“Sorry, what?” you shout at your date, sitting two feet across from you. “I can’t hear you.”
The place is full, the drinks flow and the volume has risen to a roar. Yelling back and forth, you force shouted conversation, struggling to hear yourself think, feeling half drunk on the noisy atmosphere.
If this situation is familiar, you’re not alone.
We’re reluctant to admit thinking it – perhaps for fear of coming across like an old crank – but sometimes a restaurant is simply too loud. Put it this way: I am 26 years old. I enjoy going out. I go to music festivals and clubs, but still, I find some restaurants deafening.
Kate Bartholomew, owner of CBD restaurants Coda and Tonka admits it’s a problem. “Even in my noisiest state, some restaurants are too loud. There’s something very irritating about it ... it’s like when you’re falling asleep and there’s a mosquito buzzing around your ear.”
With a thudding soundtrack, plenty of dining spots around Melbourne seem to cultivate an atmosphere akin to a sit-down nightclub. This can make for exciting, energetic dining, but there’s a balance that’s often tipped. Architect and restaurateur Pascale Gomes-McNabb (Stokehouse City, Cumulus Inc.) considers sound to be one of five elements that go into designing a restaurant, along with food, wine, service and design. “It’s about them all achieving a balancing act, a synergy which resonates throughout the space,” she says. “Sound needs to be considered, but it usually isn’t until it’s jarring. The wrong music, screeching customers ... it needs to be handled carefully.”
Armed with the iPhone’s decibel meter app on a recent night out, I measured a consistent buzz of between 80 and 100 decibels inside the dining room of a well-known Fitzroy restaurant. Not only does this smash the Work Safe Victoria limit of 85 decibels, it is the equivalent of eating while a pneumatic drill rattles your eardrums.
According to Bartholomew, this volume is a conscious choice on the part of some restaurateurs. “People actively make a decision that they want that volume of noise in their restaurant,” she says. “It gives off the vibe that you’re busier, that there’s more going on, there’s more activity. That’s very important to lots of restaurateurs.” Gomes-McNabb agrees. “It really comes down to the atmosphere you are trying to create. Is it a fine-dining hush or a busy, convivial boom? A perfect storm or a vacuum?”
Just as restaurateurs must consider their target market and how sound functions in achieving the correct vibe, there’s an onus on customers to choose restaurants that suit their needs.
Done well, a bustling, noisy atmosphere has an attraction. “People want to be entertained,” says Gomes-McNabb, “and feel like they’re having a good time when they go out. Shouting helps. Buzz is the key word. (It’s something) people are looking for.”
If unregulated, the roar in stripped- back, modern restaurants is confronting, distracting and damaging our ears. W hat’s more, some studies show that a high volume of white noise can dull sensitivity to sweetness and saltiness. Is it possible that a thudding soundtrack is making our food taste worse?
Studies also suggest that by inhibiting interaction, loud music increases the speed and quantity of alcohol consumption. Many guests will drink more and leave none-the-wiser.
While not suggesting a return to hushed, stuffy, vacuous dining, Bartholomew speaks for many who – though certainly not in silence – suffer, when she says, “There are several Melbourne venues that are almost impossible to dine at.”
“The key is finding that perfect balance,” she continues, “and having that essential ingredient moderated.” It’s about creating that perfect storm.