The Trouble with Restaurant Noise Levels

How dining in the U.S. became so loud, and how restaurant owners can fix it

Over the last few years, Americans have spent more time eating out than ever before. The Freakonomics podcast has even shown that people are spending more money at restaurants than they are at the grocery store. Restaurants are social spaces that give diners an instantaneous choice of venue and cuisine, beyond what they could do at home on short notice. But there’s another variable that customers might not realize they’re exposed to when they dine out. Restaurants noise levels are loud. And for the last twenty years, they’ve been getting louder. Apps like SoundPrint, which allows users to measure and publish the noise level in a restaurant using their smart phones, have been invented because people don’t like shouting their conversations. This app crowdsources data to show how noisy restaurants can be. And it shows that most restaurants exceed what could be considered “loud” (>70 decibels). Average New York City restaurants hit 77 decibels while New York City bars average 81 decibels. This is the threshold for inner-ear damage, which puts everybody in the restaurant in danger of permanent ear damage. It is especially damaging for the restaurant’s workers, who are exposed to loud noises daily, for hours at a time.  Luckily, there are easy steps you can take as a restaurant owner to manage your noise better. By being proactive about your customers and employees health, you’ll provide a dinner environment that people will appreciate and enjoy. 

Coffeeshops: The Anywhere Office

Loud Coffee Shop
Coffee shops are some of the most surprising settings to find noise pollution. Many go to their local coffee shop for a reprieve from noise and distractions. They’re expected to be a quiet place of productivity, where you can focus on meetings, conference calls, or a good book. But, when an Atlantic reporter tested the average coffee shop noise levels, it hovered around 73 decibels. This noise level compares to that of a freeway, alarm clock, or sewing machine. It isn’t considered hazardous, but adding an additional 10 decibels to “working conditions” will subject listeners to irreversible ear damage. A restaurant full of loud music and conversation regularly reaches and exceeds this level. 

The Trend Toward Loud Restaurants

Loud Restaurant
While few restaurant owners make conscious choices to purposefully crank the volume up on their customers, dining trends over the past 20 years have had the unintended consequence of creating deafeningly loud spaces. While restauranteurs were looking to avoid the stuffy atmosphere of high-class cuisine, a wave of minimalist design swept through the restaurant industry. Lush booths and soft carpet were set aside for hardwood floors, exposed ductwork, and basic seating. Low-cost acoustics options, like table cloths and wall tapestries fell out of fashion  At the same time, the trend of opening the kitchen up to the dining room, made popular by chefs like Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck, became far more common. The combination of more noise sources from busy kitchens and less acoustic insulation in the dining room, swirled to create a perfect storm of noise.  While this is an old trend, people are beginning to become irritated by it. Publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times are raising the issue, and customers are recognizing that they like quiet a little more than they realized. 

How to recognize if your restaurant is too loud

As a restaurant owner, you can measure the noise levels of your restaurant by using a decibel meter. However, a decibel meter can’t show you what customers want. As quieter restaurants have started to become more popular, Vox has given different signals that will indicate if your environment is too loud. By recognizing these signs, you can take preemptive measures to manage your noise better and attract more customers. 
  1. If people are trying to avoid the restaurant rush, this may be an indicator that it’s too noisy at dinner time. If more people start coming in before 6 pm, it may give you a reason to turn the noise down for a while. 
  2. Are people requesting a quiet table? While your restaurant is going to have louder sections, customers shouldn’t feel the need to avoid certain spots of your building. 
  3. People might ask for the music to be turned down. This probably isn’t because they are trying to be difficult. Generally, if one person is bold enough to ask for the music to be turned down, other tables have also been bothered by it and will be grateful for the break. 
  4. If you are getting complaints, you should actively work to better manage your noise. This is the most direct way customers can show they are unhappy, and it is important to respond immediately to these requests. 

Specialty Acoustic Solutions

Striking the right balance between noise level and interior décor can be a challenge – the fact is that more cushioned surfaces result in lower sound volume and less reverberation. But acoustics are only one part of the equation when it comes to creating the perfect dining space, and sleek fixtures and modern surfaces are very much the preferred style today. While some restauranteurs can afford to work with an acoustician to design the space from the ground up with acoustics in mind, most owners can’t afford that luxury. Rather, most restaurant owners make “after-the-fact” improvements to the acoustics of their space.   Some small improvements can be made by swapping in table cloths or rearranging wall décor, but, often, a space might require more aggressive tactics to bring the noise down to comfortable levels. Major improvements can be made by installing specialty wall and ceiling fixtures – such as panelsbaffles, and diffusers – in discreet areas.  Acoustic ceiling and wall treatments are more common in commercial spaces than you might expect. Academic spaces like schools, libraries, and laboratories use them, and they’re also found in government buildings, offices, banks, places of worship, hospitals, and retail spaces. Nearly every public place enjoys the friendly and social environments that are created by using acoustic panels. Lots of people would love for restaurants to join the quiet as well.   And, restaurants don’t have to choose function over style. Acoustic wall and ceiling panels now come in a variety of colors, fabric finishes, and shapes to match the existing décor.  Noisy, sound-reflective ceilings can be effectively treated without losing the industrial look of exposed ductwork and unfinished ceilings. Black acoustic board, for example, is a discrete solution, that’s easily affixed above the rafters and doesn’t draw attention to itself.  For restaurant use, you can keep your desired environment while controlling noise through a variety of options. Stretch-fabrics create a drywall-like finish behind exposed duct work. This keeps the industrial look you want while quieting things down. You can also use impact resistant panels around exposed areas of the kitchen to limit noise coming from the back, or you can wrap your acoustics in decorative materials for areas out in the open. This will make your restaurant more artistic and social.  We live in a country that loves eating out, which gives restaurants a huge opportunity to combat one of the largest health crises in the country. Today, one in four adults in the United States shows signs of noise-induced hearing loss, and hearing loss has become the third most common chronic health condition in the country. Acoustic panels are the best way to turn the noise down while keeping the energy up. By prioritizing quiet, we can all work together to take noise off the menu.