Time to Get Loud About Restaurant Noise

There are a few things in life that drive me bonkers. Like when someone walking in front of me discards a paper on the sidewalk instead of holding it until she sees a trash can. Or the person who lets the lobby door close in my face — blissfully unaware that I’m behind intent on slowing him down a few precious seconds. Catch me in a cantankerous mood and I might make a snide remark to register my extreme annoyance.

And then there are noisy restaurants — these take the cake in the category of “things-we-could-do-to-increase-customer-satisfaction-but-just-won’t.” I’m not talking about the cavernous spaces with sound-reflecting wood floors where you have to speak up and listen more intently to your dinner companions. No, what drives me insane is loud music in restaurants whose patrons run the age gamut.

Noise is an equal opportunity offender

I’ve been a noise-phobe since my teen years. At the disco I found it tedious to have to yell in someone’s ear to talk; I preferred to just mimic Gloria Gaynor’s lyrics or get on the dance floor. The challenge was when I met someone new; it was easy to confuse my woman-of-few-words posture as bug off, buddy, I’m not really interested.

Thus, my noise sensitivity has little to do with my age and everything to do with my desire to be able to easily engage in conversation with those at the table. When I read articles about restaurant noise, out of curiosity I google for the writer’s picture to glean something about his/her age. Very often, those who complain as I do are decades younger.

Restaurateurs, what are you thinking?

Year after year surveys by outlets including Zagat and Consumer Reports confirm that noise tops diners’ list of complaints. When I dine out I am regularly in the position of asking my server first and then, inevitability, the manager, to please turn down the music. Too often I feel I’ve asked for something off the wall; if I am accommodated, it sometimes seems it’s been done grudgingly rather than as a sincere attempt to ensure “customer delight.”

Restaurant owners are trying to strike a balance

In researching for this post I learned that a certain level of noise is by design. Owners want to create a sense of vibrancy — and note that people don’t want to feel like they’re in church. I get that, and I’m on board, to a point.

Then there’s the budget: An owner might opt for fancy chairs or a pastry chef instead of investing in expensive sound-absorption solutions. And research has said that noisy spaces may spur customers to drink more and faster and, unsurprisingly, prompt them to leave sooner than they might otherwise, increasing turnover. I see the tradeoffs.

Ten ways to get to dine in peace and help solve the problem

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), sounds at 85 dBA (decibels) heard for over eight hours can lead to hearing loss. Increase it to 91 dBA and your “safe listening time” is only two hours. Hearing loss can contribute to social isolation, depression, and poor quality of life.

The negative effects of noise pollution have come to the fore. Here are ways to help you hear and be heard when you dine out.

  1. Pick venues recommended for acceptable sound levels. Similar to the Zagat of old, smartphone apps like SoundPrint and iHEARu crowdsource venue ratings based on decibel readings. iHEARu includes timed displays to show noise-level variations at different hours of the day. Use an app to learn what others are saying and find spots that meet your decibel test. Adding your ratings will help keep the app robust.
  1. Use a sound level meter or decibel-reading app to educate managers. Carry a personal sound level device or use an app to make your point to the restaurant manager. You might give her a primer on safe decibel levels after you show her how loud the place actually is. This will also show that consumers are becoming increasingly vocal on the issue.
  1. Dine between 5 and 7. I know this is not for everyone, though it does work for me. You’ll likely be there before the crowd, which means relative quiet. And if you use Open Table, you might score bonus points from restaurants seeking to fill seats in off hours.
  1. Ask for a quiet table. Sometimes there just isn’t one, but it’s worth a try.
  1. Ask them to lower the music. Good luck with that. When I do it’s hit or miss, but you should ask instead of suffering through it. If the server has no clout, ask for the manager.
  1. Use the right search terms. Googling a city name and “quiet restaurants,” “quiet places to meet,” and “best quiet restaurants” will turn up articles and lists of venues in your locality.
  1. Comment about noise levels in all your reviews. Let’s kick up the volume on the issue in restaurant reviews. Write a few sentences about how the noise or lack of it helped shape your dining experience for better or worse.
  1. Splurge. Look for restaurants that have carpets, drapes, and tablecloths. This may mean going to fine dining establishments and spending more — but observers report some attempts at higher-end venues to address customer complaints.
  1. Tell your stories to journalists who follow the issue. Journalists who cover public health want to learn about our experiences with noise pollution. One is Julia Belluz, currently senior health correspondent at Vox.com. If you have a story to share or have been harmed by noise pollution, Julia invites you to write to her at julia.belluz@voxmedia.com.
  1. Tune in to the ear-friendly movement. It bears repeating: ASHA says that if a venue’s sound level is at 91 dBA, your “safe listening time” is only two hours. So what about theaters, gyms, and houses of worship? iHEARu founder and audiologist Dr. Kelly Tremblay is on a mission to help ensure that other public places are also ear friendly. iHEARu offers certification to businesses that meet its criteria. Tremblay is confident that displaying the ear-friendly seal of approval will draw in customers.