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18 April 2014

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RestauRANT: why don’t restaurants pay as much attention to ambience as they do to food?

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rant - noisy_diners_web.jpgTired of shouting at your dining companion or afraid to utter a word in an echoey, church-like restaurant? Carl Wilkinson isn’t afraid to speak up.

When Heston Blumenthal handed out headphones to diners at The Fat Duck a few years ago everyone thought he was mad. I rather wish they were on the menu at most restaurants.

Dining at a well-known Portobello Road brasserie recently, I had to ask to move tables. Beside our intimate table for two was a foursome of 17-year-old west London girls bellowing their way through a particularly indelicate conversation about their sexual peccadilloes. Enlightening it may have been, but hardly what I wanted to sit through in a restaurant. A dull throbbing began to develop in my left ear and I could feel a scream welling in my throat. I had to ask to move before I reached for my steak knife in anger.

Perhaps the greatest hit-and-miss aspect of dining out in London today is noise. Restaurateurs need to be canny operators who know their food, wine, interior design, how to market their place, how to train staff and spot the barman with his hand in the till, and how to smooth out complaints diplomatically. Sadly, many have a tin ear for the ‘sound’ of their eateries. What they take for a satisfying buzz, diners may find excruciating.

In some restaurants it is simply a matter of terrible taste in music. You get the impression the owner only started his business as a way of converting the masses to his very particular love of instrumental electronica versions of Bon Jovi’s greatest hits or the works of Oasis set to a Richard Clayderman-esque piano track. Others appear to believe dinner isn’t complete without a pounding soundtrack: the Buddha Bar – before it closed – was like dining in a nightclub; and any restaurant that hires a DJ clearly hasn’t understood the point of dining out.

Yet this is only one side of the story. There is nothing worse than being able to hear your own footsteps as you cross a silent dining room. Fine-dining establishments where the food is delivered with a reverential hush and the only conversation permitted is an odd whisper about how amazing the oyster foam reduction is or to confirm to the ninja-like waiter that, yes, everything is great thank you, can be as bad as a noisy restaurant. These deathly dining rooms are made worse by the sort of people who provide an object lesson in how not to conduct a relationship. We’ve all seen them: middle-aged couples negotiating a three-course meal in total silence. Have they literally run out of things to say? Who knows, but they can certainly kill the atmosphere.

That’s the odd thing about restaurants: they’re communal. The atmosphere of a dining room feeds off the people in it. A convivial group enjoying the food lifts things; a couple having a hissed argument adds a note of strained tension; and stag and hen parties are the bane of any dining experience.

All of this is as nothing compared with the real aural horror: bad acoustics. The ideal sound level for happy conversation is between 55 and 65 decibels (dB) – there’s a background hum, but you can still hear others talk comfortably. Ambient noise above about 70dB means you have to raise your voice to be heard, and above 85dB, prolonged exposure (more than eight hours) can cause hearing loss. A noisy restaurant can average around 70-80dB. And that’s without a particularly noisy neighbour on the next table.

The more cynical bar and restaurant owners have clocked that a noisy environment causes manic behaviour, resulting in binge eating and drinking – which is good for business. But what has exacerbated the problem in the past decade is the gastropub trend for stripped wood floors, bare brick walls and hard fittings.

However, you can have your pork belly and eat it: material-covered sound panels can be discreetly strung from high ceilings or pinned to walls to absorb noise without affecting the look of a place. One of the best restaurants for acoustics I’ve dined in recently is Terence Conran’s Boundary. Tables aren’t so big you have to lean in and yell, the distance between tables is just enough to make eavesdropping difficult without removing the ambient buzz that makes a busy dining room so appealing, and despite the exposed brickwork and glass wall separating the kitchen from the diners you can hear every word.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect to all this sound and fury is just how willing we are to stay silent. The San Francisco Chronicle was apparently the first newspaper to include a sound rating in its restaurant reviews, but few others have followed suit. We’re now more critical than ever of restaurant food. We watch Masterchef avidly, follow the recipes of celebrity chefs and have greater choice than ever before when eating out. Why then do we put up with noisy restaurants? It’s time to make ourselves heard.

This article was published in the autumn 2010 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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