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No Appetite for Noise

Noise is becoming an increasingly common complaint from diners, so we set out on a recent Friday to document the difference a few decibels makes. Can you hear the difference between these three Washington restaurants? Video by Julia Beizer/washingtonpost.comEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/

"Thank you for bringing up something that's been bothering me for years -- the increased noise in restaurants," someone else chimed in. "I'm not just talking about those ubiquitous chains with their warehouse construction where everything echoes; [noise is] everywhere, it seems. And I hate it! I hate having to shout at the person next to me and not to be able to communicate without everyone at surrounding tables being aware of everything I say. Yet restaurateurs, and in some cases restaurant critics, defend the noise as 'exciting,' 'energetic,' etc., and insist that young people like it. I bet not all of them do. And, even if they do, is that a reason to alienate such a large segment of the dining population?"

The most compelling complaint came from Ron Brown, who told me that restaurant noise had drowned out his attempt to get his girlfriend to say "yes."

Brown, a 35-year-old senior finance manager at a Washington nonprofit, planned to propose to Rebecca Oser at Central Michel Richard downtown just before Valentine's Day. Fueled by a few drinks, Brown says, he pulled out a gift-wrapped box containing a sapphire ring from his jacket pocket before the dessert course. It should have been a memorable moment. Instead, Brown found himself competing for Oser's attention with a bustling open kitchen, CNN anchors on overhead TVs and a conversation at the next table that got louder when another person walked over to say hello.

Despite the distractions, Brown popped the question: Rebecca, will you marry me? He's not sure if he actually heard the reply, but he got the response he was looking for. Oser, a 29-year-old project director, slipped on the ring and came around the table to sit beside him.

Still, neither of them was satisfied with the way the big moment unfolded. "It was the wrong place to propose," says Brown. The next morning, he repeated his invitation "in a more romantic manner."

Oser said yes, again. This time, Brown got the message loud and clear.

While his story is unique, the manner in which loud restaurants affect diners isn't. In ways major and minor, consumers are changing their routines to avoid being subjected to cacophony when they eat out.

Take Emily Wallace, 30, a consultant based in Falls Church. Wallace says she thinks she's becoming a better cook because restaurants are so noisy. She says she can no longer take her hearing-impaired father, a spry 60, to some of his favorite steakhouses. "Unfortunately, there are so many places we can't take him. So I cook more at home." She keeps a mental list of what's quiet (Capital Grille in Penn Quarter, but only after prime time; Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill, but only in the back area) and what's not (Ray's the Steaks in Arlington).

Eileen Harrington, 55, is a big fan of the food at Rasika, a contemporary Indian destination in Penn Quarter. But the Washington lawyer finds the restaurant so "intensely noisy" that she sits down to eat there only during off hours or if the manager can find a spot for her in an enclosed area off to the side. Other-wise, says the deputy director of consumer protection for the Federal Trade Commission, "I do carryout 90 percent of the time."

ACCORDING TO THE ZAGAT SURVEY, whose familiar burgundy restaurant guides cover 42 markets throughout the United States, noise ranks second, just behind service, as the response to the query: "What irritates you most about dining out?"

"A certain level of noise people consider to be exciting or good energy," says Tim Zagat, the guide's founder. "Once it gets so loud you can't hear yourself chew, it's over the top."

The cause of the clatter is just about everywhere a diner glances these days. In a restaurant's hard floors. On its naked tables. At the high ceilings. In other words, the blame for all the noise comes from the clean, slick and modern look favored by so many restaurant operators and their customers, says Griz Dwight, who has designed 20 or so interiors as an employee of the Washington-based Adamstein & Demetriou Architects and for his five-year-old firm, GrizForm Design.

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