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Friday, Aug 12, 2022
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How the Din Got Put in Dining

Is it just me? Or are you increasingly reluctant to hold a business lunch at any trendy restaurant? I say “trendy” because the more stylish the restaurant, the noisier they are. Clearly, the restaurateurs intend for them to be that way. Just look at all the hard surfaces, communal tables, bars that intrude into the dining space and open kitchens. Music is turned up to drown out all the racket. Starting about 10 or 12 years ago, whenever I’d go to a fashionable restaurant for a meeting, I’d ask for a table, not a booth, so I could sit directly beside my guest. It’s awkward in a booth if you want to have a nuanced conversation, such as discussing a colleague’s work performance or straining to repair a torn business relationship. Why? Because it’s so loud may find yourself leaning over, cupping your hand behind your ear and shouting, “Eh?” It’s gotten worse in the last few years, it seems to me. And the more din they put in dining, the more I want to avoid them. For me, trendy restaurants are out for any kind of business meeting. I’m tired of leaving restaurants hoarse and with conversations never really held. An acquaintance, who in the past has heard me raise a ruckus about all this ruckus, sent me a great article published in November in Atlantic magazine. The headline hooked me: “How Restaurants Got So Loud.” And the subhead was explanatory: “Fashionable minimalism replaced plush opulence. That’s a recipe for commotion.” That’s so true. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember that most high-end restaurants years ago employed bolts of sound-deadening material – velvet drapes, tablecloths, upholstered seats. But today, opulence means wooden floors, stainless steel tabletops, stone counters. Each hard surface creates a sonic mirror that bounces all the riotousness back to us. Then there are the other trends that raised the racket. For example, noisy kitchens were revealed to the dining area; Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills, opened in 1982, was cited in the article as an innovator in exposing the kitchen to the diners. Other restaurants soon followed. So did additional noise-heightening fashions, such as ripping out acoustic ceilings, blending the bar with the dining space and, more recently, creating communal tables. “The result is a loud space that renders speech unintelligible,” wrote the author, Kate Wagner. “Now that it’s so commonplace, the din of a loud restaurant is unavoidable. That’s bad for your health—and worse for the staff who works there. But it also degrades the thing that eating out is meant to culture: a shared social experience that rejuvenates, rather than harms, its participants.” According to her, the decibel level in some restaurants could set off alarms (as if anyone could hear them over the commotion). Noise levels become harmful to human hearing above 85 decibels, but the noise-detecting device she took to restaurants read 86 decibels at a high-end food court during brunch and 90 at a brewpub during Friday happy hour. For comparison’s sake, a reading of 70 is about what you’d get on a freeway. But the best part of the article actually explained why restaurant owners encourage the hubbub, which always puzzled me. The reason: it’s profitable. She wrote: “Noise encourages increased alcohol consumption and produces faster diner turnover. More people drinking more booze produces more revenue. Knowing this, some restaurateurs even make their establishments louder than necessary in an attempt to maximize profits.” I guess that explains why so many restaurant operators ignore my pleas to turn down the music. Either that, or they couldn’t hear me, above all the ruckus. Anyway, I give up. Trendy restaurants are completely off my menu, at least for a business lunch or any kind of gathering where talk is important. Instead, I’m patronizing quiet, neighborhood eateries, the kinds of places where you don’t need to communicate by text to the person sitting across from you. Charles Crumpley is editor and publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@sfvbj.com.

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