Restaurant noise: Please turn down the volume!

Jun 6, 2018 at 10:18 am
Restaurant noise

Bourbons Bistro on Frankfort Avenue has a small, but very comfortable covered porch featuring a wood-burning fireplace that makes it especially welcoming on crisp spring or fall evenings. The space is wonderfully conducive to civilized conversation accompanied by a flight of bourbon, no matter that every once in a while, a freight train rumbles by on the track just a few feet behind the restaurant. Measured at an average of 76 decibels, the train noise effectively hijacks the soundscape until the convoy of cars passes and conversation can resume.

But there is no such break in the decibel level at many other restaurants around town, according to our sound tests. Interior acoustics can create freight train volumes on a continuous basis.

Case in point: When the highly anticipated Mesh opened in 2015 on Brownsboro Road at the affluent convergence of Rolling Fields, Indian Hills and Mockingbird Valley, there was always a wait for a table. Dishes were well executed and beautifully presented. Service was efficient and personable. The price was, and is, in the upscale range.

But beware the interior design. The elegant décor combined hard surfaces of glass, wood and fieldstone. Result: The dining room acoustics were cacophonous. This interfered with more than conversation.

In order to take my friends’ and my orders one evening when we were seated in a booth near the bar, our server slid in next to us in an attempt to hear what we wanted. Even at that, we had to raise our voices to the point of discomfort. (Alright, we were shouting.) When dinner arrived, every order was wrong.

Our server was not incompetent. He simply could not hear us.

Perhaps we should have pointed to the items on the menu we wanted, a strategy one usually adopts in a country where you don’t speak the language and when you might feel embarrassed about mispronouncing the dishes’ names.

This is my pet peeve about many restaurants and I suspect it might be yours, too. You go out to eat not only to save yourself the task of cooking if you don’t feel up to it, but also to enjoy conversation over a shared meal. That’s very difficult, if not impossible, when the restaurant is so loud that you can’t hear one another. And no, texting each other at the table should not be the solution to this problem.

Not too loud... not too quiet

Kenny Wooten, who describes himself as “a native Louisvillian and contented returnee after three decades in the Northeast,” has had similar experiences. For Wooten, a magazine journalist, “conversation is the game” when dining out.

“I generally go out to restaurants as a social exercise; not for sustenance. I’m a lifelong cook and care less about the cuisine than about ambiance and service. I like a place that’s easy on the eyes, but more important, easy on the ears.”

He’s not keen on restaurants that are too quiet, either, “where I can hear dishes and glasses rattling,” but he “absolutely hates places that are so loud I can’t hear what my companions are saying.” He further laments what he perceives as a current trend in restaurant design “with acoustics meant to convey liveliness, even if the restaurant isn’t full.”

Places Wooten will not go, even if he loves the food, include inside at Decca and Silver Dollar, the latter of which he describes as “hellish.”

“I’ve walked out of both before and after sitting down.”

Larry Rice is the owner of Silver Dollar and he admits the restaurant had noise issues when it opened because of the music. “We got a lot of complaints, but especially about the volume of the music. So we put the speakers in zones.”

Specifically, the music is the genre of country known as the Bakersfield Sound, which is by nature rough and tumble. Rice explained that it is designed to be part of the place’s atmosphere, which is also known for an outstanding whiskey selection.

“I know our music is louder than at a typical restaurant, which is good energy for some and just not others’ thing.”

Rice also mentioned that families with children often chose the Silver Dollar for a gathering. “Even if the kids are acting up a little, no one seems to notice.”

While Wooten falls into the “others” camp when it comes to the Silver Dollar, there are dining venues he favors for great food, atmosphere and setting for conversation, “Le Relais and 211 Clover, plus Jack Fry’s, Porcini and 1860,” even though the last three can get noisy.

Tone it down

Bim Dietrich, former proprietor of now-closed Brasserie Dietrich, RED Lounge and Primo, consults with aspiring restaurateurs. He disagrees with Wooten’s impression of acoustical intent to convey a busy restaurant.

“I have never had anyone ask me to make a restaurant loud on purpose,” said Deitrich. “But a lot of contemporary materials, tiles and such, can result in some higher sound levels.”

He cited the example of Henrietta Red, an oyster bar in Nashville that opened with a lot of marble and tile surfaces. In response to the high noise level, Dietrich said, “They went back and added sound absorbent panels, and it helped.”

It’s not only the building materials. Many restaurants feature music, either recorded or live.

Peggy Stevens, president of PNSA, an image branding company, told me about a recent experience at a Frankfort Avenue restaurant she declined to name. It had live music that made the dining room’s “small space” so loud that, in order to be heard, she and her friends had to keep their voices constantly raised.

“When I left the restaurant — and for part of the next day — I was hoarse, “ Stevens said.

This is not simply a local situation.

Not just here

A survey published by Consumer Reports in 2016 showed that the No. 1 complaint among restaurant goers was not bad service or high prices. It was noise.

This certainly has been a personal complaint for me for decades, and I had no way of documenting it. But now, anyone can download a decibel meter to her or his smartphone and for the past few months I have made a point of using the handy app on my iPhone to measure the noise levels at restaurants.

Almost half of the dining rooms or bars in my random survey had decibel levels that made the meter’s needle skip back and forth over 70 decibels, the reading at which the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, or ASHA, says prolonged exposure to over time can cause hearing loss, which also happens to be the decibel level of the freight train rumbling past the Bourbons Bistro patio.

Dr. Gail Richard, president of the ASHA, published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post last year titled “Eating out may be bad for your ears.” She cited the statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that in the United States “hearing loss is the third most widespread chronic health condition.” It is more common than diabetes or cancer.

Reached by phone in her office at Eastern Illinois University where she teaches in the Department of Communications Disorders and Sciences, she offered advice for people bothered by noisy restaurants. “People just get angry and don’t return [to a loud restaurant.] But, they need to become advocates.”

She emphasized that it is the right of a customer to ask for a quieter table or to have the volume on music speakers turned down. She also blamed the hard surfaces and open design of many newer restaurants for creating the loud acoustics.

Food critics respond 

“Quiet, alas, is the new luxury,” Tom Sietsema, restaurant critic at The Washington Post, wrote in an email exchange. “You pay for the privilege of being able to converse without reading lips or screaming across the table. In my experience, the hauter the dining, the easier on the ears.”

While some newspapers, including The New York Times give a “sound rating” in restaurant reviews with descriptors such as “moderate” or “loud,” Sietsema goes further. He gives the decibel level.

“A decibel meter is more precise. I started measuring sound using a funny brick-size device used by musicians and now rely on an app on my smartphone. There are a lot of apps, but the one I use is called Decibel Meter Pro. At this point, I can pretty much guess the range a restaurant is after a few minutes.”

He decided to start publishing the noise levels after surveying readers’ complaints. “I found the number one gripe to be loud restaurants. Even millennials were complaining.”

(LEO Weekly provides sound levels in its Recommended food reviews.)

Designed to dampen 

Of course, not all restaurants make polite conversation impossible, and some are moderately priced. The Uptown Café on Bardstown Road, with its warren of dining rooms, one of which contains four upholstered booths, is the antithesis of the “loud acoustic” design. Owner Kelley Ledford says that was the idea.

“It has always been the mission of the Uptown to provide a relaxing and relatively quiet dining experience. This was something my mother [Nancy Shepard] and my late stepfather, David Shepherd, intended when conceptualizing the Uptown. Guests often comment it is nice to be able to hear and talk to one another without a lot of noise.”

Kathy Korkin was a server at the Uptown for many years. Its relatively quiet ambiance was in sharp contrast to Roy’s, a fusion Asian-Hawaiian eatery, where she worked between stints at the Uptown.

“There were a lot of hard, wood surfaces and a big, open kitchen,” she recalled. “There were certainly a lot of times that I would lean in to my table [to take orders.] There was also a certain amount of lip reading.”

Asked to describe the sound level, she had one word, “Cacophonous.”

Now in her 40s, Korkin says that she notices she is much more sensitive to sound than she used to be and wonders if exposure to loud acoustics at the non-Uptown restaurants where she worked in her twenties may have played a factor.

“But, even as sensitive as I am to the volume, I do still love going to Jack Fry’s.”

The stylish Bardstown Road restaurant with the speakeasy ambiance, is indeed a favorite of many Louisvillians. And you may very well be among those who have said “I love it, but boy, is it loud!”

What can you do?

If you do find yourself craving the food at a place where the acoustics seem deafening, here are a few strategies:

1. Go during off-peak times. Dining early in the evening (before 6:30) or late (after 9:00) will often be when the restaurant is less crowded. Sunday and Monday nights tend to be less busy, as well. Fewer people having to shout at each other means a quieter restaurant.

2. Dine al fresco. Obviously this is a “weather permitting” option. Though sometimes, outdoor speakers mean that music can still drown out conversation, not to mention that some restaurant patios allow smoking. (A whole other category of experience spoiler.)

3. Avoid “kids-eat-free” nights. Do this not only to preserve your hearing, but your sanity. Almost no one bothers anymore to teach their children that dinner is a time to sit quietly, eat and eavesdrop on the things adults are saying that are not supposed to be heard by innocent ears.

4. Don’t be reluctant to make your displeasure about the sound level known. It just might get results.

Mesh heard you

I recently returned to Mesh, just to see if it was as noisy as I remembered. I sat in the same location as the memorable evening of mixed-up orders and, much to my gratified surprise, my dining partner and I had no problem whatsoever hearing one another or hearing our server. What happened?

On the way out, I picked up general manager Adam Kelly’s card and e-mailed him about my different experiences. It was not my imagination. His explanation:

“I remember those dark days of the out-of-control acoustics in this building. I was one of the opening managers and took several complaints about that very subject. We did, in fact, take measures to improve the sound in our dining rooms. We hung acoustic baffles in the ceiling and acoustic tiles underneath every table. While we still take the occasional complaint about the noise level, by and large, the sound levels seemed to have greatly improved with those changes.” This represented a real commitment on the part of the restaurant owners, since Kelly also explained the cost of the sound mitigation, “If I recall correctly, we put about $30,000 into soundproofing. It was a chunk, but clearly worthwhile.” •

Local Restaurants?: a sounds sampling

Please note that sometimes a room’s design can mean that even when the decibel reading is fairly high, conversation at a table can still be relatively quiet. This may have to do with the height of the ceiling and other factors. And even usually-quiet restaurants can get loud if boisterous customers sit nearby. A reading below 70 usually means conversation is unstrained. At 75 and above, you may be shouting and straining to hear. Below are averages, taken with the app Decibel Meter Pro over the course of dinners.
  • August Moon  60
  • Blue Dog Bakery Café (lunch) 80
  • Bourbons Bistro  60
  • Brasserie Provence  60
  • Crescent Hill Craft House  70
  • The Fat Lamb  70
  • Fork and Barrel  80
  • The Gasthaus  65
  • The Irish Rover  65
  • Jack Fry’s  80
  • La Chasse  82
  • Le Relais  62
  • Lilly’s: A Kentucky Bistro  55
  • New Albany Exchange  70
  • Noosh Nosh  75
  • Pat’s Steak House  63
  • Porcini  75
  • Silver Dollar  83
  • 211 Clover Lane  46
  • The Uptown Café  50
  • Wagner’s Pharmacy  50
Decibel Levels for Common Sounds
  • Jet airplane taking off  180
  • Chain saw/Amplified music  110
  • Lawn mower  90
  • Washing machine  70
  • Public library ambient sound  50
  • Reading in home study  30