Noisy Restaurants: How Much Noise is Too Much?

Jess Thomson adds her voice to the growing clamor over noise in Seattle’s restaurants

It’s our 11th wedding anniversary. We want a restaurant close to home and delicious, so we try Mkt., one of the most recent in a swath of Ethan Stowell openings and, my hairdresser swore, the chef’s best. But somewhere between wrestling our way through the tiny door and digging into a foie gras special, a cook started grinding coffee beans inside my eardrum. There was a piercing crash of plates (I instinctively lifted my feet), and the music was turned up. So much for a quiet dinner. Who made this place so noisy, anyway?

Sound is a touchy subject. We want it all: We want restaurants that feel hip and lively, but we want to have private conversations, too. Unfortunately, from a design standpoint, interiors with clean lines and a modern aesthetic with lots of wood and concrete are more in style, but using hard surfaces turns up the volume. Soft elements, such as carpet and drapes, muffle sound, but when was the last time you commented on a new restaurant’s great valences? Upholstery often feels stodgy and dated. And quiet—that holy grail of restaurant perfection for some—can sound the death knell of existence for others. All this means restaurant owners—those responsible for building restaurants to our sometimes maddeningly exact specifications—have to deal with finding just the right level of noise before, during and after a restaurant’s opening.

“Sound is a double-edged sword in restaurants,” says Stowell, whose nine Seattle restaurants are known as being among the city’s loudest. “Having a reasonable noise level is crucial for business. A restaurant has to be loud enough, because no one goes to restaurants that are too quiet. But of course, every owner faces noise complaints. And you don’t want your clientele to be uncomfortable.”

Stowell doesn’t design his restaurants with an optimum sound level in mind, but waits to see how the sound situation plays out once a restaurant opens. For example, at Red Cow, his new steak frites spot in Madrona, Stowell says he used previous experience to assess the noise level from the day it opened. “We work backwards with sound protection,” he explains, referring to the sound-absorbing paneling many restaurants install in an effort to strike the right balance. At 8:30 p.m. on a Friday night, he wants to hear a loud din that reflects a spot’s popularity, but hates the kind of sharp noises that interrupt conversation.

Soundproofing is also a financial decision for restaurateurs. This spring, Stowell added soundproofing in stages at Red Cow, first in hidden spots—under tables and behind mirrors and banquettes—and then in more obvious places, like on the ceiling. He also tries to keep in mind that a place is usually noisiest when it first opens. How to Cook a Wolf, for example, his 7-year-old Queen Anne restaurant, has reached what he calls the ideal noise level. Even with the same interior, he receives fewer noise complaints than he did right when the place opened. It’s still busy. It’s just no longer as busy as it was when it was new.

Though Stowell says he spent almost $10,000 to soundproof Red Cow, he recognizes this isn’t always an option for smaller spots. Ironically, though, more diminutive restaurants—embraced by chefs and owners because they posit a much lower financial risk—are often the loudest. Take Mkt. That coffee grinder wasn’t a special anniversary gift meant just for us; the spot is small, so everyone hears everything.

Eric Hentz, owner of Mallet, a Seattle-based design-and-build firm with restaurant clients, says no owner is actually designing a restaurant to be noisy, though they want it to be busy. Owners have finite budgets and they need to navigate a complex set of choices when building restaurants. Their first priority is to open; they often need to come back after the fact and address any acoustic problems. “They want [the noise level] to generally appeal to a wide demographic, but project budgets are such that people tend to cut sound attenuation out of the design approach very early on when they see how much it costs,” he explains. Hentz estimates good noise reduction costs from $5 to $10 per square foot, which translates to between $15,000 and $30,000 for a large restaurant. It’s just not always possible.

But how does one define “loud”? In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified how much noise was too much and temporarily regulated it. At the time, the EPA recommended limiting indoor noise to 45 decibels. By contrast, people in general consider a “safe” level of music volume to be the equivalent of 85 decibels.

For reference: Measured with a random, totally unscientific noise-level meter I downloaded for free on my smartphone, a quiet home registers about 40 decibels. I checked in with the app off and on for a month. My library hit 60 when the librarian’s heels clicked across the floor. Art, a plushly decorated restaurant in the Four Seasons with soft chairs, step-muffling carpet and long curtains, came in at a calm 65. Cornuto, a pizza spot on Phinney Ridge with lots of hard surfaces and sharp edges, measured 77 on Wednesday night, when it was almost empty. Oddfellows was at 80—interestingly, both empty and full, which Hentz attributes to how people use that particular space. (Many people work and hold meetings at Oddfellows; the tables are so close together that people tend to keep their voices down.) At noon on a Monday, La Carta de Oaxaca, which is basically a box with hard surfaces, clocked in at 84.

On a Saturday night around 7 p.m., The Walrus and the Carpenter registered a whopping 100—think motorcycles, table saws or your neighbor’s power mower. Most of us would associate power mowers with loud noise, yet in Seattle, where lines beget lines, many of us have waited happily in the snake that runs down the hallway outside Walrus, begging for a table so we can be part of the sound that bounces from the speakers to the marble countertops. Many people go home, laud the food, whine about the noise and run back the next week.

This raises an obvious question: Is anyone actually complaining about noise to restaurant owners? According to Renee Erickson, owner of The Walrus and the Carpenter, not really. She says Walrus was never intended to be quiet. “You’re not going to go to a Chinese restaurant for French food,” she says. “It’s 720 square feet. If people want a quiet restaurant, they’re not going to go to a small, busy bar.” In other words, at Walrus, people get what they expect—bumping music and bustling conversation and laughter.
You may not like it when your ears pop, but you don’t complain about the altitude on an airplane.

Erickson, who also owns Boat Street Cafe, The Whale Wins and Barnacle, says that she occasionally gets noise complaints at the much quieter Boat Street—which is more upscale and has some accidental sound-absorbing features, such as a ceiling full of upside-down umbrellas—but those are made on weekend nights, when patrons drink more (and talk more and giggle more, shame on them).

Still, Boat Street isn’t considered fine dining. But Art is, says Jelle Vandenbroucke, the restaurant’s chef. “More than anything else, the Four Seasons is about service,” he says. “Part of that service is giving people a quiet space.” Art changes its music selections based on the time of day and trains servers on how to interrupt conversation. In general, Art’s service makes people feel good, so, Vandenbroucke argues, the hip factor is less crucial.

“My goal is to make everyone happy, but that is not always possible,” Erickson explains. Many people want noise. “Think about what makes a dinner party special.Having people talk and laugh in your house makes it noisier. Noise means vibrancy, and it means fun.”

People feel happier and more comfortable in a place with notable din, so din we get. But for many owners, it’s hard to escape the inevitable whiners. No one wants to single out the mature crowd, but all of the six chefs I spoke with brought up the challenge of dining in his or her own restaurants with their parents. Hentz, 45, says middle-age people have a harder time in acoustically bright spaces, and it gets worse with age. Older diners—who are, in general, more affluent people, and more likely to visit restaurants—don’t want to pair their rosé with a rave scene, or go home hoarse and frustrated.

Since none of the owners I spoke with can say it without sounding like jerks, I will: If you like quiet restaurants, go to quiet restaurants. Liking good food doesn’t mean you have to like noise. If you want to speak with your significant other on your anniversary, the onus is on you to make the right choice. Perhaps the term “fine dining” should be changed to “quiet dining.”
I love to hate noise. But ultimately, I agree that it’s required to make a place feel popular (and I have a theory that it makes me drink more). Although our meal at Mkt. wasn’t exactly what I anticipated, I’ll go back, perhaps on a Wednesday night, when people are less drunk and chatty. I might even order coffee. I’ll just never invite my in-laws.

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