Is restaurant noise a problem?

Photo credit: James Palinsad licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Is restaurant noise a problem? I think so, and I’m not the only one who does. According to the Zagat surveys over the last several years, noise is the first or second most common complaint of restaurant patrons. Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema also thinks restaurant noise is a problem, and give decibel readings and comments about noise in his reviews.

But New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, responding to a blog post that I had sent him doesn’t think so.

I may be making a mistake in writing this–there’s an old adage that one shouldn’t argue with anyone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton–but I feel compelled to reply.

Wells’ argument, in a nutshell, is that he really doesn’t think restaurant noise is a problem and generally likes louder restaurants. Wells says that he doesn’t have trouble conversing in a noisy restaurant, and thinks restaurant noise is a sign of people having a good time.  Wells opines that people prefer livelier restaurants and are uncomfortable with silence. In the end, he thinks the problem may be that restaurants may be the only place in modern life where we can’t control the noise, and that bothers people. But he believes restaurant noise is a feature, not a bug, and restaurant noise is the happy sound of people having a good time sharing a meal with each other.

I disagree, of course. I live in Los Angeles, not New York, so it’s possible that there are differences between the coasts, but I don’t think so. I think restaurant noise is a problem and prefer quieter restaurants where I can talk with my dining companions. Unfortunately, they are almost impossible to find. I have tinnitus and hyperacusis, so loud restaurants are downright painful for me. Restaurants are noisy by design, whether the culprit is an open kitchens, hard surfaces, or tables crowded together in a low-ceilinged room, often accompanied by background music turned up to rock concert levels. Yes, noise can create a sense of action or excitement. and hospitality literature shows that restaurant noise increases food and drink sales and turnover. But Zagat surveys show that many diners find restaurant noise to be a problem. I think many patrons would prefer quieter restaurants. And no, it’s not a control issue, it’s a comfort issue. We don’t want silence, we want enough quiet so we can enjoy the food and the conversation without damaging our hearing.

I usually don’t read the online comments to newspaper articles, but a few of my noise contacts suggested that I look at the comments to Wells’ piece. I’m glad I did. On Thursday morning there were over 876 comments and the overwhelming percentage–approximately 95%–agreeed with me that restaurant noise is a problem. Several commenters raised the same concerns.  Namely, that restaurant noise is a problem for those with hearing loss, especially older people, whether they wear hearing aids or not, restaurants don’t have to be as noisy as they are, European restaurants are much quieter, and going to a restaurant for a meal is about the food and conversation. Others stated that they walk out of noisy restaurants or won’t return to them, and many were aware that noise is used deliberately to reduce time spent at the table and to increase alcohol sales.

Mr. Wells column is titled “Is Restaurant Noise A Crime? Our Critic Mounts a Ringing Defense.” No, restaurant noise is not a crime, but restaurant noise is a major disability rights issue for those with hearing loss and other auditory and non-auditory disorders. If enough of us would complain to elected officials about restaurant noise and quiet restaurant laws are passed–or if a sympathetic plaintiff finds a good disability rights lawyer–restaurant noise could soon be a violation of the law. And for the sake of everyone’s dining comfort and auditory health, I hope that day is very soon.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

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