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: (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; also know as the Reverberation Time (RT). 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. A study which looked at the the response of different age groups to the acoustics within a restaurant established RT as the crucial factor in determining comfort within the space and satisfaction with the dining experience. The results identified the optimal range for reverberation time to be between 0.5 and 0.7 seconds.
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:
Source: Rindel. J, 2012
- Very Loud
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.