Insidious indoor noise

Do you ever wonder why restaurants are so loud?  Don’t assume it’s due to poor design, because it may be deliberate.  Peggy Hernandez, writing for the Boston Globe, found that for some restaurant owners, striking the right noise level is key.  But while she found some restaurant owners who were addressing unnecessary noise by installing professional soundproofing, others, “aiming for a lively atmosphere,” actively encouraged the party atmosphere. “We wanted bustling energy, conviviality, and a party feel,” says Tony Maws, chef and owner of The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, in Somerville.”  Based on my experience, Maws is not alone,  But it seems odd that a restaurant owner would deliberately maintain a loud space when you consider that, “[t]he 2014 Zagat Boston Restaurants Survey found restaurant noise level to be the number-one irritatant about dining out.”  The Zagats survey added that “[o]ver 70 percent of those surveyed avoid restaurants that are too loud…[with] similar results in New York City.”  So why would restauranteurs turn up the volume, or ignore it, when noise level is a common complaint?

Cara Buckley, writing for the New York Times on Indoor noise in New York restaurants and retail stores, reported that “[s]ome customers like the loudness. Younger people can withstand loud music longer, while older ones may run from it, helping proprietors maintain a youthful clientele and a fresh image.”  Further, “[s]ome research has shown that people drink more when music is loud; one study found that people chewed faster when tempos were sped up.”  So to maintain a “fresh image” or make a few more dollars, some restaurant owners deliberately expose their customers and employees to damaging loud noise.  The damage is not limited to hyperacusis, tinnitus, or hearing loss, as the article notes, “repeated exposure to loud noise often damages hearing and has been linked to higher levels of stress, hypertension and heart disease.”

The article includes three paragraphs that highlight the problem facing those of us who want restaurants and other spaces to lower the volume.  Namely, there are customers who enjoy the din:

Recent changes in restaurant design have also increased sound levels. The trend of making restaurants look like brasseries and bars to resemble speakeasies has bred an abundance of hard surfaces that can reflect and amplify sound: ceramic tiles, concrete floors and tin ceilings. This despite the fact that one of the biggest customer complaints about restaurants, according to Zagat, is noise. Yet those who like noisy places said they were energizing and gave them a sense that they were where it’s at.

Maria Vasquez, 22, a design student who spends time at Lavo — home to the 96 decibel levels and migraine-afflicted waitress — said she found the cacophony there fun. Tiffany Trifilio, 26, a fashion analyst who frequents the Standard Hotel’s Biergarten, said the din made her feel part of the crowd. And Katherine Gold, 35, who often stays at home with her baby, reveled in Lavo’s noise one recent night. “I spend my days in my apartment and at Central Park,” she said. “I have enough quiet.”

Patrons of spin classes also said the din was part of the draw. The pounding music helped them forget they were exercising, they said, and made them feel they were reliving the club days of younger years.

Loud music is fun and invigorating for some.  Sadly, by the time the young women in the NY Times story begin to experience hearing loss, or go home one night with ringing in their ears that never goes away, it may be too late to do anything about it.

One way to stop this madness is to offer incentives to responsible business owners who monitor sound levels.  And there is no bigger incentive than knowing that attention to this one detail can drive more foot traffic through their doors.  To that end, keep an eye on this space.  In the next few months we will be posting reviews of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, parks, and other places around Manhattan where the focus will be on sound quality.  Food quality, service, and other factors are obviously important considerations when picking a restaurant, for example, but we will not be posting typical reviews.  Rather, at most each review will include a brief description about the quality of the food, drink, or goods offered, decor, and service of each reveiwed place, but the emphasis will be on a simple standard: can you have a conversation in the space without raising your voice.  Over time, we hope to have a map that offers many options for those seeking  reasonably quiet spaces in every neighborhood in Manhattan. 

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the article links.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.

Comments (2)

  1. Doug Slay

    I am glad someone is doing something about this!

    Reply
    1. GMB (Post author)

      Hi Doug,
      Check out The Quiet Coalition, a nonprofit organization for which I am a co-founder, to learn more about our efforts to address noise as a health issue. Also, if you live or travel to NYC, check out Quiet City Map, our sister site, for reviews of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and other spaces based on noise level.

      G.M. Briggs, Editor

      Reply

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