February 18th, 2008

Restaurants: Dining on Decibels

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Restaurant din is in. Some restaurateurs are turning up the volume in quest of a hip and boisterous ambiance, according to a February article in Canada’s Globe and Mail. It’s not a happy development for restaurant employees or for diners.

The World Health Organization describes noise as a serious health hazard – as opposed to a nuisance. Workplace specialists recognize it as an ergonomics-related problem. It has been shown to damage hearing, cause spikes in blood pressure, increase stress and fatigue and decrease efficiency and productivity.

Restaurant employees are at particular risk because they are exposed to it for long hours. In the United States, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) states that a hearing conservation program must be implemented when employees are exposed to 85 dB or more in an 8-hour day. A publication that promotes the importance of acoustics and acoustic-related issues across a variety of related industries, restaurantnoise.com, points out that the typical restaurant operates at an 80 dB level, but some can reach as much as 110 dB.  Jackhammer noise has been measured at 110 decibels.

After poor service, noise has become the second most common complaint of restaurant goers in the United States, according to Zagat Survey’s 2008 edition of America’s Top Restaurants. In the most recent Zagat survey for Vancouver, according to the Globe and Mail, noise ranked as the third most irritating aspect of dining out (after bad service and lackluster food). In Montreal and Toronto, it placed fourth.

Veteran food writer Marion Kane told the newspaper that the problem has become much worse over the last decade.  Some restaurateurs deliberately create a noisy environment with “the mistaken belief – especially among young people – that if you’re shouting and it’s loud, you’re having a good time," Kane explained. 

Vancouver restaurateur Emad Yacoub makes no apologies for turning up the volume in his restaurants as the night progresses. "We’re trying to create full-energy restaurants," he says. His Glowbal Grill registered a peak of 97 decibels – louder than most sawmills – in the newspaper’s own sound survey.

At last year’s Vancouver Magazine restaurant awards, the jury for the design award withheld the gold prize, in part because they saw, or heard, "so many pretty rooms bedeviled by sound problems." Charlene Rooke, one of the jury members and editor-in-chief of Western Living magazine, said that if she is eating in a fine-dining restaurant and paying X amount of dollars for dinner, she wants to be able to hear the person across the table. “I shouldn’t have to yell," she added.

Christine Harrison, an occupational audiologist with the Workers Compensation Board of British Columbia, told the Globe and Mail that many, if not most, restaurants have noise levels too high for comfortable conversation. The ideal sound level for normal conversation is 55 to 65 decibels, she said. When the ambient noise rises to about 70 decibels, the voice must be raised to be heard. At 75 decibels, conversation is difficult. Above 85 decibels, prolonged exposure – more than eight hours – can permanently damage hearing.

Complicating the issue, most of the noise in restaurants comes from echo and reverberation, which isn’t easy to measure. And the quality of noise can also make a difference. John Vrtacic, a sound engineer in the music industry, pointed out that carpets and soft chairs can deaden noise. "You may read 75 decibels on a noise meter, but it’s not psychologically annoying,” he explained. “If you’re in a restaurant with tiles on the floor and a lot of clinking, the frequencies are higher, and the noise is more annoying."

Add background music to the mix and the cacophony can be ear-shattering. Unfortunately, many restaurateurs aren’t listening.

Ten years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle became the first daily newspaper to routinely include noise ratings in its restaurant reviews. The "bomb" rating indicates restaurants that measure decibels of 80 or more.

"I’m beginning to think we need to add a double-bomb designation," says Michael Bauer, the newspaper’s food editor and lead restaurant critic.

Sources: Globe & Mail; restaurantnoise.com; OSHA



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