It’s Friday night. You walk into one of the city’s hottest restaurants and, like a wave, it hits you: There’s a 45-minute wait for a table, a mob at the bar, servers zigzagging across the dining room, and plates rolling out of the open kitchen. Everything appears to be normal — the restaurant is operating in a routine fashion — but you can’t hear yourself think because the din is deafening.
Over the past decade, some of the country’s top restaurant critics have observed increasingly high sound levels in restaurants. In 2008, when complaints about loud restaurants escalated, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema added noise ratings to his dining column. Readers welcomed the addition of a sound check: critic Ryan Sutton (then at Bloomberg, now Eater NY’s chief critic) followed suit within the next year. In 2013, Eater NY’s Robert Sietsema wrote about how he used two decibel-measuring apps on his smartphone, declaring that “modern restaurants are too damn noisy”; a month later, New York’s Adam Platt would also lament that hushed dining rooms were a thing of the past.
By 2017, Gregory Scott, who suffers from hearing loss and was fed up with being unable to hear in restaurants, founded SoundPrint, an app dedicated to helping diners find quieter bars and restaurants (think Yelp for sound). The app’s internal decibel meter measures the actual noise level of any venue, which is then submitted to a SoundPrint database that anyone can access to find out if a given venue is quiet, loud, or very loud. The app has more than 60,000 restaurant submissions so far.
But as the cacophony of noise complaints grows, restaurants are starting to pay attention. Last year, Austin restaurant Le Politique temporarily closed for renovations after receiving many complaints about the noise. “We received constant feedback from guests that it was difficult to hear conversations at the tables,” says Melanie Raines, director of design at New Waterloo, the hospitality group that owns Le Politique. “We noticed quickly that this was a pattern and needed a thoughtful response, not a quick band-aid fix.”
Certain design trends have contributed to the increase of noise in restaurants: Tall ceilings increase room volume and larger room volumes welcome more sound, while open kitchens just add more noise to the space. “Everybody’s thinking about how the restaurant looks,” says Lily Wang, professor and associate dean for faculty and inclusion at the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction. “It’s not so much that they don’t want it to function. They just don’t actually think about the acoustics as being a measure of that function.”
Acoustic experts can advise owners and developers which materials — like carpeting, drapery, spray-on foam, and sound panels — might control noise levels better. Wang receives calls from restaurant owners seeking that “quick fix” after the restaurant has opened, but she explains that retrofitting is difficult, especially for a restaurant that might not have factored soundproofing into its original budget: Sound-paneling a ceiling can cost between $50,000 to $60,000.
At Austin’s Le Politique, an in-house design team was able to translate the sound feedback to a thoughtful solution. “We were able to find an acoustic flooring product and wall plaster that fit our brand aesthetic,” explains Raines. She says both products helped absorb the sound.
John Paluska, founder and co-owner of Comal in Berkeley, says he and his business partner Andrew Hoffman thought about potential acoustic treatments for the restaurant during the pre-construction planning stage. At the time, their designer, Marites Abueg, introduced them to Meyer Sound, a Berkeley-based audio manufacturer. Their conversation quickly turned into Comal becoming a “test case” for the Constellation System, which allows users to optimize the acoustics in a space by using a careful combination of loudspeakers, microphones, and digital processing. The system allows any workers in the space to make adjustments depending on how busy the restaurant is.
Hoffman explains his staff appreciates the new acoustics. “It is not uncommon for a relatively new employee to mention to me that they were surprised that they do not have to yell to communicate with our guests,” he says, “and that they can speak at a normal level despite how many people are in the restaurant.”
A loud dining room is more than just an annoyance — there are real health risks that come with loud noise. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets legal limits on noise exposure in the workplace based on a worker’s time-weighted average over an eight-hour day. While OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 90 decibels (dBA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends limiting the eight-hour exposure to less than 85 dBA. “Once a level gets above that range it can be more difficult,” says Wang. “It’s not necessarily that it’s definitely causing you hearing damage, but it could still be causing some damage.” In larger cities like New York, noise levels in restaurants are generally measured between 85 and 90 dBA (sometimes higher).
While diners who spend between an hour and a half to two hours in a loud dining room may suffer from temporary threshold shifts, regulars and restaurant workers are more prone to the negative side effects as they spend more time in a given restaurant. “Let’s say you have one big space. Everybody’s in there,” says Wang, “and [the noise] is at this level that I find way too loud — at least 85 dBA — where I cannot have a conversation with somebody who’s four feet away from me. Then I think, ‘Yeah, they are definitely being exposed to detrimental sound levels.”
As restaurants make the necessary changes to better control loud noises, regular diners and staff are taking notice. That said, quiet restaurants can be just as unwelcoming as loud ones. The quieter the restaurant, the more people worry that their conversations are being heard, which becomes a privacy issue, but according to Wang, there is a sweet spot. “We’re not saying every restaurant should be like a classroom, but there should be a vibe, and I think it’s possible to get that vibe without going beyond that 85 realm.”
Esra Erol is Eater’s social media manager.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.