Dining out used to be similar to going to church: the windows may not have been quite as colorful, but the atmosphere was just as hushed and reverential. Flocked wallpaper and plush carpeting absorbed any stray noise, making the setting a backdrop for serious conversation.
Those days are over. Today’s restaurant is likely to have wooden floors, bare tables and metallic walls, all of which bounce noise back to diners. Open kitchens exaggerate the problem. On top of that, there is the issue of background music. The tinkling of pianos and soothing sounds of harp strings have been replaced by loud rock.
None of this is accidental. Restaurant operators have known for decades that the more uncomfortable the setting, the quicker the customer turnover. Within the past five years, however, diners are starting to revolt. According to Zagat, restaurant noise is now the second most common complaint among customers (after poor service), and in some cities it ranks as the main problem. The situation has all the makings of a Catch-22: while many people want to be where the action is, the din is destroying the value of the experience they seek.
It turns out that noise can also affect our perception of eating and drinking. The louder the environment, the less attention we can pay to the input from our senses of smell and taste. That conclusion was drawn by Charles Spence, an Oxford professor of experimental psychology, in a 2014 study published in Flavor Journal. High noise levels obscure our ability to judge the alcohol content of a cocktail. Extreme decibels may reduce the impact of sweet and salty flavors on our taste buds, while causing us to have a higher perception of umami. Either way, we tend to eat and drink faster when the noise level is high.
The most effective way to combat excessive din is to insulate floors and ceilings, but those steps are more easily taken before a restaurant opens. Increasingly, restaurants are turning to acoustic treatments such as Baswaphon, which can be sprayed onto walls to soak up noise. If enough customers complain, we may yet return to a point where diners will be able to hear themselves think. The problem then, of course, is that they will have to supply that thinking on their own.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.