Gone are the days of quiet dining rooms. Noise is in, and restaurants are pumping up their sound systems, embracing sound-reflecting hard surfaces and enlarging their bars. As food critic Adam Platt writes, "ask any weary gastronaut about the single most disruptive restaurant trend over the past decade or so... they’ll give you a succinct, one-sentence answer. It’s the noise, stupid.”
There are advantages to maintaining a high-volume atmosphere. Fast, loud music makes people rush through their meals, studies have found. And a base level of background noise gives the impression that a restaurant is popular and busy.
But while some customers enjoy a club-like atmosphere, many others flee. Some reviewers, like Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema, even include noise ratings — ranging from quiet (under 60 decibels) to extremely loud (over 80). The National Restaurant Association recommends capping noise levels at 60 decibels to allow patrons to converse. Fortunately, there are a few easy fixes for too-loud restaurants.
Reflecting table conversations
Diners aren't necessarily looking for a hushed restaurant, contends Acoustic Sciences Corp., an Oregon-based acoustic solutions company. What they want is a space in which noise from across the room doesn't intrude on table conversation. One inexpensive way to achieve this, the company suggests, is an acoustic coffered ceiling system, a combination of reflective ceiling sections and strips of sound-absorbing panels. Instead of muffling all noise, this system allows vertical sound — that is, individual conversations — to be reflected and amplified and horizontal sound to be absorbed.
Muffling noise in a visually appealing way
California-based Wall Covering Designs offers a clever and budget-friendly noise reduction solution for restaurants: fabric panels for walls that dampen sound but look like artwork. The company prints the panels with larger-than-life photographs, whether stock photography or custom shots.
Investing in quieter equipment
Diners who are already shouting to be heard don't want to be forced into silence by the roar of a coffee grinder or the rattle of a blender. Upgrading to noise-reducing kitchen equipment will have an immediate effect on the decibel level in a restaurant (and servers will be grateful as well).
The average blender produces around 85 decibels, and high-performance models may be louder. The Eclipse high-performance blender, designed with a state-of-the-art sound-reducing shield, lowers noise to conversation level. The shield can easily be removed for quick clean up, and the blender itself can tackle any task with more than 100 pre-programmed cycles.
Installing high-tech sound systems
As the longtime manager of jam band Phish, John Paluska knew his way around a sound system. So when he opened Comal, his Mexican restaurant, Paluska wanted the acoustics to be pitch-perfect. Working with Meyer Sound, he installed 123 speakers, subwoofers and microphones to capture ambient sound, process it and send it back into the room. Using his iPad, Paluska can walk around the restaurant and adjust the audio levels so the atmosphere is lively but patrons can still converse. It's not a cheap solution: Meyer Sound says the system costs between $10,000 and $100,000, depending on the space.
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