Noisy Restaurants

July 2018

I’ve been complaining about loud restaurants for a long time. And they’re getting louder. I’m not sure when this started or why it seems to be increasing, but lately I’ve read some suggestions. The big one? MONEY.

A recent article in Bon Appetit helped a bit. They cite noisiness drawing people in because when you walk past a place where “something seems to be happening” inside, you naturally want to go in and find out what it is. Modern interior design is all hard surfaces and high ceilings which amplify clatter, and people (“scientific studies prove”) drink more when things are noisier. So in a viciously competitive market where a quick Google shows that over half of new eateries fail in the first year and many more crumple subsequently, a young chef risking his parents’ savings is not going to put his enterprise on the chopping block by having people made to feel his place is somehow weird and inferior by … silence.

Articles I looked at make a fuss about hearing-loss risk among employees, but health problems have to be the least of restaurant owners’ concerns. Properly, by the way. But if things are bad enough, high dB enough, that employers are considering industrial ear protection for waiters, why the hell would anybody looking for something nice to eat and somewhere to chat with his sweetheart enter what amounts to a jet-engine testing facility?

I’ve posted time and again about what noisy restaurants feel like. I call it clatter and shrieking, but it’s also hard-driving loud music. I’ve found in some relatively sedate-looking places that it doesn’t take more than 20% of the seats being filled to have trouble hearing the person I’m with, and to pull out my hearing aids so the clanging music, kitchen-crashing plates and general airhose of high-pitched sound isn’t coagulating the auditory part of my brain. Without amplification I can sometimes lean over and hear my friend reasonably well.

I think the mechanism of noise increase over time during an evening is the merry-go-round of loud music so people have to constrict their vocal cords to make their voice louder and heard for a greater distance (try this: say something in your normal voice, and then say it again as if you were imitating a buzzer, driving the sound up into the back of your throat and your nose), resulting in louder sound, prompting the servers to crank up the music, driving the needing-to-be-heard to push verbal noise ever higher. Honestly, go into any hot-ticket popular eating place and see if you can hear yourself think.

Asking the staff to turn the music down never works. A conspiracy theorist would say they are told by the owner to keep turning the volume up to maximize profit, but no matter they will never turn the music down. I’d have to be the wrong kind of drunk to stand up at the front of a restaurant dining room, make a very loud noise to get people’s attention, and give a short speech begging everybody to tone it down. I’m afraid that if we are going to keep eating out with lovers and friends we will probably have to sit on the same side of the table, take out our hearing aids if we have them (or put ear plugs in), and learn to read lips. I also fear it’s going to take decades and I’ll be in a God damned nursing home (where at least it’s quiet!) before things improve.

Just conceivably at some proximal time some independently wealthy restauranteur will take the risk of marketing her place as an island of tranquil sanity. No pounding increasing-intensity music, an air of civility and conversational privacy, and noisy people politely asked to leave. I hate to say it but I’d probably put up with ordinary food just to enjoy that scene. A fellow fan of tranquil eating also pointed out this article, suggesting we might not be the only ones hoping to improve the situation.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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