I CAN’T HEAR YOU

Somebody note the date:  I agree almost completely with The Atlantic magazine, at least as far as this article is concerned (thankee, Insty), and I urge you to read it all, if you have the time:

Restaurants are so loud because architects don’t design them to be quiet.  Much of this shift in design boils down to changing conceptions of what makes a space seem upscale or luxurious, as well as evolving trends in food service.  Right now, high-end surfaces connote luxury, such as the slate and wood of restaurants including The Osprey in Brooklyn or Atomix in Manhattan.
This trend is not limited to New York.  According to Architectural Digest, mid-century modern and minimalism are both here to stay.  That means sparse, modern decor;  high, exposed ceilings; and almost no soft goods, such as curtains, upholstery, or carpets.  These [minimalist] design features are a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears.  No soft goods and tall ceilings mean nothing is absorbing sound energy, and a room full of hard surfaces serves as a big sonic mirror, reflecting sound around the room.

Now add over-loud “background” music to the clamor as well as noisy patronss (Americans are a loud-spoken bunch at the best of times), and it’s enough to make me order soup just so I can drink it through a straw while holding my hands over my ears.

I’ve bitched about this trend in the past, but mostly to complain about the music selection (tinny pop pablum or bass-heavy rap/R&B).  But last week I had breakfast with Doc Russia in some new (and overpriced) breakfast place, and in a room which contained maybe six paying customers (out of over fifty seats), the noise was so bad (hard surfaces plus loud music) that I longed for my shooting lids.

Come to think of it, I think I’ll start carrying my ear protection with me when I go out from now on, and put them on if the place is too noisy.  My lids are noise-sensitive (with the little volume adjustment thingies on the side) so they are perfectly adequate for conversation.  I will, however, shout loudly at the waiter when ordering my food;  what the fuck, the restaurant clearly doesn’t mind excessive noise, right?

I’m sounding a little flippant about this, but I’m not joking at all.  As it is, my tinnitus makes hearing occasionally difficult, but impossibly-so in a loud environment.

Don’t get me started on “mid-century modern and minimalism; sparse, modern decor; high, exposed ceilings; stainless-steel tabletops, slate-tile floors, and exposed ductwork; and sparse and sleek [decor], with hardwood floors and colorful Danish chairs with tapered legs seated beside long, light-colored wood tables”.  A less inviting scenario for a meal I can’t even begin to imagine.  And please:  don’t give me that crap about how hard surfaces are easier to clean and to keep clean:  that’s putting the needs of the business ahead of those of its customers, which mistake should cause the business to fail quickly — but sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case here, I suspect because we’ve just become accustomed to the clamor.

The article has it right:

The result is a loud space that renders speech unintelligible.  Now that it’s so commonplace, the din of a loud restaurant is unavoidable.  That’s bad for your health—and worse for the staff who works there.  But it also degrades the thing that eating out is meant to [engender]:  a shared social experience that rejuvenates, rather than harms, its participants.

Considering that I go out to eat with friends or family where the primary motivation is social — conversation and companionship — and the food (no matter how fine) a distant second, it should come as no surprise that over time, I have become less and less likely to eat out.

In fact, strike the above thought about taking hearing protection when going out.  In future, I’ll walk into the restaurant and if the clamor is overpowering, I’ll just tell the restaurateur:   “Sorry, but your place is too noisy.  I’m going somewhere quieter.”  And please note that I’m not talking about a restaurant full of people having a good time:  that’s a different situation altogether.  But if the place is noisy because everyone has to scream to make themselves heard over the cacophonous ambiance, then it’s elsewhere I’ll be going.

If enough people follow my example, then maybe — just maybe — we can reverse this bullshit trend whereby function doesn’t just follow form;  it throws it to the floor and suffocates it, noisily.

And by the way:  fuck “mid-century” and “minimalism”.

20 comments

  1. It’s nothing really new. Back in the late 1980s I went to a work lunch at a place in lower Manhattan called America (I think it was a chain, there was one in Washington DC too, but it was one of the nicer chains). The building was apparently originally an industrial or commercial site, high ceilings, exposed beams, concrete walls, and one BIG room. The bar was on a raised platform at one end of the room, we were seated all the way at the other end of the room, and you could hear every bottle clink as the bartender made drinks, you could hear the soda gun, and every scrape of a barstool.

    And how about the “fancy” places that leave all the vent work and wiring exposed in the ceiling, never heard of sheet rock?

    1. My wife visited that very same restaurant back in the day and she said it was indeed deafening. And as an added bonus the food was utterly unremarkable, so of course she never went back.

  2. Couple of issues here, mate. 1) as we get older we become less tolerant of others’ noise. You’re about my age, I suspect, at the entryway to old-fartitude, and you mentioned a hearing issue, which makes it dang hard to hear in the environment you describe. 2) the “music” selection of today’s eateries is selected by juveniles (probably always has been), so all we’re likely to hear is grating noise.

    But 3) we’re no longer the target market segment (I detest market-speak) for these eateries. They are what they are because it appeals to 30-somethings. And that’s not going to change. I will however, kick about it for as long as I have a kick left in me!

  3. That third point is EXCELLENT. I’m nearly 60 and I’ve noticed your contention, at least subconsciously, more and more over the last decade or so–few care about the opinion on most any subject of relatively old bastards, other than other relatively old bastards.

    Well, so be it.

    (BTW, your points first and second points are spot on as well.)

    1. This is a disconnect for me. Every article we read about that age group is about how poor they are, how their student loans are preventing them from buying anything of lasting value, yet the advertising market fawns all over them as if they’re wealthier than those of us who’ve saved all our lives and have successful businesses and investments that permit us to enjoy the nicer things in life while we still can.

        1. Well, yes. However, as long we’re still on the green side of the lawn we’ll continue to spend more than they will. We’ll buy higher-end cars, luxury-level booze, take more trips, stay in better hotels and eat in higher-end restaurants. We’ll be more likely to hire people to do labour-intensive work rather than saving money and doing it ourselves at this point, too. You’d think advertisers and restauranteurs would be falling all over themselves targeting our money, rather than hoping that Kaydance and Brandon might someday decide to try their wares.

  4. Hard surfaces ARE easier to clean, but curtains are easy to take down and run through the washer. Throwing a couple long curtains on a pole and rotating them out once a week should keep them clean, AND keep the noise down.

    Also, unless you’re paying top dollar, most restaurants in America… suck. I’m sorry, they do. Steak houses that don’t know what medium rare means, bars that can’t figure out how to make me a Manhattan (while trying to charge me $10 for whatever the hell they made), Italian joints that seem to think corn syrup is an essential ingredient to a red sauce, restaurants today make me want to gag. I’m at the point where the only reason for me to go out to eat is if there’s some food we cannot or do not make at home. Fried Chicken, for example. The only way to get a decent meal these days is to pay an exorbitant amount of money, and I have objections to paying $100 for a meal that the Mrs. and I can make at home for $20. The service ain’t THAT great.

    Once I retire I might just open a restaurant, so that I can eat a good meal in a nice place and not have to pay through the nose for the experience.

  5. Not just restaurants.

    I carry some foam earplugs in my car and briefcase…..I find I use them often.

    Movie theaters (on the few times I actually go into one) are one place I use them: The audio levels are so high I find them painful.

      1. I haven’t this year at all…Last year there were a few that sounded good enough to go see. Dunkirk, Darkest Hour (both OK but with problems), Atomic Blonde (oh, please….).

        This year, not a damned one.

  6. Oh hell yes, I find FINE DINING to be a miserable experience when my ears are assaulted just walking in the door. I am in my 70’s, wear hearing aids and even with changing programs on the hearing aids specifically for restaurants I hear the din amplified. There are a few of the older style eating places in our area that are not too bad but it makes no sense for me to spend money, sit and nod my head and smile and not have any idea about the conversation.

    I am retired and I love to cook and my standard phrase when we complete a nice meal at home is, “I could sell this dish and draw a crowd.” Of course making a meal at home for a few people and consistently turning out great dinners in a commercial setting for a profit are very different things. I can set my steaks out to come to room temperature several hours ahead of time, prep vegetables while have a decent scotch and water, start cooking and get my gas grill heated up over 800F and then at the right time use a stop watch to cook the steaks two and a half minutes on each side, bring it in and let it rest while I finish my sauces, pour a couple of glasses of wine and spend the next hour or two enjoying the meal for a fraction of eating mediocre food in a loud environment.

    By the way, after years of eating in front of the TV each evening after we came home from work my wife and I have found it is pleasant to actually sit down at well set table and have conversations. When others come over and join us that just makes it all better, sorry it took us so long to start slowing down and enjoying our food.

  7. The number of places the Mrs. and I will go out to eat at has shrunk significantly in the past few years because of this issue. (I’m only 49!) We’ve also tried a few “new to us” places and have run away because of how loud it is. One place (Yard House) was all hard surfaces, music up to 11, TVs blasting, Americans being American-loud. We had to scream at the waiter to be heard and after we ordered we just gave up and left.
    One of the things that has occurred to me as I get older is that “quiet” (and appreciating quiet) is a sign of civilization and maturity. Children and immature adults love noisy environments and mature adults want quiet.

  8. This is actually how we identified that my son might have a sensory processing disorder. We would go to these restaurants and my son would have to get up multiple times to use the restroom. Turns out he didn’t have an urinary or bowel issue but the noise and the multiple TV screens in the restaurant was slowly building up in him to the point where it was triggering his fight or flight response and he would excuse himself to the bathroom in order to get himself back in control. While he can now walk himself through some mental and physical exercises that keep him in a better state, he still needs to hit the restroom at least once if we stay for more than an hour.

    We as a culture seem to not even want quiet places at all anymore. Offices are adopting the cursed “open office concept” with its low cubicle walls and utter lack of personal space (a trend that has invaded the home as well). Even church services are having more in common with a rock concert than a place for quiet reflection and prayer. We have a number of parks in our area that pipe music to every corner of the park. The only places of quiet I can seem to find are my car in the parking lot before work and my own bedroom with my range headphones on.

  9. Couldn’t possible agree more, sir. I, too, am a hearing-aid-wearing, tinnitus-afflicted Certified Olde Phart™, and I simply cannot abide loud spaces. Luckily our favourite restaurant in NYFC is a throwback to the ages; built in and relatively unchanged since 1885 so it’s a very pleasant place to enjoy a meal without risking a barking headache.

    Even as a younger person I avoided loud bars and restaurants. I’ve never understood why owners of said establishments feel that listening to “music” at 110dB is preferable to having a nice conversation. Especially if one is on a date.

    I relish those summer nights spent on my deck with a cigar in one hand and a Scotch in the other, all the while soaking up the solitude. But to enjoy my cigars in the winter and not freeze solid I have to drive to the local cigar shop’s lounge, which inevitably has half a dozen Tee Vee Sets all blaring either sportsball events or Fox News (which I suppose is better than MSLSD or Chicken Noodle News, but still….). There is no part of the place where one can commune with the t’baccy and whisky in peace, alas.

  10. I have walked out of a couple of places because they were so damned loud; either painfully so, or you’d have to lean across the table and yell to make yourself heard.

    Daughter wanted to go to a place a couple of years ago that was a fine example: all hard surfaces, loud background music, the food was good but I’ll never go back.

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