It’s 9pm on Friday night in a busy West End restaurant: the open kitchen is under full steam, the foursome next to you are uncorking their third bottle of wine and braying about house prices, a suit opposite is bellowing into a mobile phone, the espresso machine is firing on all cylinders, cutlery is clattering and all to an incongruous trancey soundtrack selected by the Australian barman.
You might as well be standing on the M25. Audiology researchers at the University of California found that the average noise level of a crowded restaurant screams in at around a cacophonous 80 decibels – the equivalent of rush-hour traffic. This can reach 110dB – a power saw – and even 140dB, which measures up to a jet engine during take off.
So it may not surprise you that noise is high up on a recently compiled hit list of restaurant irritants, second only to that perennial number one ‘poor service’ and well ahead of ‘bad food’ in a 2008 Zagat survey. Stateside, the restaurant columnist (and longtime acoustics crusader) for the San Francisco Chronicle includes noise ratings in his reviews. ‘Bombs’ are awarded to venues with levels at 80 decibels or more, the level at which normal conversation is impeded.
Back in London, noise levels have been rising steadily since the proudly clattering dining rooms of the 90s – a frightening time to be an eardrum in the capital – when ‘buzzing’ referred to the sound in your ears once you’d left the restaurant rather than the atmosphere inside. A string of high-end, glass fronted temples to whitewashed minimalism required diners in London’s west end to be more adept at lip reading than small talk.
A decade on and the excitement once generated by these big, loud dining rooms has subsided. It’s not enough just to be out for dinner. With good food on offer right across town, diners are more concerned with ambience – the fundamental combination of style, crowd, lighting and sound that makes up the restaurant experience. And crummy acoustics is a deal-breaker, says Ben McCormack, editor of Square Meal Bar & Restaurant Guide (www.squaremeal.co.uk). ‘Part of going out to eat is one-on-one time with people, whether you’re on a date or on business. It doesn’t matter if it’s because the music is too loud or the acoustics are so bad it’s amplifying all the clattering about – it drives customers mad and they won’t go back.’
However, while diners are consciously aware of the quality of food or service they’re receiving, sound affects them at a more subliminal level, according to acoustic consultant David Hill. Often, he says, they won’t even pinpoint the acoustics. ‘People leave a restaurant and they know they’ve had a good or bad night, but they don’t know why – that’s usually down to the sound.’
So how does dinner a deux turn into a cuddle with Concorde? ‘As people drink more and more their high frequency hearing goes so they raise their voices dramatically,’ explains Hill. ‘The end of the night is always much louder, so good acoustics are critical when the noise reaches this crescendo.’
Despite this, the majority of restaurants don’t consult an acoustician at any stage of the design process. ‘They would if they were doing a nightclub or DJ bar, but wouldn’t think about it for a restaurant,’ says Hill. It doesn’t seem to matter what the budget is either. ‘You expect it to be really cheap places – chains with canteen-style rooms – but often the expensive restaurants can be the worst offenders,’ says McCormack.
This acoustical paradox comes down to a simple fact: looks are considered more important than sound. So fashionable restaurants with pared-back design – a hip international chain of Japanese sushi restaurants and several of London’s cavernous European brasseries leap to mind – are often the most acoustically challenged. ‘Trendy, modernist interiors are the worst,’ says Hill. ‘When you clap your hands in a tiled bathroom, the walls act as a mirror, which is why the sound bounces around. Glass, tiles, chrome and hard surfaces all reflect sound in the same way.’
Spotting restaurants with clatter potential is a simple box-ticking exercise. ‘Pictures with glass on the front, windows without curtains, modern pared-down furniture, marble and high ceilings,’ explains Hill. ‘Basically a cubic room with parallel walls is a nightmare – there’s nothing to break up the sound waves so they bounce continually between the two walls. Not only are you hearing what’s being said, but what’s just been said.’
As budgets tighten around the recession, acoustics are further neglected in favour of aesthetics – not surprising when you consider the kind of money involved. ‘Cost is a big factor, it’s absolutely the reason why a lot of restaurants don’t take their acoustics into consideration,’ says Martin Brudnizki, who has worked on high-profile openings like Scott’s, St Pancras Grand, Corrigan’s Mayfair and most recently, Dean Street Dining Rooms and Miami’s Soho Beach House. At Scott’s, Brudnizki treated the ceiling with a specialist thick plaster that kills sound instead of reflecting it back into the room.
But sucking all the sound out of a space isn’t the answer either. At the other end of the decibel scale, there’s a welcome movement away from the frightening morgue-like hush of fine dining – another shift in acoustic trends. ‘Many of the Michelin-starred restaurants are so quiet that you’re whispering,’ says McCormack. ‘There’s been a big move to deformalise dining out as people are eating out more, so hushed formal dining is less fashionable.’ And there’s no denying that loud restaurants attract a younger, hipper crowd; which makes noise management all the more crucial. ‘At the Dean Street Dining Rooms, the space is supposed to be noisy and buzzy with an amazing atmosphere,’ says Brudnizki. ‘We’ve used touches like dado-height panelling, wallpaper, leather and blinds to control the noise so it’s loud but it’s not intrusive.’
Ultimately, design trends determine the status quo. Purely for acoustical nirvana, Hill harks back to the high-end restaurants of the Eighties. Sure, the food was terrible, but the unabashed luxury of the interiors – soft carpets, thick table, overstuffed furnishings and elaborate decoration – was pitch perfect. ‘Old-school restaurants are (acoustically) better, more by luck than judgement,’ he explains. ‘Because they were opened before minimalism became fashionable, you can talk very easily without raising your voice.’
But there is hope for beleaguered eardrums. The in-your-face minimalism of the big luxury canteens of the Nineties is giving way to a softer, homelier mix of textures and shapes, which break up sound in large spaces. The next generation of restaurants – certainly at the upper end of the scale – are also shaping up to be more user-friendly than their predecessors. ‘Clients now are insisting on acoustic treatments,’ says Brudnizki. ‘It’s absolutely crucial to have a customer-focused space. The food is the product and that has to be good but if lighting and sound – the ambience – doesn’t work, people won’t come back.’ So, eating out in 2010 is all about you. Make the most of it.
'Sound Decisions' was published in House Magazine - part of the Soho House Group.
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