So, you recently enjoyed a tasty meal at a noisy, hip restaurant only when you were headed home you noticed your ears and head were throbbing leaving you wondering if you had just dined at an industrial construction site? Don’t worry, you haven’t suddenly morphed into your grandparents (unless you’re also dining at 4:30PM), and you probably aren’t imagining things either. You’ve just entered the increasingly common, ear-splitting world of high-volume modern fine dining.
Following of the trend that accompanied the California cuisine wave of the 80’s and 90’s, more and more fine dining places have broken with tradition and are jettisoning stuffy settings and dress codes while focusing their energy on exceptional food. Now you can eat like a VIP but still wear jeans. The casual vibe has moved from décors to DJs.
As chef-proprietors have become the norm, they also bring their sensibility from the kitchen to the front of the house. The thinking is if their Spotify playlist is good enough for the back, it is good enough for the dining room. And the volumes can be ear shattering. While it’s nice to no longer have to wear a tie to dinner, I might like to hear from my date before paying the check.
Part of this trend is economics: an environment of loud music creates a party-like atmosphere and, it turns out, is a proven method to boost alcohol sales. More booze, more profits. A collateral effect is that it also tends to drive customers out faster… tables turn quicker, more profit.
So, what to do about noisy restaurants? Unless you’re regularly packing ear plugs, here are some more practical tips that might help:
1. Do some homework. If you’re unsure about your destination’s atmosphere and you need a place with a quiet vibe, do some research on what kind of acoustic environment to expect; reading through recent reviews on OpenTable is a good place to start. You may not mind a full-on raucous hoopla on a casual night out with some friends. But if you are taking out your future in-laws for the first time, you’d be well advised to head someplace you can savor their every
2. Share your beef. If you find yourself sitting inside a human snare drum, don’t be afraid to ask the management to adjust the volume. Just know that they may well resist. One critically-acclaimed, but infamously cacophonous Italian eatery has been known to inform their customers that neither the music selection nor the decibel level are negotiable and have gone so far to nudge their diners to head elsewhere if it’s not to their liking. Other, less rigid restaurants, however, typically strive to keep their customers happy and may bend to accommodate your polite request.
3. Relocate. Even the loudest places may have a cozy nook or two where lip reading is not required. Ask to move as soon as you can so you don’t hold up your meal. It’s a hassle to move tables, but it’s a better option than suffering in silence. Well, not exactly silence, but….
4. Improvise… If you’re stuck in a gastro rock concert, try and make the best of it. I’ve been on many a meal where guests sneak outside for frequent non-cigarette breaks to clear their heads. Large groups can swap seatmates after each course so they have a snowball’s chance of talking with and hearing someone across the table. This may drive your servers a little crazy when they try to figure out who got which entrée after a round of musical chairs but it also sends a subtle message to management.
Recently at a trendy Lower East Side hotspot where the noise level can rival that of a diesel locomotive, diners at one enterprising table resorted to texting one another as a way to stay connected with each other during their meal. When I asked about it, one guest shrugged “look, the waitress couldn’t even hear our order…we had to write it down for her.”
Stan Sagner, a former chef, is a New York City-based a food, culture, and travel writer and has been a restaurant critic for the New York Daily News. You can follow him on Twitter @ssagner and on Instagram@sagnereats.
Photo Credit: Nader Khouri.