Tom Corbett
Ariane Batterberry, Founding Editor/Publisher
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Pilot Light: What Did You Say?

Ariane Batterberry / June 2013

I was reading a small review of The Penrose in New York City under the sobriquet “A Quiet Drink” in the New York Times recently, when I realized that the core of the article was about noise level. “This is an establishment that is known to bring on the noise….” Author Steve Reddicliffe waxes conspirational: “With a simple game plan—a night early in the week, at 7-ish—it can work out just fine. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, the volume is pumped up….” At the end of the article, we find that both food and drink are fine and the check average reasonable.

These days we’re reading—and hearing—more about noise level than ever before. A recent poll showed that after food and service, noise level was most important in the choosing of a restaurant. We even hear about service staff in restaurants with loud music suing for loss of hearing. We hear of a waitress getting such bad headaches that she is prescribed seizure medicine. At one location in New York City, a level of 96 decibels was reached without background music. According to an article appearing in the Times, “OSHA requires workers to wear hearing protection if exposed to 90 decibel noise for eight hours; at 85 decibels, employers must provide ear protection and conduct hearing tests.” Well, how about the poor guest who wants to have a chat, while maintaining healthy ears? This is serious stuff. Will restaurants, which no longer offer toothpicks and matches, have to offer ear plugs?

How did this happen? Restaurateurs stand accused of Machiavellian plots. Research has shown that people drink more and eat more quickly when music is loud. It is thought that noise attracts young people, who withstand it better than older people and often associate it with partying. It will certainly drive away an older clientele, less desirable to some, but with more disposable income. I personally believe that one reason for the racket is that present fashions in decor magnify sound. Bare floors, brick walls, tin ceilings, cloth-less tables all suggest “hip.” This look also presents a symphony of sound-reflecting surfaces. In fact, carpets, tablecloths, and acoustic tiles really do turn a cacophony into a happy buzz.

Background music is more of a problem than most restaurateurs want to face, because taste in music varies enormously and one guest’s delight is another’s irritation. What is certain, though, is that once the noise level in a restaurant reaches that healthy buzz, the music must be turned off because it creates irritation for everyone.

Anthropologists tell us that it was over the campfire, consuming the day’s kill, that our forebearers exchanged the ideas that ultimately led to civilization. If your restaurant is too loud for the exchange of ideas, call in a sound engineer. What is certain is that I’ve recently heard many more complaints about sound level than ever before. Loud restaurants are certainly losing guests, although that sounds like the complaint “the place is so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.” Also, I have noted that noise level complaints have led to a curious phenomenon. Quiet has become associated with success rather than failure, a luxury for which people will pay.

Ariane Batterberry, Founding Editor/Publisher