An evening out at a restaurant is a social event where most people prefer to actually have a conversation while having a bite to eat, so straining to hear and be heard is an irritant to most customers.
While some restaurant patrons can manage a deafening din, it isn't optimal for most dining experiences. In fact, both Consumer Reports and Zagat have found that customers mark high noise levels as their number one complaint above issues with service, crowds, and food. Moreover, many reviewers are adding "loudness" as a factor when determining a restaurant's overall rating – some even carry decibel meters with them now.
The main culprits of heavy noise levels are flawed trends in restaurant design and good intentions gone awry.
According to New York Magazine, in the late 90s, big city restaurateurs decided that loud establishments created an energy that was critical to attract patrons. So, they began pumping loud music through speakers, thus creating louder conversations, which owners equated to success, while quiet establishments were considered doomed.
Another contributing factor was the move to big rooms with high ceilings, and the removal of carpet and drapes to create an industrial look. Materials like metal, brick, and concrete reflect noise instead of soaking up sound and high ceilings create an echo. In addition, when tables are placed close together, patrons tend to talk louder to be heard over their neighbors, causing the atmosphere to decline to a point that becomes unnerving for most people.
In many respects, high noise levels do still signal success as it is associated with "a buzz," and, most certainly, restaurants want to be buzz-worthy. However, high noise levels not only ruin a dining experience, they are a public health issue to the patrons and to the workers who are regularly exposed to the noise. Noise levels in city restaurants regularly reach 90 decibels, which is the level of a running lawnmower, and people consistently subjected to high decibel levels suffer hearing loss.
Maintaining the perfect ambiance is a tightrope every restaurant owner and manager must walk. Finding a happy median of a place that has spirit and is not a mausoleum, but not so much spirit that customers' ears ring after leaving is key.
Creating the perfect atmosphere might require a decent acoustical engineer or consultant. They are experts in sound-absorbing systems that masquerade as concrete or stone, since minimalist restaurant design and open concepts are still trending. However, hiring a consultant and incorporating sound-controlling materials can be expensive.
Some options, if you cannot afford a consultant or sweeping changes, are to add carpet, curtains, tablecloths or upholstered benches called banquettes. Though these things absorb sound, it can be difficult to match them to your aesthetic.
You might have the best eats in town, but the look, feel, and sound of your restaurant is an even bigger factor for great reviews that bring repeat patrons and new customers through your doors. Investing in good acoustics ensures there is always a buzz, but not noise so loud that it becomes a buzz kill.