Twin Cities diners are losing their appetite for noise

BILL WARD | Updated 4/14/2014

Loud restaurants can kill conversation, but taste and other senses can be affected, too.

Chiara Bautista

Tom Jackson and some friends gathered for a birthday celebration at Burch restaurant, but singing “Happy Birthday” wasn’t on the menu.

“The food was awesome, one of the best steaks I’ve ever had,” said Jackson, 41, of St. Paul, but “the people next to us were pretty much screaming at each other. And, then, so were we.”

Jackson said he won’t return to the popular Minneapolis restaurant, except by himself. “It felt,” he said “like eating at a concert.”

Restaurants aim to generate “buzz,” what Russell Klein, chef/owner of St. Paul’s Meritage, calls “lightning in a bottle.” Just the right combination of music, conversation and kitchen clatter can create an alluring, vibrant atmosphere.

But for a growing number of diners, especially those middle-aged and older, noisy restaurants are a buzzkill.

A nationwide Zagat survey found noise the second most common complaint behind lousy service. Foodie websites such as Open Table and Yelp include noise ratings in their reviews, and the New York critic for the online site, Eater, Robert Sietsema, brings a decibel meter to all restaurants.

Not being able to carry on a conversation is the most obvious result of high-volume restaurants. But the noise levels might also be disturbing diners’ other senses — including taste — and, like a rock concert, might have a lingering effect on hearing.

Some restaurants are taking measures to reduce the din.

After Burch opened, chef/owner Isaac Becker had acoustic tiles installed on the ceilings and put acoustic foam under the chairs, but to no avail. “I couldn’t tell any difference,” he said.

Red Cow, a specialty burger joint also in Minneapolis, had better luck quieting what owner Luke Shimp called the “unbearable, headache-inducing” noise when it opened. “I knew it right away, so we started working on a solution,” said Shimp. He hired a sound engineer and installed sound-absorbing materials, and now the volume is “still lively, but not bright,” he said.

Other restaurateurs, however, are keeping the speakers at full blast, saying that volume is essential to the atmosphere — and not hurting the bottom line.

Desensitizing effects

When we converse, it’s usually at about 65 decibel levels (dB). Talking at a normal level becomes difficult at 70 dB. Many local restaurants have consistent noise averages (dBA) of 80 or above, which makes it necessary to raise your voice to be heard. (Noise levels double with every 10-decibel increase.)

But noisy spaces make us do more than shout, researchers are learning.

For starters, “when in the presence of a lot of noise, you don’t see as well,” said Steven Orfield of Minneapolis’ Orfield Laboratories, which analyzes acoustics and other environmental factors.

More important, noise might detract from the main reason we go to restaurants: to enjoy the food.

Studies in Britain have shown that noisy environments diminish our ability to taste saltiness and sweetness and make sweet foods taste bitter, especially at the low frequencies of most background noise.

Another surprise? The effects of being in a noisy restaurant can linger.

“Customers who visit these venues will experience fatigue and aural desensitization as they go home,” Orfield said. “Their hearing is not as clear for up to a day after spending an evening there.”

The effects are accelerated for older diners, according to Robert Schlauch of the University of Minnesota’s Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, because we suffer a decline in how quickly all of our senses process information as we age.

A ‘different voice’

Speakers alone don’t bear all the blame. The space a restaurant occupies, as well as how it’s finished and appointed, all play a role.