Modern Restaurant Acoustics: The Ultimate Noise Trap

In 1998, The San Francisco Chronicle introduced a noise rating system to its restaurant reviews; the first newspaper to do so.  Nearly two decades on and the newspaper’s restaurant critics continue to dine with small sound measuring devices tucked out of view. The review system, which rates restaurants’ noise levels from one bell (“pleasantly quiet”) to five bells (“too noisy”), is a sign of our growing need as consumers to not only have a tasty meal, but have one accompanied by a pleasant sound environment. While this awareness is evident all over online complaints of “noisy restaurants”, most restaurants still don’t have acoustic treatments.

There are a number of combining factors that create a poor acoustic environment in restaurants, which harms diner satisfaction:

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Bare tables, stripped floors, open plan designs broken up by hard-surfaced columns and open kitchens. These are all features of the modern restaurants that exacerbate noise in dining spaces.

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Lombard Effect

In a clamorous restaurant diners will raise their voices to be heard above the din. This will in turn raise the overall noise levels in the room, which diners will continue to combat by raising their voices.

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Taste Theory

Studies have shown that in noisy restaurants diners perceive their food to be less salty and less sweet as noise levels increase.

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Learn More About Restaurant Acoustics

Poor restaurant acoustics are often cited as one of the top five reasons that a diner would not return to a restaurant. The following reviews appear on the popular travel website ‘TripAdvisor’ and are just two of the over 2,000 negative restaurant reviews that talk of poor restaurant acoustics:

 Tripadvisor customer review of poor noise environment in a restaurant.
 Negative Tripadvisor review complaining noise ruining a meal.
(Click to enlarge)

Above are both reviews of modern restaurants in London that share the following features: bare tables, stripped floors, open plan designs and open kitchens. These are all features of the modern restaurant. The industry has largely discarded carpeting, table cloths and heavy curtains in favour of sleek, modern designs.

While keeping up with the times may be visually appealing, it ultimately sacrifices diner comfort. The prevalence of hard, reverberant surfaces in a large, open environment means noise is reflected from surface to surface, prolonging the time it takes for noise to die out. This adds to a room’s echo and ambient noise levels. Throw into the mix open bars and kitchens, the cluttering of a kitchen, vibrant conversation and live music, and you have a clamorous and uncomfortable noise environment.

Whilst some see this as part of a lively, bustling restaurant – as the previous reviews show us, many see it as the difference between a return visit or not.

Restaurant Noise And The Effect On The Diner Experience

In April 2014, The Boston Globe newspaper in the United States tested the decibel levels at eight modern restaurants in the Boston area. The results ranged from 66 decibels (a safe range similar to normal conversation levels) to 97 decibels (equivalent to the sound of a motorcycle; with a risk exposure limit of eight hours daily). The average recorded decibel level was 78 decibels, equivalent to the sound of heavy traffic noise. What consequences do these restaurant noise levels have for diners, however?

 In a restaurant where many people are talking, diners will raise their voices in order to be heard above the room’s ambient noise level, which will in turn raise the ambient noise level in the restaurant. This is called the Lombard Effect. The effort given to vocalise words is inextricably linked to the decibels in a room. The higher the decibel level in a restaurant, the more effort given to vocalise words, as outlined in the table below:

Decibels (Db)

  • 54
  • 60
  • 66
  • 72
  • 78

Vocal Effort

  • Relaxed
  • Normal
  • Raised
  • Loud
  • Very Loud
Source: Rindel. J, 2012

A study conducted by the food company Unilever and the University of Manchester wanted to find out whether background restaurant noise affected diners’ perception of flavour. They found that people rated food less salty and less sweet as noise levels increased. Conversely, when noise levels decreased, the perception of those tastes increased. The results indicate that noise has a somewhat masking effect on taste. This one of the reasons why airplane food doesn’t taste very good. The deafening roar of the engines can make the food taste less sweet and less salty.

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