Upon entering Fiora’s restaurant with owner, Mike Anastasio, I immediately found myself quite transported.
The Geneva, Illinois restaurant finds its character in a large 1870’s vacation home. And as I walked from room to room surrounded by rich wood, classically trimmed plaster, old books, fixtures and more, the environment appeared to be a truly well-executed and cohesive brand. It seemed no detail was overlooked…
I quickly learned, however, that this wasn’t initially the case. “We really set out to do this right from the beginning and solicited the help of a spectrum of experts: architects, interior/exterior designers, professional decorators…” Anastasio explained. “You try to anticipate absolutely everything, but there are always kinks. One of them surfaced for us when we started receiving complaints about noise.”
I looked again at all the wood surfaces and plaster walls. It made sense.
The Noise Is Everywhere
This single example is by no means unique, as New York Times reporter Cara Buckley documented when she dove deep into the din of the New York social scene for her article Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated Roar.
Ms. Buckley and her team took a decibel meter on a sonic tour of more than two-dozen New York restaurants as part of a larger look at city noise. “We decided to start with restaurants just because it’s one of these frequent complaints,” Buckley explained. “People avoid going to places here because they’re loud.”
What they found was equal parts expected and concerning. Levels at several locations, both with and without music, frequently averaged in the mid-90s decibel range. For perspective, this is equivalent to the noise level of a jackhammer or subway train.
The Science of Sound
To dig deeper into how sound affects the restaurant environment, I was able to connect with soundscape and communication expert, Julian Treasure, who is internationally sought after for his insight into the impact of sound, and featured in four popular TED Talks.
The first thing Treasure cited was the chief cause of noisy restaurants. “There’s a current fashion in architecture to use hard surfaces everywhere, so you get rooms designed with steel, glass, stone, wood and plasterboard,” he began. “That fashion is compounded by the fashion to have open-plan kitchens now. These two things create an environment which is kind of primed to be noisy.”
The result is effectively a “resonant box” where sound bounces everywhere. Once this environment is filled with talking diners, silverware, dishes and music, what begins to happen is what is referred to as the Lombard effect.
This phenomenon occurs when a person speaks louder to be heard over competing noise. As other diners and servers do the same, the effect becomes cumulative. “What you end up with is a restaurant with everybody bellowing at their companions from a foot away,” explained Treasure.
Treasure is particularly vocal about the health effects of such an environment, citing WHO research that indicates extended exposure to noise levels 65 decibels or higher can lead to negative health effects.
“I’m not saying everyone is going to start dropping like flies—people can habituate—but it’s probably not that healthy," says Treasure. “For diners, people can make their own choices, as long as for every noisy restaurant there’s a quiet one.”
Buzz vs. Noise
Treasure stated that the second contributor to loud venues is a belief that loud equals atmosphere—a current trend in thinking. “There’s a conflation of buzz and noise, which are not the same thing,” continued Treasure. “You can have a quiet buzz—exciting and humming quietly.”
Treasure clarified that loud isn’t necessarily bad when it’s appropriate and is the result of a conscious decision, but believes this is often not the case. “I think often people just design places that look a certain way. Everybody comes in, the Lombard effect takes off, it becomes very loud, and everybody starts to habituate to this and assume that’s how restaurants should be.”
Treasure outlined basic questions restaurateurs should ask themselves to help drive acoustic decisions:
What are people trying to do in this space?
What is the environment like?
Is the sound system good enough for what you want to do?
Who are the people? What do they like?
Is there a brand or some values you want to express with the sound?
“When you think about those things, then if you understand the way sound affects people, you can start to design sound that is appropriate and expresses the identity of your place,” explained Treasure. “Is it a place for light intelligent conversation? Or is it a place where kids get together and shout over loud music? All of it’s good, but one size does not fit all.”
The Solution: Tools to Manage Your Sound
Ted Weidman of Acoustical Surfaces, Inc. is an expert who has spent more than 11 years working with all types of restaurants. In our recent interview, he provided an overview of the options available for restaurateurs to reduce or manipulate noise levels.
Weidman echoed Julian Treasure’s observation about design trends. “They’re all large rooms with beautiful hard surfaces that look great on paper. Then a week after you open, you have people walking out because it’s so loud,” he explained. “A noisy restaurant is a great problem to have, but on the flipside the people aren’t coming back if they leave with a headache. You need to get something into this space as soon as possible.”
Weidman emphasized that acceptable reverberation times or noise levels are very different across restaurants. “In a sports bar, you want it to be a fun hip crowd where if the place is packed, you want that energy and that’s part of the whole experience. In a fine dining restaurant, you want there to be a little din, because I feel like people subconsciously expect that.”
Wiedman said there’s a fine line between taking the edge off to achieving an acceptable degree of sound/noise and getting it dialed in very specifically to what you’re trying to do with your business. Finding that happy median is always best approached as a job-by-job or room-by-room type of situation.
Wiedman outlined a few of the most common tools:
Acoustical cotton - This utilitarian material looks and feels like felt. It’s not made to be aesthetically pleasing, but for hiding. Exposed metal ceilings and other “first point of reflection” areas are ideal, but under tables and chairs will provide some dampening.
Baffles – Baffles are hung like a flag or floated like flying carpet. Wiedman said this solution is not always ideal because it can inhibit throw and coverage of fire sprinklers and violate fire code—in addition to affecting lighting.
Fabric-wrapped fiberglass panels – Surface-mounted on walls or ceilings, these plain panels are cut to size and wrapped in decorative fabric. They come in a variety of colors.
Printed Panels – These panels are the same as traditionally wrapped fiberglass panels but are custom-printed with designs or photos.
“99% of the restaurants I work with choose surface-mounted product. There’s a lot of freedom for décor, or hiding, or using as an accent piece,” added Wiedman. “Because sound travels so fast, where on the walls or ceiling you put them is completely up to the restaurateur.”
Products Into Practice
New York Times’ Cara Buckley returned to several of the social scenes she wrote about in her article after they had taken sound management measures. “Some people had listened to these complaints that had popped up on Yelp. I thought, ‘This is the way to do it,’” she praised. "It just made it so much more pleasant. It’s this huge place, it’s buzzy, but it was just muffled a little bit, and it certainly didn’t take away from the experience. For me it added…”
Back at Fiora’s Restaurant, the dinner rush was now on. As we walked, Anastasio commented, “We did a lot of research and spoke to several consultants. The right solution for us ended up being acoustic panels that mock the look of the ceiling.”
We entered the room originally subject to the complaints. The space was full. Chatter and conversations were at every table. “We haven’t had a complaint since,” he added. “It really seems to have worked.” I felt around with my ears. And indeed it did.
Find out what an acceptable level of noise is here.