A restaurant named Eat, located in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, is experimenting with the concept of silent dining. Once each month, on a Sunday evening, customers are served a four-course dinner during which they are not allowed to say a word. Violators are punished with exile to a bench on the street outside, where they may chatter away.
Cynics might argue that a totally silent restaurant is exactly what you want if you find yourself dining in Brooklyn, but the problem isn’t regional. A silent environment doesn’t just liberate you from the high-pitched cell phone chatter of your neighbors. It also gives you a blissful reprieve from one of the most distracting noise sources in modern restaurants---constant interruptions by well-meaning members of the service staff, who inquire about your well-being or deliver detailed dissertations on the provenance of every item you put in your mouth.
Of course, the noise level in many modern restaurants is nothing to joke about. In some establishments it has been actually measured at 90 decibels (the equivalent of standing close to a lawn mower), and in other places it seems to resemble a Led Zeppelin concert back in the old days. Nor is all this noise totally accidental. Many modern restaurants are purposely being designed with lots of hard surfaces---excessive noise encourages table turnover, just as certain types of background music prompts diners to eat faster.
Will silent dining catch on? You may not think so, but look at the popularity of Dining in the Dark. This started as a fad a few years ago, and is now offered at dozens of restaurants around the country; there is even a chain called Opaque in California, which specializes in serving meals in complete blackness. The obvious intent is to accentuate and sharpen other senses such as smell and taste.
If you need to be convinced that silent dining is a special experience, spend some time in an Eastern monastic setting. Nicholas Nauman, managing chef at Eat, did just that in the Indian pilgrimage city of Bodh Gaya. Eating in silence not only stimulates the senses---it creates an atmosphere of mindfulness that people in modern Western culture seldom encounter.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to amazon.com