Are restaurants too loud? The ins and outs of restaurant acoustics
CHICAGO — When Pacific Standard Time opened in April, it was one of the city’s buzziest openings, but to actually eat there was almost deafening.
“I was able to step back and say this is the biggest issue with the restaurant,” said partner Joshua Tilden. “It wasn’t the food, it wasn’t the service, (but) I thought this problem was easily rectifiable.”
In a city where bustling restaurants often mean noisy dining experiences, patrons like Claudia Fariello Bolnick, 71, of Streeterville, find themselves increasingly frustrated with their inability to have conversations with family and friends. Fariello Bolnick said she’s noticed the issue isn’t unique to Chicago — other cities she’s visited seem to have similarly loud volume issues.
While she considers Chicago a “fabulous restaurant city,” she believes diners’ experiences could be more pleasant if restaurants considered their volume.
“Some people have told us if we go at 5 o’clock, we can have a nice experience, but we don’t like to eat at 5 o’clock. We’re not that old!” Fariello Bolnick said. “How (restaurants) can be so shortsighted to put it (low) on the priorities list is amazing to me.”
The Acoustical Society of America is launching a subcommittee to explore this issue, while other organizations like Consumer Reports and Zagat have also conducted studies, concluding that the ability to hold a conversation is more important to patrons than previously thought.
Noisy restaurants aren’t always bad — sometimes it’s even preferred, and creating a lively atmosphere requires a certain level of noise, Tilden said. But it’s about getting the right amount that’s key.
Tilden originally took a do-it-yourself attitude to fix the noise issue at Pacific Standard Time, laying out rugs and installing carpet beneath tables. But the restaurant remained loud. The only next step was to hire an audio engineer. A few sound-wave tests later, the restaurant installed soundproofing methods that were both effective and fit with the design.
“It’s made a world of a difference,” Tilden said. “You can hear conversations now. You can hear the music now. And guests’ comfort is something that’s really important to all of us. It felt good to finally get a solution in place.”
In an ideal situation, sound would be one of the highest priorities and taken into account during the design process, said David Paoli, an acoustical engineer at Shiner Acoustics. Sound absorption is the key to a good-sounding restaurant because it reduces the noisy din that can often be created by both the materials in the restaurant and the patrons themselves.
Hard surfaces like wood, concrete, steel and brick are remediated by soft, porous materials that absorb the sound waves frantically bouncing off everything in a restaurant. Stephen Blake, architectural and contract territory manager with Armstrong World Industries, which provides consultations and products for noise control for commercial spaces and homes, said that sound-absorbing tiles and “blades” (or panels) help to absorb these sound waves and prevent them from bouncing around.
Many sound abatement companies offer products like sound blades made with a fiberglass or mineral fiber core as the main absorption material. The blades are covered by a soft fabric that is acoustically transparent, meaning the sound waves pass through to the core material, and installed in ceilings, a space’s largest unobstructed surface area.
“Without sound absorption, spaces get noisy,” Paoli said. “When you’re talking and you want to be heard, you have to raise your voice, and before you know it, it’s very loud.”
When sound engineers go into a space, they measure reverb time, a measurement of how long it takes for sound energy to dissipate, Blake said. Restaurants with hard surfaces like the previously mentioned concrete and brick may seem to have normal volume until patrons start coming in and add to the sound energy. With nowhere to go, sound bounces off hard surfaces, subtly causing people to raise their voices, creating a din.
This is often observed when a restaurant has been constructed without sound absorption techniques and products. Applying sound abatement strategies after a restaurant is already finished is much more difficult and expensive than taking it into consideration from the start, Paoli said. Simply put, it tends to cost less to incorporate acoustics into the design than it does to retrofit them in a space that’s already operating.
“It all comes down to aesthetics,” Paoli said. “We consult the architectural community, and they know who we are. But a lot of times, it comes down to budget and (does the restaurant) want to spend the money on our service or try to do it themselves?”
Tilden agreed, saying that in a perfect world, sound would be a higher priority, but in reality, most opening restaurants are “under the gun” to hit a certain budget. Acoustic design can get pushed to the side.
“In order to get it done right, it costs a lot of money,” Tilden said. “It’s not like we’re in an extremely lucrative profession as is, so I think every dollar counts before you open. If I had to make assumptions on why it’s not done more often, that’s probably it.”
After consulting with an audio engineer and finding a solution that would also mesh with the design of the restaurant, the Pacific Standard Time team settled on a product that could be sprayed on and matched with the stucco walls. And because the ceilings are high, the material is barely noticeable once the sun begins to set.
However, this may only be a short-term solution, said Blake. Spray-on material tends to degrade fairly quickly, Blake said, and after about 30 years, it can even disintegrate.
“You don’t want that over your food,” Blake said. “It’s good and effective stuff, but like everything, it has its pros and cons.”
For Gregory Scott, who has hearing loss and lives in New York, it became near impossible to go on dates at a restaurant simply because he couldn’t hear the person he was with. He had to check online reviews and ask friends about the quiet spots around town.
He began compiling a list of places that he would share with other people who had the same concerns. Before long, he created Soundprint, an app billed as “like Yelp, but for sound.” Using one’s iPhone (Android options are being explored), people can measure sound in a restaurant, bar or cafe with a decibel meter, and the crowdsourced measurements are shown on a map. Users can look at the app and immediately see where quiet and loud businesses are located by the crowdsourced score, allowing them to decide whether it’s an establishment they’d like to visit.
“(The app is raising) noise pollution awareness,” Scott said. “(Noise pollution is) an epidemic, and we’re making ourselves deaf. Places are getting louder and louder, and people think it’s normal. We want to raise awareness on what is a safe environment to have conversation in.”
Soundprint is now in such major metropolitan areas as Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, Nashville, New Orleans and D.C. Scott has worked with restaurants in some of these areas to find solutions to their noise problems.
Loud venues are also dangerous for employees who work for long periods of time, Scott said, and he hopes restaurants won’t see the app as an attack, but rather a quantifiable way to assess their noise levels.
Daisies’ owner Joe Frillman said capital is hard to come by when you’re starting out and not part of a restaurant group. To address the volume of the neighborhood restaurant in Logan Square, he bought noise-reducing foam from Amazon. Within three days, it turned yellow. He scheduled an appointment with a professional and plans to have additional sound abatement products installed before cold weather sets in.
In the meantime, Daisies doesn’t take reservations for parties of more than seven and has had some other absorption products installed until the restaurant can be fully outfitted with sound abatement products.
“It’s becoming something a lot more people are paying attention to,” Frillman said. “If something is getting in the way of people having a great time there, there are so many restaurants. They can choose to go somewhere else. Unfortunately, something like noise might be enough for someone to not come back.”