|By Glenn Jeffers, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 29, 2007 - -- Walk into a restaurant with a friend, spouse or significant other. Sit down, order a drink and start up a conversation in your normal voice.
Can you hear them? Can they hear you?
In many restaurants, the answer is no. And it's becoming the norm as dinner conversations drown in a sea of background bar chatter and surround-sound music systems. But if you think the people around you are to blame, think again.
Instead, blame a few staples of contemporary restaurant design -- hardwood floors and wide-open dining rooms, the exposed-brick facades and large bay windows. They're the reasons patrons may resort to lip-reading to talk at restaurants, says Tom Thunder, a Palatine-based audiologist and acoustic engineer.
"It's the nature of the surfaces," Thunder says. "If they're flat, hard and dense, they'll reflect sound almost perfectly. It's like what a mirror does for light."
The results are sound waves that bounce back and forth through a restaurant -- with nothing to absorb them -- keeping the sound levels high. Thunder doesn't believe the noise levels are hazardous or could cause hearing loss. But they are really annoying.
"It's the lack of ability to communicate," he says. "It causes uneasiness. For many people, that may mean not going back to the restaurant."
So what constitutes a "lack of ability to communicate"? Well, normal conversation measures about 50 to 60 decibels, Thunder says. Any sound level over 60 will interfere with conversation.
Because of the added noise, people raise their voices in an attempt to be heard. But this phenomenon, which Thunder calls the "Lombard effect" (or "cocktail-party effect"), only adds to the sound pollution.
"As the background noise gets louder, the human voice gets louder," Thunder says. "It's a natural occurrence up to a point. Then maybe your voice gets hoarse and you choose not to talk."
The sound level drove Elissa Goldman to call it an early night when she visited N9ne in the West Loop. Goldman treated her elderly aunt and uncle to dinner at the contemporary American steakhouse several weeks ago. And though they enjoyed their meals, their conversations suffered because of background noise.
"It just took extra energy to try and have a conversation," says Goldman, 40, of Chicago. "We would have stayed and talked more, maybe have a drink, but we got out of there a little bit quicker."
Some restaurants, however, want that level of sound, especially if it stays open late and serves a younger crowd. At those places communication is secondary, says restaurateur Jerry Kleiner, whose KDK restaurant group is behind such popular spots as Marche, Red Light and Opera. The energy level takes center stage, especially in the later hours.
"You've got to read the room," Kleiner says. "People [eating] at 5 aren't going to want to hear that noise. But at 10, everything is different."
Some restaurant owners use sound to their advantage, lowering it to set a somber, more relaxed tone or raising it to create that active atmosphere. With Mon Ami Gabi, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises went with a tiled floor to keep the sound level up. At Wildfire, carpets and sound-absorption ceiling material helps keep the sound levels in check.
"There's a certain amount of noise you want in a restaurant," Lettuce president Kevin Brown says. "It makes life feel good. And there's a certain amount of noise that cannot be nearly as comfortable and we avoid that. We like good noise, not ear-piercing, sharp noise."
For Brown, determining a restaurant's sound level starts during the design phase, when he and the chefs decide on what ceiling and floor materials to use. Typically, a higher concept restaurant means softer materials for less sound.
But even thinking ahead doesn't always guarantee an optimal sound level. When Lettuce opened Vong in 1999, Brown says the noise level approached the kind of level he tries to avoid. The company found a solution while transitioning the restaurant to its current concept, Vong's Thai Kitchen or VTK, adding sound-absorbing material to the ceiling that was functional and decorative.
"It was a nice solution," Brown says. "We have a couple of tricks, but it happens. You think you have all the right precautions, but with all these restaurants, you never know."
Taking precautions should be the first step of any restaurateur, says Thunder, the acoustics expert. By making sound quality a priority during the design phase rather than an afterthought, owners can avoid opening a restaurant so deafening that correcting the issue affects profit margins. "As an acoustic standpoint, that's the worse thing you can do, because then it can get costly," Thunder says.
Billy Lawless learned that the hard way. Shortly after opening his upscale gastropub The Gage in August, Lawless was inundated with complaints about the noise level. Small wonder. With hardwood floors and tile-covered walls, the sound inside the 120-seat restaurant had nowhere to go.
The addition of acoustic tile on the ceiling has helped, Lawless says. He's also adding sound-absorbing wall panels that, he hopes, won't clash with the restaurant's decor.
The Gage will never be as quiet as a public library. Its bar area, popular among the after-work corporate crowd, bleeds into its front dining area. Its stylish open kitchen sits proudly inside the restaurant's back dining room. But the Irishman says he can use this experience toward his next endeavor.
"My next restaurant, I'm hiring a sound engineer from the get-go," Lawless says.
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The sound files
Just how loud are some restaurants? We visited a few over the last several weeks during dinner rush (7-7:30 p.m) and measured the sound level over a two-minute period with a decibel meter. For comparison, a vacuum cleaner roars at about 70 decibels. Blenders whirl at about 80 decibels. At 90, you could be mowing the lawn or riding a snowmobile. Chain saws hit the 100-decibel mark.
-- Glenn Jeffers
Restaurant: Di Pescara
Restaurant: Gibsons Bar &
Restaurant: May Street Market
Restaurant: West Town Tavern
Restaurant: The Gage
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