“Good food, good company, great listening music and a wonderful atmosphere. You can’t ask for anything better.” ― Anthony T. Hincks
My thoughts exactly. Although I have found that it’s getting more difficult, primarily because of an increasingly common phenomenon: a very intentional and overly aggressive acoustic environment.
In other words, too loud to enjoy anything, even the food.
I decided long ago, probably before your time and before I began to experience a tinge of hearing loss, that the experience of enjoying a quiet, romantic meal out with my wife or a comfortable gathering with friends was gradually slipping away. And I had a theory as to why.
When I mentioned the loudness to others, most had to think for a while before concluding, “Yes, restaurants are getting more noisy.”
I concluded that I was going to have to continue to suffer in silence. Just not at a restaurant.
But, no longer. It appears someone else noticed the same trend. The result is this recent article by Kate Wagner in The Atlantic, How Restaurants Got So Loud.
I had a bottom line to my earlier theory, and it was so satisfying to see someone else work their way to a similar conclusion while bolstering it with added detail.
First of all there has been a slow drift from plush opulence into modern and fashionable minimalism. Sort of like a postmodern abandonment of stuff that had substance, in this case, furniture, wall and ceiling conditions.
As a consequence, restaurants designed for fashionable minimalism were not designed to be quiet but convenient: inexpensive to furnish; easy to clean; while still conveying the appearance of luxury.
“… sparse, modern decor; high, exposed ceilings; and almost no soft goods, such as curtains, upholstery, or carpets. These design features are a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears.“
The author reports measuring sound levels of 85 dB and above in various establishments, levels that are generally not harmful for less than 2-hour exposures but certainly uncomfortable for the duration.
Another consequence of this shift to “luxurious minimalism” and the resulting atmosphere is the loss of something important,
“… it also degrades the thing that eating out is meant to culture: a shared social experience that rejuvenates, rather than harms, its participants.
Newer construction materials, furniture, and designs indeed look fashionable, modern, and very often, luxurious. The unintended consequence that can’t be seen is what they do.
Older, plusher materials tended to absorb sound, and indeed certain materials were designed to absorb sound—soaking up sonic energy rather than reflecting it. The result was often an environment that enhanced the dining experience (what Anthony T. Hincks was referring to).
Besides materials, another impact was moving the kitchen and food preparation out into the open where they became a visual part of the dining experience. Nice, but at the same time adding additional sounds from the clanging and banging of pots and pans and the yelled orders among the cook staff (which they needed to overcome the kitchen noise).
All this contributed to an unintended consequence: restaurants became overly loud.
What to do? It would take more hard capital to overcome everything that the invested hard capital had already created. A soft solution was needed.
It’s not a bug; it’s a feature!
This was my theory some years ago. It basically boils down to human nature. What do we think when we walk into a noisy party with lots of people? They’re having fun. We can have fun too. And people having fun eat and drink more.
Referenced in the article is a book by the design historian Alison Pearlman, Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, in which she concludes,
… the haute-casual dining trend also helps restaurateurs run bigger and more successful businesses. Constructing interiors out of hard surfaces makes them easier (and thus cheaper) to clean. Eschewing ornate decor, linens, table settings, and dishware makes for fewer items to wash or replace. Reducing table service means fewer employees and thus lower overhead. And as many writers have noted, loud restaurants also encourage profitable dining behavior. Noise encourages increased alcohol consumption and produces faster diner turnover. More people drinking more booze produce more revenue. Knowing this, some restaurateurs even make their establishments louder than necessary in an attempt to maximize profits.
It’s a business plan!
Loud restaurants are more profitable.
(But, of course, most restaurants don’t last long; they come and go quickly because it is so difficult to make a profit. So a winning business plan makes perfect sense. Just not so much for that romantic date).