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No Appetite for Noise
The No. 1 complaint of restaurant-goers in the Washington area isn't the service, or even the dinner. It's the din.

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 6, 2008

IT'S A TYPICAL NIGHT AT ZAYTINYA IN PENN QUARTER, which means there's a wait for a table, a mob at the bar, hundreds of mezze flowing from the open kitchen and a flock of hungry vultures waiting to snatch your bar stool at the slightest sign you might be vacating it.

The noise from all this activity is deafening. I can barely hear Eric Stehmer and Amy Wang, my drinking and dining companions for the evening, over the din. The problem is exacerbated by a concrete countertop, bare floor, overhead speakers and the occasional crash of a plate gone astray. A bartender's attempts to share his passion for Greek wines, which he's pouring by the splash for us to try, might as well be in Greek. The three of us have to lean in to hear what he's describing.

"The bar is definitely not a place for an intimate date," I think I catch Stehmer saying.

"It's a strain," agrees Wang, who has to repeat herself twice. "I don't like the feeling I have to raise my voice."

Our restaurant pager goes off. We know this only because the device lights up in bright red and vibrates across the counter toward Wang's pomegranate-flavored cocktail. A host leads us to a table in the dining room, which provides little relief from the aural assault. "This is the loudest restaurant I've ever worked in," our waiter shares after we ask him to repeat the evening's specials.

The scenario might prompt a yawn if it occurred on a weekend or if any of us were AARP members. The reality is, we're meeting on a Tuesday night. Wang is 25. Stehmer is 26. I'm 40-something.

As measured by the sound-level meter I'm carrying, the noise in the restaurant averages about 86 decibels -- the equivalent of truck traffic on a busy street, or a lawn mower.

BON APPETIT!

MORE THAN BAD FOOD, MORE THAN TIPPING QUANDARIES, more than someone wondering if a free meal should follow a rodent sighting in a dining room, the most frequent concern I get from readers involves loud restaurants. The complaints about noise have crescendoed so high in recent years that I've decided to add noise ratings to my dining column in the Magazine, beginning April 20. Henceforth, as I make my restaurant rounds, a discreet sound-level meter will be used to determine the average decibel count. [See this article for how the ratings will work.]

I know readers will welcome the addition of a sound check. When I raised the subject of noise on a recent online food discussion, I got an earful from scores of restaurant mavens. The feedback came from both sexes and a wide range of ages.

"The noise levels don't make me feel lively or youthful," wrote one. "They make me shout and keep asking, 'What?' I'm 34, but recently I have been seeking out 'oldster' restaurants for the noise levels alone. Would much prefer a younger vibe at lower decibels, if such a thing existed!"

"Why do restaurateurs think we want to eat but not to chat with our companions?" another chatter demanded.

"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.

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.

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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