Popular restaurants in many of the nation's biggest cities have a noise problem.
Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson he first picked up on the trend about 10 years ago. That's when he decided to buy a decibel meter and do some research of his own — and his findings weren't very appetizing.
"Some of the best-known places in the city at that time were serving food in settings with the noise equivalents of garbage disposals and lawnmowers," Sietsema (@tomsietsema) says. "Just for the sake of comparison, 60 decibels is normal conversation. But I was sitting in 80- and 90-decibel environments."
One factor behind the high volume? The way restaurants are being designed. Those beautiful, minimalist spaces that are so in vogue reflect sounds, making it hard to hear your dining companions.
"You've got marble countertops, brick walls, bare walls, undressed tables. There's nothing to absorb the noise," says Sietsema, who's started including decibel counts alongside stars in his restaurant reviews. "Then you throw in some overhead TVs and fashionable open kitchens, you pack a room full of diners — each of whom is forced to talk louder over the din — and you've got even more of a blast."
On factors behind restaurants getting louder
"It's sort of a double-edged sword. Look, no one wants to walk into a mausoleum — restaurants insist energy translates to buzz. But lively, quote-unquote, has its downside. I recall when I did the initial story, one guy wanted to propose to his girlfriend, and the restaurant they were in was so loud he had to get up and sit beside her to make it happen. But I think partly to blame are all these modern design touches: the exposed surfaces and the clean, slick look that's favored by so many designers."
"I'm surprised more places don't offer a side of ear plugs, because I'd certainly bite."Tom Sietsema
On whether restaurateurs are focusing on addressing noise
"In some ways, they are doing that. I'm sort of shaming them every week with my restaurant reviews, because alongside the star ratings, I include decibel counts. Restaurants tell me they're using acoustic panels in seat cushions and things like that to sort of tamp down the noise. But ... our restaurant scene is just exploding here. There's no city, really, that's immune from this problem, by the way. I hear from my peers around the country, noise is a problem in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis — it's everywhere. And again, I think it's because the design, and large numbers of people going to popular restaurants, drinking, none of that helps."
On whether it's in restaurants' best interest to be loud, because it means diners will move in and out faster
"Well there is that. The downside for the diner is that loud sounds can elevate blood pressure, intensify the effects of alcohol, some people even get nauseous. But they also eat faster in noisy environments. I swear I'm developing a hunch because of the leaning in I do when I go out to eat anymore, and I'm surprised more places don't offer a side of ear plugs, because I'd certainly bite."
Also, if you're thinking about visiting the Washington, D.C., area any time soon and are looking for a food recommendation, here's one from Sietsema:
"If you're interested in the mid-Atlantic — and you should be when you're here in Washington, D.C. — a place that I really like is The Dabney," he says. "It's a charming, loud restaurant — at 80 decibels, I have to say. But they really elevate the food, the ingredients from around the area and they do that with everything from the drinks to the bread service to desserts. And I think it's utterly charming, the service is great, and why not eat mid-Atlantic food when you're in the mid-Atlantic?"
This segment aired on January 24, 2019.
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