The dearly departed Hamersley’s Bistro, one of a handful of restaurants that put Boston on the culinary map, had a dirty little secret among staff and some of its regulars. So romantic was its original South End setting that couples were known to sneak away from their tables for trysts. Given the dining room acoustics, lively but rarely raucous, it was a wonder they remained discreet. Over the din at most restaurants today, their secret would surely be safe.
Perhaps you know these places: industrial decor, throbbing soundtrack, diners and staff shouting over one another to be heard. You have to ask your server to repeat the specials. She has to strain to hear your order. And, after several attempts at a conversation with your spouse, you sit across from each other as if you’re on a bad date that you wish would just end already. Good times.
If the scene sounds familiar, you are not alone. The number one complaint Bostonians have about restaurants is noise, according to the 2016 Zagat State of American Dining report. It also tops the list for diners in New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon. In 2014, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, measured the decibel levels of popular restaurants. More than a dozen were at or above 75 decibels, “the aural equivalent of an alarm clock or Times Square.” According to a New York Magazine piece in 2013, dining rooms in New York City were “regularly measured” at or above 90 decibels, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets as the maximum permissible exposure limit for an eight-hour workday. Pity the restaurant staff working doubles.
As restaurants have gotten louder over the years, noise has become a more frequent complaint. “I have had A TON of restaurants say they want to have the noise, but then Yelp reviews come back,” says Steven Drago from New England Soundproofing in Easton in an e-mail. In the past three years, he estimates he has seen his work with restaurants at least double. “Yes, restaurants want the noise,” he continues, “but they also want people coming back.”
Drago estimates that about 70 percent of his restaurant work is from clients who contact him to fix the problem after opening and getting angry reviews. One reason restaurant owners may initially prefer a loud room is economics: Research suggests that a noisy environment encourages more alcohol consumption, and there’s the perception that it helps turn over tables more quickly. Then there’s the cost to consider: Dining room acoustic treatments can run from $5,000 to $15,000 or even more.
“We put a lot of thought and money into sound-dampening materials to make the room festive but allow diners to converse with their dining companions,” explains Chris Yorty, general manager of Puritan & Company in Cambridge, which was on Eater Boston’s 2016 list of 10 restaurants where you won’t need to shout to be heard.
But even Puritan likes to keep the music “louder than would be typical for a restaurant of our style and caliber” and generally will not accommodate requests to lower the volume. The business’s philosophy is that fine dining shouldn’t have to be stuffy or boring. Another restaurateur, Ethan Stowell, the chef/owner of more than a dozen acclaimed Seattle restaurants, explained it to me this way: “If I had to choose between a little too quiet and a little too loud, I’d choose a little too loud.”
As a diner, I can do without the white tablecloths. I don’t need the waiter to place the napkin in my lap. But how did the expectation of being able to converse with one’s dining companions become associated with stuffiness? What’s the point of conviviality if we can’t converse and of communal tables if we can’t commune? And why do so many restaurant owners ignore the growing public consensus that restaurants have simply gotten too loud?
“If you cannot converse with your companions, then the experience is compromised,” Tony Maws tells me. He’s chef and owner of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, which is also on the Eater Boston list. I’m quickly learning that dining out is the art of compromise.
At RFK Kitchen, a new restaurant in Needham, a quick glance at the bare floors and tabletops explains the bowling alley acoustics. Although we have a reservation, we’re seated at a long, diner-style counter in front of an open kitchen. When we ask to move to a table, we’re told that the restaurant’s website explains the seating arrangement. “The focal point of the room,” it reads, “is the Chef’s Counter that overlooks the open kitchen where guests can enjoy an interactive dining experience.” Where restaurants used to be a setting to interact with our dining companions, in this age of star chefs and open kitchens, we’re here to watch the show.
By the end of the evening, we’re talking so loudly that I worry our kind, unflappable waitress will overhear our grumbling. Fortunately, I can’t even hear it myself.