type of music, they’re naturally going to perceive it as being uncomfortably loud.”

Now, the Washington Post just published an article titled “Sorry, rock fans. Hip-hop is the only genre that matters right now.” And what was the restaurant that we were at last week playing? Hip-hop. I seriously prefer Led Zeppelin and I never even liked them. Did that affect my level of comfort or was it the restaurant design?

The other problem with the clients is that they rarely will acknowledge that they have a hearing problem. A third of those over the age of 60 have terrible hearing and don’t do anything about it, so when they get into a noisy environment, they can’t pick out individual voices in the din; they have enough trouble in quiet spaces.

It has an equalizer! And a bass boost! (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

But if you wear hearables, also known as hearing aids, you can hear everything, perhaps too much. So you pull out your phone and adjust the volume, the balance of treble and bass, go into restaurant mode where the microphones aim at the person you’re talking to. You can create settings for your favorite restaurants and fix them to GPS coordinates so that when you walk in the door they BEEP and switch to that particular restaurant mode.

Hearables give you volume control and an equalizer for your head; I got into trouble this week because I was wearing different hearables and didn’t have the app in my phone, so I couldn’t adjust them.

There are other things you can do. Hearing aid manufacturer Starkey suggestschoosing a booth over a table (although I haven’t seen a booth in a decent restaurant in decades) and sitting with your back to the wall (always a fight, my wife likes the back wall because otherwise I’m looking around everywhere), sitting away from the kitchen (but open kitchens are where the action is!). Other sites suggest going early, and we all know who does that!

Starkey also suggests that you chose your restaurant carefully. “The modern, minimalist décor of that trendy new restaurant in town may be beautiful, but those high ceilings and hard surfaces can make for a highly reverberant environment.” They have a point.

Look at those sound-absorbing panels on the ceiling! (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Cano is good, but lately I have dined a number of times at an Italian restaurant on Toronto’s King Street, which is undergoing a controversial pilot project to restrict cars and promote transit. Some restaurant owners complained that this was hurting business so I wanted to support an old favorite that wasn’t complaining.

La Fenice was designed in 1986 by the very talented Aldo and Francesco Piccaluga and was a wonder; where I was doing high-tech, they were doing the first Post-Modern restaurant with crazy colors and allusions to Milan. It has carpets, tablecloths, acoustic absorption panels on the ceiling and it is comfortable and quiet; you can go there as I did, the last time, with a table of 12 drunken businessmen right next to you and you can still have a conversation. And whereas every restaurant I designed is long gone, this one survives.

Writing in Bloomberg, restaurant critic Richard Vines writes that “Loud restaurants are an unwelcoming environment for people who can’t hear so well, which often means the elderly,” according to Laura Matthews, senior researcher and policy officer for the U.K. charity Action on Hearing Loss.

He concludes: “Other forms of age discrimination are illegal. It’s time chefs stopped acoustic discrimination against older diners. Turn down the volume.”

I’m conflicted. There are a lot of restaurants out there; Diners can vote with their wallets and go to restaurants like La Fenice. Older diners can also get the hearing aids they need and get their own volume control.

I worry that if every restaurant caters to the aging boomer who isn’t willing to even try to adapt to what is going on around them, then they will all turn into mausoleums playing Led Zeppelin instead of hip-hop. There has to be a place for everyone.

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