In the July 22 issue of New York Magazine, food critic, Adam Platt, exposes a current trend in restaurant culture in an article titled “I Can’t Hear Myself Eat: Why restaurants are louder than ever.” Perhaps the volume of the restaurant atmosphere has incurred slow growth, but it has currently reached deafening proportions, as Platt explains, “Why restaurants are so damn loud.”
Platt notes that the shift happened just over a decade ago, when restaurants morphed from what he calls “hushed, cocooned dining rooms” to “noisy bars, built for sound that happen to serve good, sometimes excellent food.”
Part of the rise in decibel levels was a way to raise funds and increase profit. Platt explained that the recession forced many New York City restaurants to enlarge their small bars in the front of the house to push more “profitable drinks.” We all know that drinks add up in a magical way that only drinks can. Somehow it is easier to be a little more conscious of prices when enjoying food, one appetizer instead of two, but it is so hard to decline a refill on a glass of wine, or resist that next delicious cocktail. And at some point, inhibition and sense are thrown out of the window as more drinks are consumed, resulting in more profit for the business.
This maneuver adds patronage, but also has the potential to transform expectations and clientele. Bringing the bar, meaning some times making the bar bigger or bar menu larger, to restaurants, not only changes the reason why people come, but also the function of the space. Bars are supposed to be loud and convivial, there is a mixing which was missing in restaurants past. Adding bars and drinks and noise changes the dynamic of the restaurant.
Expanding the bar or even the bar menu was a way of appealing to and drawing in a younger crowd, another market to get money from. There is a whole class of young professionals with money to spend (even in harder times), who are willing to indulge in luxurious food and drink. They expect and follow the trends, and sometimes trends are loud, overbearing and obvious.
Platt also points out in his article, the “snowball effect” of volume in restaurants, just like we see with drinks. And this is quite apparent in most situations; we see it all the time, even outside of the City. Loud music, small spaces and larger crowds, make for a noisier experience, and everything escalates with food and especially drink. A night dining out sometimes can feel like it turns into a shouting match, or a competition to be heard.
Success of a restaurant can now be measured in noise. In New York City eateries, noise levels are “regularly measured at 90 decibels,” according to Platt. 90 decibels is equivalent to a police whistle, heavy traffic, noisy home appliances, or the subway to name a few (see more here). Turning up the sound system is trendy, but it has become an occupational hazard.
Dining in a loud establishment can be difficult— the noise taking away from the symphony that could potentially be on the plate. There is distraction from the food, other outlets for attention and detail, but perhaps restaurateurs are trying to cultivate a different kind of experience in conjunction with their innovation in the kitchen. Sometimes silence and quiet can be seen as stuffy, old fashioned and tired, and at other times it can be seen as intimidating. But times have changed and good food has become an ongoing trend, because everyone is a foodie now. Restaurants were breaking from their molds and now try to cater to a larger margin of people, perhaps even a generation that thrives on noise and instant gratification.