La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, a 16-month-old restaurant in San Francisco, hits every fashionable trend in restaurant design. The 300-seater occupies an 11,000 square-foot loft space in a historic converted ferry building. The floors are hardwood, the ceiling beams exposed, and the wood tables bare. It has an open kitchen and a large bar. A wall of windows overlooks the bay.
The result: It is the ultimate noise trap.
Many of the most cutting-edge, design conscious restaurants are introducing a new level of noise to today’s already voluble restaurant scene. The new noisemakers: Restaurants housed in cavernous spaces with wood floors, linen-free tables, high ceilings and lots of windows—all of which cause sound to ricochet around what are essentially hard-surfaced echo chambers.
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. Those features, though, were also sound absorbing.
Even as restaurants are ditching style elements that squelch sound, they are bringing in more sources of noise: Open kitchens, lively bar scenes and disc jockeys and iPods programmed with the latest rock music. Loud music can make diners talk louder—which ups the volume even more.
How Loud Is It?
The Wall Street Journal conducted its own sound check of some restaurants across the U.S. Here’s a sampling of the noise at four eateries, as measured at the hostess stands and at reporters’ tables.
Mr. Denison, who had never designed a restaurant before, set to work. He laid down carpeting—and convinced Mr. Gras and others to accept it—and put a porous, acoustical plaster on some parts of the ceiling. The disc jockey music stayed, but it was carefully designed to exclude lyrics, which can interfere with conversation, and all tracks contain fewer than 100 beats per minute, so it isn’t too energetic. The restaurant now feels lively but not noisy, Mr. Denison says.
The best way to absorb reverberant noise is to cover at least two perpendicular surfaces with sound-absorbing material. If, for example, both the ceiling and one wall are treated with acoustical tiling, sound waves cannot bounce back and forth both horizontally and vertically.
A good acoustical engineer aims to create a sound level that allows people to hear each other, but doesn’t make it so quiet that parties at other tables can overhear. That said, many restaurateurs often fail to consult with acoustical experts during the design process because of the cost, because the right look is paramount to them or because they believe that their customers actually enjoy the noise.
Dinner Without Yelling
Audiologists offer advice for finding a quieter dining experience:
- Sit in tables in alcoves, which provide a barricade against sound waves.
- Avoid sitting by the bar or kitchen.
- Avoid sitting near large parties, who tend to talk louder.
- Ask for additional light and look at your dining companion. Without realizing it, we read lips.
- Ask management to turn the music down, even if you get dirty looks. Not only does this reduce noise, but people will then talk more softly.
- Look at photos of the restaurant ahead of time. No carpet or tablecloths and boxy dimensions should raise red flags.
Eric Laignel Glass walls and hardwood floors contribute to the noisiness at the Grove restaurant in Houston