Restaurants

Finally, restaurateurs think about how noise affects taste

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

Betsy Andrews, SevenFiftyDaily, reports on “[n]ew research [that] is causing restaurant and bar owners to rethink noise control in their venues.” Andrews writes about Jim Meehan, a forward thinking bar owner, who “wanted a place where he could hear.” So Meehan hired Scott McNiece, the founder of the Chicago-based company Uncanned Music, who designs acoustics for restaurants.

The result was a space where “[t]he muted sound helps patrons relax and focus, not only on their companions but on Meehan’s cocktails.”  Meehan is pleased as is his business partner, Kevin Heisner, who believes noise “dings not just moods but palates.”  And Andrews dives into the world of the science of dining, introducing us to the researchers who are discovering that noise does affect taste.

But the most exciting bit of news from the piece comes at the end, when Andrews speaks to Dallas architect Rick Carrell, whose firm has designed spaces for large chain clients like Panera Bread and Starbucks. Carrell tells Andrews that, “[c]lients are very concerned with noise now. They don’t see it as a motivator like they did 10 years ago.”

Thank goodness.  It’s about time.

Click the link above to read the entire article.

Groundbreaking research proves restaurants are too noisy

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

New York based researcher Greg Scott presented a groundbreaking study Tuesday, December 5th, at the 174th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mr. Scott reported actual decibel measurements, obtained using the free IOS SoundPrint app he developed, on almost 2,000 restaurants and bars in New York City. The average sound level was 78 A-weighted decibels (dBA) in restaurants, and 81 dBA in bars.

Even people with normal hearing can’t understand speech if the ambient noise is above 75 dBA, which is also the auditory injury threshold (the noise level at which hearing damage begins). People with moderate hearing loss–25-40 dB decrement in hearing–need ambient noise lower than 60 dBA to be able to understand speech.

The SoundPrint app is easy to use and can help find quieter restaurants and the rare quiet bar. But it is clear to me–as I stated in my own talk, which preceded Greg’s–that high ambient noise in restaurants and retail stores is a disability rights issue for people with hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees people with disabilities the full and equal enjoyment of places of public accommodation, which are basically any facility open to the public. If one can’t hear in a noisy place, one’s ADA rights are being violated. It is likely that legal action will be required to make these places 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.

Another reason to avoid fast food and chain restaurants

Photo credit: Mike Mozart licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

My wife and I don’t eat in restaurants much anymore–the vast majority are just too noisy to enjoy both the meal and the conversation–and we don’t patronize fast food or chain restaurants. Burgers and fries and sodas are just not healthy food, and I try to stay healthy.

But for those who do, according to Culture Cheat Sheet noise is a major problem, joining a list of complaints that includes dirty spaces, bad service, and bad food. Culture Cheat Sheet cobbled together survey results from Consumer Reports, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, and Temkin Experience Ratings to come up with their report on the most hated restaurant and fast food chains.

Most fast food and chain restaurants use a formula of tasty but unhealthy food with too much fat, too much sugar, too much salt, and too many calories at a relatively low price to lure customers.

Research shows a clear correlation between the density of fast food restaurants in neighborhoods–largely poor neighborhoods populated by African-American and Hispanic people–and obesity. The epidemic of obesity in the U.S. is related to changes in eating patterns–fast food, sugary sodas, bigger portions–and decreased exercise.

But now it appears that these restaurants also serve up a side order of hearing loss with their food. Because noise is causing an epidemic of noise-induced hearing loss, too.

And that’s another reason to avoid these 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.

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.