Restaurants

The wrong answer to the restaurant noise problem

Photo credit: Jeremy Keith licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from the United Kingdom discusses expensive new headphones which can help someone understand conversations in a noisy restaurant.

This is the wrong answer to the restaurant noise problem.

Why should someone have to spend £400–about $530 at current exchange rates–just to be able to understand a conversation in a restaurant in London?

The right answer is making restaurants quieter, by reducing background music levels and adding sound-absorbing materials, so everyone can have a conversation without straining to speak or to be heard.

Noisy restaurants are a major disability rights issue for those with hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. And it is an important issue for older Americans, many of whom have significant (25-40 decibel) hearing loss.

I will be speaking about the problem of restaurant noise at the December 2017 meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans.

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.

Noisy restaurants irk Brits

Photo credit: Garry Knight licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Trying to make restaurants quieter was my first noise activist effort almost three years ago. When I started, I was a lonely voice but now–whether because more people are aware of noise as a problem, or because restaurants are getting noisier–the ubiquitous problem of restaurant noise is receiving almost weekly media attention here in the U.S. and abroad. In fact, two British dailies recently wrote about restaurant noise in the same 24-hour period, spurred on by a campaign against noise by the British nonprofit Action on Hearing Loss. [Note: You must register to read either story, but registration is free.]

No one likes regulations, but when there are almost no quiet restaurants around, advising people to avoid noisy restaurants and dine only at quiet ones isn’t a realistic option.

But if enough people complain to enough elected officials, perhaps indoor quiet laws will be passed.

Sound impossible?  Well that’s how restaurants, and then bars and workplaces, became smoke free. One city introduced a law banning smoking in restaurants, and when others saw that the sky didn’t fall, they adopted these laws, too.

I’m confident that when the public realizes that deafening noise levels in restaurants are as bad for their hearing (and probably their balance as well) as secondhand smoke is for their heart and lungs, they will demand quieter restaurants.

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.

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.

Noisy restaurants in the news again

Photo credit: Matt Biddulph licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Two reports this week, one from the United Kingdom and one from Baton Rouge, again highlight the problem of noisy restaurants.

Restaurateurs say that a quiet restaurant is a dead or dying one. They want their places to be lively. But there’s a difference between a lively restaurant with spirited conversations going on among the diners, and one that is deafeningly loud, making it impossible to converse with one’s dining companions.

Yesterday, while looking for another piece of information in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) classic 1974 “Noise Levels Report” Information on Levels of Environmental Noise Requisite to Protect Public Health and Welfare with an Adequate Margin of Safety (EPA, 1974). I came across Table D-10, which I had missed on an earlier reading.

EPA Recommended Acceptable Noise Levels for Restaurants  (Click to enlarge)

It turns out that the EPA recommends that restaurants be very quiet, only about 50-60 decibels. These days, that’s almost “library quiet”. In fact, some months ago I measured the sound level to be approximately 45 dBA in the main circulation room of my local library!

So concern about appropriate restaurant noise levels is not a new concern. It’s decades old.

Some have suggested that diners should walk out of noisy restaurants, or boycott them. But in many cities, if we did that, we would never eat in a restaurant. There just aren’t any quiet ones. And as long as the restaurants are full, there is no incentive for them to become quieter.

I don’t know about the UK, but in the U.S., lawsuits under disability rights laws may be the only way restaurants will become quieter.

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.

The NIH recognizes noisy restaurants are a problem

Photo credit: Alan Light licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

With this web content posted last year as part of its Dangerous Decibels program, the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health, finally recognizes that restaurant noise is a problem. Unfortunately, NIDCD persists in stating that

Research shows that long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause noise-induced hearing loss. Signs of having been exposed to too much noise include not hearing clearly or having ringing in your ears after leaving a noisy environment.

We disagree. By the time one can’t hear clearly or experiences tinnitus, it’s too late–permanent hearing damage has occurred. The damage occurs because 85 decibels is not a safe noise level for the public. As I wrote in the American Journal of Public Health, the only evidence-based safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is 70 decibels time-weighted average for a 24-hour period. The 85 decibel standard NIDCD relies on is an occupational noise exposure level, and that standard fails to prevent hearing loss in all exposed workers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health agrees, and the auditory injury threshold, discussed by Flamme, et al., is only 75-78 A-weighted decibels (dBA).

A simple rule to protect hearing is “if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud.” If you can’t carry on a normal conversation without straining to speak or to be heard, the ambient noise level is above 75 dBA (see figure D-1, “Information on Levels of Environmental Noise Requisite to Protect Public Health and Welfare with an Adequate Margin of Safety”) and auditory damage is occurring. And, unfortunately, many if not most restaurants are noisier than 75 dBA.

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.

Noisy restaurants redux

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

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Both my parents served in the U.S. Army in World War II, met while in the service, and married shortly after the war ended. I was born a few years later. So I am a “baby boomer,” but I’m not a regular reader of BOOMER Magazine. That said, this article in BOOMER Magazine about noisy restaurants clearly defines the issue, even as it fails to deliver the right solutions.

The article talks about the heartbeat of a restaurant, i.e., the unique ambience. Unfortunately, in many restaurants that heartbeat is far too loud. The problem is that many baby boomers have significant (25-40 decibel) hearing loss, which makes it impossible to understand speech in a noisy environment. And in many cases, noise levels in restaurants and bars are loud enough to cause further hearing loss, discomfort, and even pain.

Many of us boomers are in our mid to late 60s. We may think of ourselves as “forever young,” but the reality is that (with graying and/or thinning hair, thickening middles, and bifocals) we are not the “demographic” that marketers and retailers want, even if many of us have a lot more money and a lot more time in which to spend it that younger people do. For many baby boomers our mortgages are paid off, the kids are done with college, and we’ve funded our retirements. And members of this demographic are looking for restaurants in which we can enjoy a meal AND a conversation with family and friends. But as long as the restaurants are busy–and they sure were in west Los Angeles last night–the restaurateurs and barkeeps have no reason to make things quieter.

This December I will be speaking on the disability rights aspects of ambient noise at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans. It’s my position that the answer to excessive restaurant noise isn’t eating earlier, or choosing a quieter restaurant (a near impossibility in many cities, including mine), or grinning and bearing it, as BOOMER Magazine suggests, it’s making restaurants quieter. In many cases, this doesn’t cost anything: just turn down–or turn off–the music!

I’m a doctor with tinnitus and hyperacusis, not a lawyer. But it seems to me that those of us with partial hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of having a disability. The ADA defines an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” If I’m correct, ADA regulations should require “places of public accommodation”–including restaurants and bars–to be quiet enough to allow those with auditory disorders to converse while enjoying a meal or a drink. That is, people with partial hearing loss, tinnitus, and/or hyperacusis should be protected under the ADA.

For those concerned that indoor quiet laws will hurt business, I turn to the example of no-smoking laws that were imposed on restaurants and bars. Restaurant proprietors and especially bar owners foresaw calamity, but a multitude of studies showed no impact on revenues. My guess is that if some smokers chose not to go to restaurants or bars, they were replaced by those who didn’t want a side order of secondhand smoke with their steak frites. Or the smokers learned to smoke before or after dinner, or to step outside if they wanted to smoke. And that’s what I predict will happen when indoor quiet laws are passed: diners will still go to restaurants, maybe even more of them.

Until reason prevails and restaurants are required to meet reasonable decibel limits, we must ask restaurant owners and managers to turn down the volume.  And if they want our business, they will do it. But what if our requests fall on deaf ears? The next step may be pursuing legal remedies under the ADA to require restaurants to provide a soundscape that protects everyone’s ears.

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.

Are quiet restaurants only for the rich?

seems to think so, as she writes that “[i]n some places, quiet is becoming a luxury amenity.” Ferst comes to this conclusion after speaking to acoustic engineering firms and a handful of restaurateurs, including Alex Stupak, the owner of Empellon Midtown. When Stupak opened Empellon Midtown he considered the sound quality–and spent real money on sound absorption panels–because of a review of his “scrappier” downtown space that praised the food while noting the loud music and “shouty” guests. So in went the sound absorption panels, but only at his pricier midtown space.

Ferst writes about the conventional wisdom that loud music in restaurants started with the opening of Babbo in 1998, “when Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich decided to play the music the kitchen listened to in the dining room.” She quotes Batali, who said that:

We played music that we liked at full volume. We didn’t do it to piss people off. We did it to set a mood.

But it’s obvious that Batali did piss some people off, however unintended. Unfortunately, the noise levels in New York City restaurants did not get serious attention until 2013, when Adam Platt, NY Magazine’s restaurant critic, wrote, “Why Restaurants Are Louder Than Ever.” And what was the reaction? Ferst writes that “restaurateurs began to dial back the noise — at least at places where comfort is an integral part of the experience and there’s money to spend on a build-out.” The rest of Ferst’s piece focuses on the measures taken in tonier restaurants to ensure that guests don’t get a side of tinnitus with their overpriced meal.

But what about the rest of us? At Alex Stupak’s downtown space, Empellon Al Pastor, Stupak says that “he’s trying to make it ‘as loud as humanly possible on purpose.'” Why? Because it’s meant to be a place for “drinking and a party.” Says Stupak, “We invested in the best speakers and amplifiers. We want them to get drunk.”

Note to self: never ever go to Empellon Al Pastor. And you know what? Might as well skip Empellon Midtown too, because there is no reason to reward someone who worries about whether his pricier restaurant is acoustically pleasing to his wealthier patrons, but thinks it’s okay to make his restaurant for commoners “as loud as humanly possible on purpose.” That is, at Silencity we believe the best way to encourage restaurateurs to lower the noise level–and protect your hearing–is to refuse to eat at restaurants that are too loud or to hand over your money to a restaurateur who is indifferent to noise.

While it may be true that higher end restaurants are more likely to address noise in their restaurants, you can find comfortable places to eat or drink in most cities. It takes some effort, but they exist. If you are lucky, your local restaurant reviewers will note the loudness of restaurants they review.  And if you live or work in New York City and want to know which restaurants are safer for your ears, you’re in luck! Our sister site, Quiet City Maps, posts reviews of restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and other spaces where you can have a nosh or a drink and a conversation.

UK charity takes on restaurant noise

Photo credit: Quiet City Maps

Photo credit: Quiet City Maps

Action on Hearing Loss launched Speak Easy, its campaign that asked restaurants, cafes, and pubs “to take noise off the menu,” this past summer.  Last week, the organization announced that its free Speak Easy Campaign Pack is available to the public.  The pack includes:

  • Discreet, supportive materials to hand over to staff or leave with your bill.
  • Ideas for sending effective feedback.
  • A thumb prop for expressing your views on social media.

Action on Hearing Loss understands that “[r]epeat customers are the lifeblood of restaurants, cafes and pubs,” and that millions of people would like to enjoy a meal or drink out at a quieter venue.  Rather than waiting for places to discover this underserved market, they are giving Brits the tools they need to demand quieter options.

Although there isn’t a similar campaign in the U.S.–yet–readers who live or work in New York City can find quieter venues by visiting our sister site, Quiet City Maps, which reviews and rates the noise level and comfortability of New York City restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and more.  Whether you’re at your desk planning a night out with friends, or on your smart phone looking for a nearby quiet place, Quiet City Maps can help you quickly find the perfect place to eat, drink, and have a conversation!

Why do elderly people with otherwise normal hearing have difficulty hearing some conversations?

Background noise to blame for the elderly being unable to keep up with conversations.  The Express reports on a University of Maryland study that found that “adults aged 61-73 with normal hearing scored significantly worse on speech understanding in noisy environments than adults aged 18-30 with normal hearing.”  The study’s authors stated that the “ageing midbrain and cortex is part of ongoing research into the so-called cocktail party problem, or the brain’s ability to focus on and process a particular stream of speech in the middle of a noisy environment.”  Because many older people who are affected by the “cocktail party problem” have normal hearing, the study notes that talking louder doesn’t help.  If an older person can see the person he or she is speaking to, visual cues can help, as well as the obvious–make the environment quieter.

Sadly, many restaurants, bars, and some coffee shops are just too noisy for older people to be able to hear well and participate in conversation.  Organized efforts to push back against unnecessary noise are gaining a toehold in the public sphere, but more needs to be done.  Until things improve, New Yorkers can find some respite by visiting our sister site, Quiet City Maps, for a guide to New York City’s quieter spaces (and a heads-up for places to avoid).

And don’t forget that if a restaurant or coffee shop is too noisy because of loud music, ask them to lower it.  If they don’t, leave and tell them why you won’t be coming back.  Push back starts with your wallet.

Link via @QuietEdinburgh.

Yet another reason restaurants should lower the volume:

Noisy restaurants could be skewering your taste buds, experts say. Liz Biro, The Indianapolis Star, examines the modern American restaurants’ love affair with noise and the unintended consequence noisier restaurants have on our taste buds.  Biro cites Oxford University experimental psychology professor Charles Spence, author of Noise and Its Impact on the Perception of Food and Drink, who wrote that, “[a] growing body of laboratory-based research now demonstrates that loud background noise can affect the ability to taste food.”  Loud music also “hinders our ability to perceive how much alcohol is in a cocktail,” writes Biro, adding that it causes us to chew faster and drink more, two factors that no doubt are somewhat responsible for the increased noise levels in restaurants.

Biro states that “[c]omplaints about noisy restaurants started rising about a decade ago” when tablecloths, carpeting, and softer music gave way to blaring music and the hard, reflective surfaces favored by restauranteurs seeking an “urban industrial” vibe. She adds that New York City’s Babbo, owned by Mario Batali, set the pace, as the pasta “is served to a hard rock soundtrack like the one chefs prefer in the kitchen.”  While faster chewing turns tables over more quickly, and increased drinking adds to the bottom line, there is another reason restaurants are loud.  Namely, a loud, boisterous spot is seen “lively” and “high energy,” and restauranteurs believe that loud volume  attracts millennials.

But restauranteurs recognize that some places have gotten too loud and they can’t ignore that noise was the number one complaint in the 2014 Zagat’s Dining Trends Survey.  Biro states that restaurants in Indianapolis are listening and taking some measures to reign in noise, but adds that one restaurateur, referring to his two “concepts,” notes that they are “intentionally more lively and a little louder than a normal place would be, although we generally try to make sure it’s not so loud that it interferes with spirited conversation.”

Long and short, until a successful restauranteur in New York City or some other trendsetting place addresses noise in a serious way, restauranteurs nationwide will continue to follow this disturbing trend.  While we wait for reason and taste to prevail, residents and visitors to New York City can go to our sister site, Quiet City Maps, to find restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and other public spaces where you can enjoy a nosh or a drink and have a conversation without screaming.

Thanks to @QuietEdinburgh for the link.