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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

Sweetow has studied the problems of noise in movie theaters and restaurants (his paper on the latter is titled "I'll Have a Side Order of Earplugs, Please"). Ten years ago, he was tapped to examine noise on the Bay Area dining scene by the San Francisco Chronicle, which subsequently introduced noise ratings in its restaurant reviews.

The newspaper's format uses a series of bells and a bomb to illustrate how loud a restaurant is. The more bells, the noisier the venue. One bell (less than 65 decibels) represents a "pleasantly quiet" room; at the opposite end of the scale, the bomb indicates a restaurant that is 80 decibels or higher, or "too noisy for normal conversation."

But the ratings haven't seemed to have much impact. Michael Bauer, the Chronicle's executive food and wine editor, says restaurants have actually grown louder in the decade since he and his staff began recording results. Like critics in other cities, he blames the design penchant for "warehouse," "industrial" and "raw" spaces as well as restaurant budgets. In a pinch, owners tend to cut back on details that diners might not notice, including acoustical treatments. These days in San Francisco, he laments, "you can hardly find any restaurant with fewer than four bells," which is just below 80 decibels on the Chronicle's scale.

To avoid the noisier parts of a restaurant, Sweetow advises his patients to ask for tables on the periphery of the dining room and to avoid seats near the bar or an exhibition kitchen. (The bar at Zay-tinya is a full six decibels louder than the dining room.) No restaurant is going to go out of its way to tell you how loud it is. Still, Sweetow says diners can get a sense of what's in store for them by calling the restaurant during its rush hours, around noon and at night. (The strategy obviously only works when the phone is answered in a public area of the restaurant.)

FOR ALL THE DINERS WHO DON'T LIKE NOISE, there are plenty of people who look forward to some buzz with their Wagyu burger.

Janice Carnevale felt as if she had to whisper when she dined in a snug upstairs room at 1789 in Georgetown. "I don't like it when everyone around me can hear what I'm saying," says the 27-year-old wedding consultant from Falls Church. She much prefers the "dull roar" and "revelry" of a louder restaurant. Plus, "If my husband and I don't have a lot to talk about," she says, a noisy restaurant allows her a little anonymity and the chance to zone out. "I talk to people all day long."

"It's a double-edged sword," says Zagat, the dining guide founder. If a restaurant is hushed, "a lot of people feel it's dead."

Parents often seek out loud restaurants for a different reason. "I can dine out with my infant and never get dirty looks for the occasional squawk or utensil banging," one mom explained during an online chat.

And most restaurateurs don't seem all that worried about the decibel level in their bars and dining rooms. From the moment he opened Rasika three years ago, Ashok Bajaj knew he had a noisy venue on his hands. The floors were wood, and the bar was paved with stone tiles. To soften any blows, he'd had the walls covered in orange fabric, but it wasn't enough to dampen the volume of a full house. Sound experts came in to look at the problem; they recommended more fabric and acoustic tiles.

Ultimately, the restaurateur opted not to change the interior: The vibe, after all, was intentional. "I wanted a place with buzz," Bajaj explains. He also hoped to distinguish it from his more traditional Indian restaurant near the White House, Bombay Club. While some diners at Rasika told him they didn't like the din, Bajaj says he queried upwards of 70 patrons in all age groups, and the message he says he heard was: "Don't change it. If we wanted a quiet restaurant, we'd go to the Bombay Club."

"You have to know why you're going out," says Bajaj. "Different moods call for different restaurants." But even he has his limits. To buffer the sound level a bit, large parties aren't accepted in Rasika's main dining room. "They drink more" and tend to make more noise, says the restaurateur.

Ambience -- the look of a place, the feel of a place, the sound of a place -- is one reason many diners choose one restaurant over another. But what's on the menu remains a significant deciding factor.

"Noise won't turn me off," says Dwight, 34, the restaurant designer. "Bad food will."

Tom Sietsema is The Post's food critic. He can be reached at sietsema@washpost.com. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon in this online discussion.


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