Why are NYC restaurants louder than ever? An architectural detail is to blame

Neat piece by Adam Platt in New York Magazine’s Grub Street blog: Why are restaurants louder than ever? In part, because of the trend towards bigger and bouncier bars; but in part, because that trend involves more exposed wooden slats, which effectively amplify and radiate sound. (HT: @mikenizza) READ THE REST

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I honestly believed that this trend was pioneered by folks like Starbucks in the early 90’s. Lots of reflective surfaces in the store makes it noisy and people won’t hang out there drinking refill after refill, chatting at the table taking up space and not buying anything.

I actually left a job a few years back for this reason. It was in an interesting old building from the '20s, but they hadn’t made any effort towards sound dampening. When it got busy, the sound was a nightmare. Finally the headaches, stress, and exhaustion were just too much, even though the money was excellent.

I definitely noticed the increase of interior noise in London in the late 90s due to similar points of design - lots of glass and varnished pine (and also interiors stripped down to concrete in some cases). None of the comfortable soft wood and carpet and wallpaper atmosphere that you get in more old-fashioned restaurants. In the latter sort of place you can be packed in with dozens of others in a small space and still hear what the person on the other side of the table is saying.

I have a suspicion that there is also a difference in the frequencies of sound. I have a lot of trouble hearing when there is a lot of high frequency noise, to the point where putting my fingers in my ears means I can hear more, and that kicks in when I go (increasingly infrequently) to high-noise venues.

The sound level in a room with lots of fabric and niches and other acoustic treatments is significantly lower. When a sound is created it moves outward in a wave like pattern. Similar to a rock thrown in a pond. When the sound hits a hard flat surface it reflects right back into the room if the room is shaped particularly badly the sound waves can reinforce each other and actually increasing the total decibel level. This is why subwoofers are frequently (though in my opinion improperly) placed in a corner. The 90 degree corner acts like a megaphone increasing the sound of the subwoofer throughout the room. When sound hits an irregular shape it bounces around in the crevices dissipating its energy.

In the case of restaurants, I cannot eat at a PF Changs the large open area coupled with the hard surfaces make conversation impossible and give me ear pain and a headache.


the hell of it is that this will never go away. the highest profit-margins are alcohol sales. a restaurant without a liquor license won’t profit enough to survive. a place with a liquor-license will maximize bar sales. music makes a party atmosphere and increases bar sales. drunk people get loud. music gets turned up to be heard over all the loud people. current trendy interior design promotes sound reflection, but even if trends change toward fabrics or other sound-dampening materials, they’ll just amp the music anyway. and now that they know the current style makes it louder, they won’t change it anyhow, except to other hard-surfaced materials.

FWIW, the same seems true here in Atlanta, at least at the few “trendier” bars/restaurants I’ve been to. Since I have hearing issues on one side, it makes going to restaurants a pain sometimes.

Last week at a Rehoboth Beach upscale restaurant my family & I were seated and began surveying the menu. Upon seeing the high prices , combined with the unrecognizable menu listings, we debated whether to get up and leave. All eyes were upon me, as the father, and I couldn’t decide…until the Bose speaker at 2:00 5 ft. away began blaring 80’s rock at top volume. At that point we all jumped up an ran for the exit.

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