Welcome to Hot Topics, in which chefs chime in on a major issue in food.
[Art: Eric Lebofsky]
In recent months, many articles have pointed out that restaurants across the country are getting really, really loud and that restaurateurs have had to take serious measures to address noise issues in their spaces. A recent New York Times report, for example, tested the sound levels at 37 different venues around the city, most of them bars and restaurants, and "found levels that experts said bordered on dangerous at one-third of them." With more and more casual restaurants popping up — and budgets that might not be able to account for expensive soundproofing — it's hard to avoid creating a loud setting. But just how widespread is the problem? That's the question we put to four American chefs with different kinds of restaurants. The contributors also share their own experiences dealing with noise complaints and soundproofing in their businesses.
Here, now, David Kinch (Manresa, Los Gatos), Ashley Christensen (Poole's Diner, Raleigh), Ryan Poli (Tavernita, Chicago), and Alex Stupak (Empellon, New York City) take on the questions.
David KinchRestaurant: Manresa, Los Gatos, CA
Do you think most of the restaurants popping up these days are too loud?
I don't know if restaurants these days are too loud, but they're certainly louder. I don't think a lot of it is by design. I think it has to do with the locations that people find — you know, it's a major expense to quiet rooms. You have a lot of these industrial spaces with stone, natural wood, and exposed brick and lower ceilings, which create the conditions for loudness. If you get a space like that, you need to spend a significant amount of money to address the problem. A lot of times, that isn't in people's budgets.
Do you think it's less a priority for restaurateurs?
They can get away with it a little bit more these days, because I guess it depends on customers' expectations of their restaurants. If places tend to be a little bit more casual, then that loudness is more acceptable. I personally like to have a conversation, hear people, and talk at a somewhat normal tone of voice at most of the places I choose to go to. That doesn't mean that I don't go to loud or noisy places, though.
Any last words?
Sound is an important part of comfort. It's amazing how many places have opened up where the seats are crammed together and it's extremely loud and noisy. People don't seem to be too bothered by it, which is interesting to me. In terms of fine dining, I think the ability to have a normal conversation — it doesn't need to be a temple — is important. That's why it was a major part of Manresa's renovation.
Alex StupakRestaurant: Empellón Taquería and Empellón Cocina, New York City
Before getting into your personal example of sound troubles at Empellon Taqueria, would you say that you've noticed an uptick in really loud places?
I think it really depends on the restaurant. I've definitely been in some decently loud restaurants recently. I went through this problem at Taqueria, so sometimes I wonder if a restaurant is trying to be intentionally loud or if it's by accident — if they didn't foresee something. There's definitely places that do vibe dining — places that should probably just have a DJ — and I kind of get those places, because people are going for the scene and party. Loud is definitely appropriate for places like that.
I think a lot of it also has to do with the neighborhood and decor. Even at Cocina, where we put in a ton of soundproofing, it's still loud. Sometimes a customer will complain, so it feels like you're never going to make everyone happy. You just have to decide what you're going for. If you're in a casual place and the music is too low, then it sort of feels like you can't speak at the level you'd want to. Like at Cocina, if the music is too low, it'll feel weird. Same goes for Taqueria, which I always considered to be a loud place. The problem with it originally was the reverb.
How often do you get complaints at the restaurants?
Three or four times a week. I've talked to my front of house about this, and an important thing to keep in mind is to adjust the levels throughout the night. If it's the end of service and there are only two tables in there, then turn the fucking music down. It's ridiculous. But when it's 8 PM on a Friday and I can hear people's voices over the music, then you need to turn it up.
So you wouldn't point to a widespread problem?
Not really. From my perspective, I think there was a phenomenon around the recession where people were going to places to eat really good food and the service was bad and the spaces were really loud. I think those days are over. At Cocina we run a tapas format, and we get customers who get upset when we bring out more than one dish at a time — which isn't what tapas is. I think it's silly for people to ask for the music to be turned down because they don't like it.
Now that I think about it consciously, there are fewer places opening up that are quiet. And there are fewer places opening up that serve appetizers and entrées. It's gone to the extremes, which I don't necessarily see as a bad thing. I'm sure some people find it annoying.
Finally, can you run through the sound issues you had at Taqueria?
I didn't know how to build a restaurant, so we just ripped out everything and there were brick walls and a wood floor. Once you got more than thirty people in there, it got so damn loud. People couldn't hear each other from across the table, so we had to get in a sound engineer and spend tens of thousands of dollars on soundproofing. We knew the problem early on, but it was a $60,000 fix right after opening a restaurant. I knew it was going to be brought up in the reviews, but there was nothing I could do about it. It's still not a quiet restaurant, though, and it shouldn't be, in my opinion.
Overall, though, I think there's a place for quiet restaurants and a place for loud restaurants. The problem is that loud restaurants need to be mindful of reverb and need to make sure that you can actually hear the person sitting across from you.
Ashley ChristensenRestaurant: Poole's Diner — Raleigh, North Carolina
You run three very busy, casual restaurants. How do you approach the question of noise levels and what's too loud?
All of our restaurants host a lively, loud atmosphere. Poole's is for sure the loudest. Many of our more "experienced" diners would say it's much, much too loud. I won't argue with them. I don't feel like we could control the potential volume of Poole's without changing the crucial aesthetics and long-earned character of the restaurant.
We once had a patron offer to foot the bill to cover all of the walls with a sound absorbing, ultra-suede-esque material. It might have made things more quiet, but it wouldn't have been very true to the restaurant's early 50's diner beginnings. We have installed a low-profile black carpet to the bottom of all of the chairs and tables, which has a slight impact on toning down the bouncy sound of competing voices. It doesn't completely solve the problem, but it certainly helps.
What's too loud for you?
As for constitutes too loud, it's hard to say. We fill up fast and continue to hum through the majority of the evening. I find that when it's loud in Poole's, my conversation with my guests tends to be more private, as it's protected by a wall of white noise surrounding the table. I doubt that folks expect a low ceiling, hard-surfaced, shotgun diner packed with people to be very quiet. If that's the hope, we suggest early evening visits in the early part of the week.
Ryan PoliRestaurant: Tavernita — Chicago, Illinois
You cooked at French Laundry and all these high-end places in Spain, and now you're running a well-reviewed but very big — and probably loud — restaurant.
Oh, it's really loud in there.
Is the sound level overwhelming?
It's got an energy. It's not just the music level. When you put two-hundred people into a room, it's just going to get loud. Our clientele is seventy percent woman from the ages of 26 to 34. They come in groups, and it just gets loud.
Can you have a conversation?
You can definitely have a conversation, but there's this hard-to-describe vibe on a busy Saturday night. There are lots of large parties, there are people by the bar waiting for tables, and then there's the pintxo bar, which is always crazy. When you put all of those things together, it becomes loud. Our ceiling is wood and copper, and there aren't a lot of fabrics or textures that will absorb what's happening. And even though there are various rooms, it's still pretty damn big. No matter what you do, it's going to be hard to prevent that.
Is it more of a club than a restaurant? Or can you have a "normal" dinner?
That's a good question. You can have a dinner there and hear the people at the table. You can sit down as a four-top and have a conversation. You'll probably be speaking louder than you would be at Guy Savoy, though. But it's a very engaging restaurant. People at one table will talk to people at another table. People at the bar will ask about items coming out of the kitchen. I've never seen anything like it at the restaurants I've worked at.
It reminds me of the quote in the LCD Soundsystem movie where James Murphy talks about wanting to play in the clubs where people are dancing instead of the venues where people are standing still. More than anything, I don't want to cook for people that try to be dogmatic about Spanish food or are going to approach it too seriously. I want to cook for people that want to have a good time — people that really know good food but aren't going to write about their dinner when they get home.
I think it's totally wrong to think you can't have a great restaurant that's also pretty damn loud. I think the dynamic is changing. The women, for example, are coming to the restaurant because they want a night out and to eat great food, but they don't want to go to a club and be bothered by a bunch of guys. There's a way of doing it at a popular restaurant instead. They'll be able to hear themselves talk, they can get great food and great drinks, and they won't be harassed.
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