Cover Story

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.

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/
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.


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.

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