San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer understands that not every diner can (or wishes to) tolerate noisy restaurants. In his ratings, in fact, you’ll find a special category that addresses noise levels, such as this from his recent review of Ristobar: “Noise rating: BOMB; Too noisy for normal conversation (80+ decibels).” (He very much enjoyed the food, however.) Likewise, Washington Post reviewer Tom Sietsema began rating noise levels in restaurants two years ago, writing, “More than bad food, more than tipping quandaries, more than someone wondering if a free meal should follow a rodent sighting in a dining room, the most frequent concern I get from readers involves loud restaurants.”
I think there’s a time and a place for both noisy and not-so-noisy restaurants. When I’m dining out, the noise level of the restaurant matters in terms of a) my dining partners and b) the purpose of the meal. If I’m with my father (who is practically deaf yet stubbornly refuses to wear a hearing aid), we have to go to a restaurant that uses tablecloths, has a low ceiling, and, ideally, is carpeted. Hard surfaces, high ceilings, and exposed floors are a recipe for disaster for conversing with Dad — unless we’re discussing politics (in which case, it’s best if we don’t hear one another). If I’m eating out with a group of friends and I know the evening will be more boisterous, I tend to look for a noisier place that will complement the carefree mood of our table. Good acoustics are important during business meetings (or you might not realize what you’re agreeing to, and the next thing you know you’re being transfered to Yemen). Romantic evenings can go either way; a noisy restaurant can force you to sit closer and lean in a bit more (great for a first date), but a sedate restaurant probably allows for more meaningful conversation (better for couples looking to catch up after a busy week).
With professional reviewers and diners making more noise over noise levels, certain restaurateurs are designing restaurant acoustics with the same care they put into the menu. There are limitations to what can be accomplished in a given space, though, and it’s an always an intricate dance between form and function for restaurant designers.
Have you dined anywhere where the noise-level suited — or spoiled — your meal? Do noisy restaurants have a place? Are some restaurants too sedate? Make some noise about noise (or lack thereof) in restaurants here or by joining the conversation on Facebook.