By Pete Wells
Jan. 21, 2020
Whatever else readers say in article comments, on social media or in their emails to me, two responses are far and away the most common when I write about restaurants. The first is a rejection of the whole idea of eating out, because after all one can eat much more cheaply at home. To that, there’s not much to say except “bon appétit.”
The other takes several forms, all of them essentially complaints about the noise. I went to that restaurant you reviewed this week and it was too loud, they say. Or they take the broader view that most restaurants are too loud. Or the longer, historical view that restaurants generally are getting louder and louder.
Often, these readers go on to implore me to do something about it. My reviews already give my impressions of each restaurant’s acoustics, but it’s frequently been suggested that I make like the restaurant critic Tom Sietsema, who includes a decibel-level reading and a brief explanation (“Must speak with raised voice”) with each of his reviews in The Washington Post.
Others want me to take a strong anti-noise stand. Recently, I received an email from a physician who calls himself a noise activist, comparing restaurant noise to secondhand smoke. It took legislation to get cigarettes out of restaurants, he wrote, and if enough people are made aware of the risks of hearing loss posed by high volumes, similar laws could be passed “mandating quieter restaurants.”
My answers to these remarks tend to be politely noncommittal. To those who ask about decibel readings, I say they strike me as false precision, because variables like the night of the week or the number of tables for six or more can have a major effect on the volume. To others, I’d say I wanted more time and information before taking on a complicated topic.
The longer I put off writing, though, the harder it was not to notice that I was avoiding the subject. And when I asked myself why, I had to admit that I don’t really believe loud restaurants are a problem.
The truth is, I love them. Not all of them, not all the time. I enjoy more than a few quiet restaurants, too, where you can concentrate on the food and the conversation without auditory distractions. But so many of the places I enjoy most tend to be at least somewhat noisy that eventually it dawned on me that one of the things I enjoy must be the noise itself.
Having most of my hearing ability intact certainly helps my enjoyment; if I had more trouble conversing over the shrimp cocktail each night, I would probably have a different attitude. What I can bring to this topic, though, is a near-nightly experience of restaurants as registered by all five senses.
Most of the noises in our lives are the accidental byproducts of some activity we need or at least tolerate for reasons having nothing to do with the sounds they make. We don’t love the wail of ambulance sirens, the brontosaurus stomp of garbage trucks or the steel-on-steel whine of the No. 4, 5 and 6 trains rounding into the Union Square station, but we’ll put up with them until somebody finds a quieter way to move sick people, trash and rush-hour commuters.
Which activity is restaurant noise a byproduct of, though? The servers moving between tables (in rubber-soled shoes)? Money changing hands (by credit card)? Pots and pans hurled by angry cooks (behind swinging doors or in an open kitchen where almost nobody speaks)?
What you hear in a packed downtown brasserie on a Friday night isn’t any of those things. It’s mainly the unamplified voices of customers fleshed out with amplified, typically recorded music. A few chefs and owners love to play their favorite music at teenage-Metallica-fan volumes but in most restaurants, the music is mere accompaniment to the crowd. Restaurants are loud because we’re loud. With a few exceptions, when we complain about the noise, we’re complaining about ourselves.
If you believe a restaurant’s primary function is to serve food, then it doesn’t make sense for us to respond by raising our voices. But we go out for other reasons. We go to look around, maybe to be noticed, usually to talk to the people we came with. Some of us want a drink or two, and almost all of us want to loosen the knots of tension that daily life ties.
Everything about the restaurant experience is designed to speed those things along, and when it all works, we respond by raising our voices. Far from being an accidental side effect, a noisy restaurant is the end product of a business that helps us have a good time, just as purring is the end product of scratching a cat’s chin the right way.
What makes a sound into noise is subjective. Just as a weed is a plant you don’t want in your yard, noise is a sound you don’t want in your head. Audio professionals call the sound we do want the signal. In a restaurant setting, we typically think of the signal as the voices of the people we are sitting with, plus the voice of any server who happens to be addressing us at that moment, but only at that moment. The minute the next table over wants help choosing the wine, the sommelier’s voice becomes noise.
Zeroing in on one voice in a room full of people talking is a complex job. When we’re young our ears are good at it, up to a certain volume, but we have more and more trouble with it as we age. Microphones are pretty bad at it, as every journalist who has recorded an interview in a crowded room knows. So are hearing aids, which amplify noise and signal equally, and can make a reasonably loud room seem unbearable.
This may be more a technology problem than a restaurant problem. There are ways to hold down the racket, though, such as ceiling tiles, foam pads, even ropes snaked around pipes and table legs. Equalizers can be tuned so that music plays more softly in the frequencies that compete most fiercely with conversation.
From time to time, all of us want a dining room where we can speak and be heard without resorting to pantomimes. These places exist, but they’re always changing. The month-old cantina with a line out the door may be thunderous tonight and an oasis of calm a year from now when the mobs have moved on. Finding these oases when you need them isn’t a restaurant problem, either; it’s an information problem. This would seem to be a perfect job for crowdsourcing; at least one decibel-monitoring app claims to collate users’ readings into a real-time guide to where the quiet things are.
Placid restaurants seem to be a minority taste, though. There seems to be something about the sonic cocktail of loud conversation and background music that many people like, because it is the sound of almost all successful modern restaurants.
The precise mix is important. If you ever walk into a restaurant where it is reversed — if the music is pumping and nobody is saying a word — chances are you’ll walk right back out again, as I did a few weeks ago at a bar and grill near the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Queens that was blaring Latin dance music to a nearly empty dining room.
At other times, silence can make us feel more uncomfortable than noise. When everybody at a party goes quiet at once — maybe the Christmas tree catches fire or an angry neighbor shows up at the door — the guests will usually freeze in place, looking around awkwardly until they get a sign that it’s O.K. to talk again.
Something similar but less dramatic happens to a party when the music stops suddenly. This is jarring at first, and remains slightly unpleasant even once you’ve adjusted to it. If the music never comes back, people eventually leave, which is what I suspect would happen to any large restaurant that tried to go without music entirely.
Despite the evidence that for many of us restaurant noise is a feature and not a bug (or, at a minimum, both a feature and a bug), I expect the advocates for lower volumes to get more vocal. The notion of a noise we can’t control is becoming inconceivable.
Throughout our daily lives, sounds we used to share have been filtered out or have simply stopped. When I started my career, offices were alive. Phones rang. Typewriters clacked. Somewhere, maybe only in the mailroom, a radio would play. And all around, people talked, on the phone and to each other.
And today? We sit lined up in cubicles, eyes forward, mouths shut. Our colleagues communicate with us on Gchat or Slack, even if they sit next to us. Professional acquaintances email. Friends text. Nobody calls, and music is piped directly into our heads.
For the first time in history, we can tune most of our sonic environments to our liking, whether we’re at home or not. On our way to and from work or anywhere else, we decide what we want to listen to, choosing from an unseen jukebox that holds, as the former New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff put it in the title of a recent book, “Every Song Ever,” not to mention thousands of podcasts that will begin and end precisely when we tell them to.
If we stuff strange white sticks in our ears, or wear “noise-canceling” headphones, or roll up the car windows and turn on the air-conditioning, we don’t have to listen to any sounds that we haven’t chosen, or that weren’t chosen for us by the helpful algorithms of a music-streaming service. Life in the 21st century means never having to hear the person who stepped on your foot say, “I’m sorry.”
Unless you’re in a restaurant. When your feet are stepped on in a crowded dining room, you hear an apology (most of the time). Right behind you, they’re talking about “BoJack Horseman,” which is funny, because you and your friends were having the same conversation five minutes ago. Did the idea jump from your table to theirs, like a virus? Beyond their table, who knows what anybody is talking about? All you can hear is one long roar.
But there are different kinds of roars for different kinds of crowds. There used to be information in the sound of a busy office. In the age before earbuds, an overheard phone call between your boss and her mother could tell you more about their relationship than she ever would. Without earbuds, even the silences have something to say; the quiet of concentration is different from the quiet of procrastination.
And there is information in restaurant noise, depending on who is in the room and why they are there. There is the skipping, questioning rhythm of flirtation; the confident bleat of people showing off money; the squawk of debate. People getting to know each other are loud in one way, and old friends are loud in a completely different way. A table of six men on the Lower East Side vibrates at one frequency, and a table of six women on the Upper West Side at another.
Even if our ears aren’t acute enough to perform a detailed sociological analysis of the room, they can make out one message in the throb. It is a very old sound, the sound of people who decided to sit in the same sheltered space for a few hours, with food and drink in front of them, their family or friends at their side, and forget about the snarling beasts they battled all day.
Restaurants are among the last remaining places where groups of humans still sound the same way they did before the age of Auto-Tune and deep fakes. As of yet, nobody has figured out how to slice and splice and manipulate the way we respond to one another when we’re having fun together. That’s the signal in the noise.