Who is to blame for noisy restaurants?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Noisy restaurants seem to be in the news these days. Almost every week, The Quiet Coalition comes across another article or television report about them. This piece from the Daily Mail is one of the few that provides names and numbers–the names of the restaurants and actual decibel readings from a sound level meter–and the sound levels they reported were loud enough to damage hearing.

What can you do to protect yourself? You don’t need a sound meter to know if it’s too loud (although we encourage everyone to install one on a smart phone–very accurate ones are available). The auditory injury threshold is only 75-78 A-weighted decibels (dBA). If you have to strain to speak or to hear while trying to have a normal conversation at 3-to-4 feet distance–the usual social distance for speaking or dining in the U.S.–the ambient noise is above 75 dBA, and your hearing is being damaged.

And once it’s gone, the only remedy is hearing aids.

So who is to blame for noisy restaurants? This report from Australia doesn’t blame anyone in particular, but suggests the culprit is minimalist design trends. We would add that crowded dining areas, low ceilings, and, of course, background music turned up to rock concert levels do not help.

Before the mass adoption of the industrial look in restaurant design, restaurants used to be carpeted, with drapery covering the windows, upholstered banquettes lining the walls, and white tablecloths covering every table. One went to a restaurant to dine and to converse. It is obvious that design trends have changed dramatically over the last two decades or so. Newer restaurant designs with open kitchens that allow the clanging of pots and pans to be heard in the dining area and hard floor and wall surfaces (e.g., glass, metal, polished cement, and tile) that reflect rather than absorb sound are certainly part of the problem.

As a result, restaurant noise is now the leading complaint of diners in many cities, according to the 2016 Zagat annual survey, and just barely in second place nationally, slightly behind bad service. As the twelve-step programs might say: First, you have to accept that you have a problem.

The important thing is that the problem of restaurant noise is finally being recognized, and now that we know that restaurant noise is a problem, we can start doing something about it. Some have suggested avoiding noisy restaurants or walking out if the restaurant is too noisy. But that isn’t a realistic choice in most cities. If one did that, one would never go to a restaurant. Instead, ask the manager to turn down the volume of amplified music, and if he or she refuses, tell them that you are leaving and will never return, and that you will tell everyone you know to avoid the place. Tell your city council and mayor that you want quieter restaurants. And post accurate and detailed reviews on Yelp, Open Table, and social media. Let the restaurant owner or manager, and those who read restaurant reviews on social media, know that “the food was excellent, but the place was so loud that we are never going back.”

If enough of us complain and demand quieter spaces, then restaurateurs will have to respond. Or they can ignore us at their peril.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

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