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No Appetite for Noise

Video
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/washingtonpost.com

His trickiest assignment so far was revamping Black's Bar and Kitchen in Bethesda. Only after a glass-wrapped wine room was in place and a room-length, glass-fronted mural was hung, did Dwight discover that their angles and surfaces bounced noise from one to the other, an effect known as slap-back. To catch the excess sound, the architect hung four box-shaped acoustical panels wrapped in fabric. The design, he half-jokes, is "ninety-nine percent functional, one percent decorative." With a sound level registering about 77 decibels on a weeknight, however, patrons still have to raise their voices.

Dwight says the vast majority of his clients want to know, "What can we do to make this quiet?" Or at least quieter. His arsenal of noise busters at Proof, the wine-themed restaurant in Penn Quarter, includes acoustic panels in the ceiling, high leather banquettes and a brick wall that diffuses sound by scattering sound waves. But the restaurant still measures in at 80 decibels on a typically busy weekend. At the nearby PS 7's (70 decibels), the bar is completely separated from the main dining room, which is broken up into smaller areas. To prevent a ruckus in the new tasting room at BlackSalt in Palisades, Dwight installed a floor-to-ceiling padded banquette.

Still, it's not easy for restaurant owners to think about details they can't see, and a lot of noise issues are discovered only after a restaurant opens for business. Regulars of the late, loftlike -- and initially ear-splitting -- Viridian in Logan Circle were amused to find that the undersides of their table were subsequently covered with egg crate-type foam to help absorb the clamor. The padding helped lower Viridian's volume before the restaurant closed for non-noise reasons.

Some restaurants want the volume turned up. One of the few attempts at noise reduction at the new Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert is a glass partition separating the bar from the dining room. General manager Gonzague Muchery says the restaurant's casual concept demands a certain liveliness in the room, which measured an uncomfortable 80 decibels in a recent sound check. Like other restaurants, Westend Bistro has installed a sophisticated sound system and serenades its patrons with music that is programmed to start mellow and get jazzier as the night wears on. The trouble is, once you fill the place with diners, it's hard to tell what's playing.

Even so, Muchery doesn't think the noise at Westend Bistro is a problem. He says he hasn't received a single complaint about it since the restaurant opened.

EXPOSURE TO NOISE MAY BE HARDEST ON RESTAURANT WORKERS, who spend more time in a dining room than do the people they wait on. "Theoretically," says Robert W. Sweetow, director of audiology and professor of otolaryngology at the University of California in San Francisco, "the sound levels over time are loud enough to get impaired hearing." (Otolaryngology is the branch of medicine dealing with ear, nose and throat disorders.)

Noisy restaurants affect more than just the ears. Loud sounds can elevate blood pressure, increase breathing rates, intensify the effects of alcohol and make sleep difficult -- even after the noise ceases. At certain elevated levels, some people can experience dizziness and even nausea.

I never felt lightheaded or sick to my stomach at Zaytinya, one of the loudest restaurants in the city, but I did find myself eating faster than usual, raising my voice to be heard and assuming the posture of the Hunchback of Notre Dame as I bent into the table to hear what my tablemates were saying. Wang and Stehmer are strangers to me and to each other. I invited them to restaurant hop as I measured decibel levels in several popular restaurants because they are young and should theoretically be more tolerant of raucous dining spots. But both find restaurant noise just as annoying as do older participants in my online chats.

Wang is a paralegal with the Justice Department who knows Zaytinya well, having celebrated her 2004 graduation from the University of Maryland there -- and been unable to hear much of what her family said. Stehmer is a temporary office assistant who says he prefers to eat out in July and August, when dining rooms are less busy and thus quieter.

Zaytinya isn't the only place where I find myself almost shouting to be heard. Excess noise is also the unwelcome accompaniment to the meals served at such popular Washington eating establishments as Hook (which registered 84 decibels); Two Amys (86 decibels during a family-packed Saturday afternoon); and Bistro du Coin (90 decibels -- equal to a lawn mower).

According to Sweetow, sounds louder than 80 decibels are potentially hazardous. Which brings up another side effect of loud restaurants. "You have to ask, what is the emotional impact?" he says. The physician, who treats patients with hearing disorders, says many clients don't go to restaurants for fear of embarrassing themselves, because they can't understand what the waiter is saying or have trouble following a table conversation. "It's a big problem."

An estimated 28 million Americans are hearing-impaired, with hearing loss greater in men, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Wallace, the Falls Church consultant who prefers to cook for her father rather than have him suffer through a noisy restaurant meal, says she wishes waiters would make better eye contact and enunciate their words when they talk to him.


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