Day 6

It's not just you: Restaurants really are louder than they used to be

Architecture critic Kate Wagner explains how modern restaurant design has transformed the dining experience into a shouting match — and why that matters.

'What you end up with is a big loud mess'

The open-concept, minimalist decor of restaurants like Momofuku in Toronto creates a trendy — but loud — dining experience. (Charley Gallay/Getty Images)

Finding love in New York City is hard enough — but when you can't even hear your date across the table, it becomes close to impossible.

"You're constantly guessing what the other person is saying; you get a little bit of anxiety that the conversation is even flowing," says Gregory Scott, an entrepreneur who moved to the city in 2009.

"You're just unable to connect."

Eventually, he was so fed up with all the clamour that he started carrying a sound meter with him whenever he went into restaurants and cafes.

"A lot of my friends thought I was a little bit nuts doing this," he admitted.

A room with all these hard surfaces turns into a big, reflective mirror that bounces sound around and makes speech unintelligible.- Kate Wagner, architecture critic and blogger

But he was astonished by the noise levels his machine picked up.

"Either the background music was blasting, there was poor indoor acoustics, or it was just not a very good acoustic environment."

As it turns out, Scott wasn't alone in his experience. In recent decades, restaurants have indeed been getting louder — and architectural critic Kate Wagner says a lot of that has to do with their design.

"It's really ubiquitous now that you can go to a place and it's just this very modern decor and there's no sonic privacy," she told CBC Radio's Day 6.

In recent decades, more restaurants have added built-in bars that make their spaces much louder. (Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images)

Wagner said the rise of minimalist decor, open kitchens and built-in bars — a stark contrast from earlier restaurants' embrace of curtains, carpets and upholstered dining chairs — have all contributed to the noisiness of modern fine dining.

"A room with all these hard surfaces turns into a big, reflective mirror that bounces sound around and makes speech unintelligible."

"When you add materials like hard surfaces [like] concrete floors, brick masonry walls [and] wooden tables ... what you end up with is a big, loud mess."

'Yelp for noise'

As restaurants' decibel levels creep higher, more people are taking noise levels into consideration when they choose a place to eat.

Scott, who has hearing loss, is the founder of SoundPrint, an app that rates restaurants' loudness in cities across the U.S. It's been likened to a "Yelp for noise."

"I'm getting a lot of e-mails from those who have hearing loss, [or whose] children have autism, but also a lot of people who don't have any sensory loss whatsoever," he said.

"They just like to go out to eat [and] they're tired of not being able to hear their companion speak when they go out."

Open kitchens are a common feature in modern fine dining restaurants — but they are also a major source of noise. (Facebook/Ayden Kitchen & Bar)

The app resonated with Wagner, who was frustrated when she was forced to yell across the table while celebrating her birthday at a trendy Baltimore restaurant last year.

Like Scott, Wagner started carrying a sound meter around with her when she went out.

"The loudest sounds that I recorded were in this brewery built out of an old fire station, and it was consistently around 90 decibels," she said, noting that noise levels at or above 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing damage after eight hours — the length of a server's shift.

The louder the restaurant is, the more alcohol is consumed — kind of as a de-stressor.- Kate Wagner, architecture critic

"The quietest restaurant that I made measurements in, which was a coffee shop in between the morning and lunch rush, was still 70 decibels," she said.

The popularity of Scott's app, which has already logged 50,000 submissions, suggests a demand for quieter spaces.

Boost volume, make money

But Wagner says restaurants actually have an economic incentive to keep their venues loud.

"There are studies that find that loud restaurants are more profitable," she said. "The louder the restaurant is, the more alcohol is consumed — kind of as a de-stressor."

If restaurants are louder, it means diners don't stay too long, which means a higher turnover for restaurant owners, Wagner also said. 

She added that hard surfaces like concrete, brick and wood are also easier to clean and maintain.

Tablecloths, placemats and curtains have fallen out of favour in modern restaurant decor, but Wagner says they can make a big difference acoustically. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Still, she's hopeful that changing attitudes could help make the restaurant experience easier on the ears in the years to come.

"My hope is that restaurants will aim to be more inclusive of people from different demographics, including the elderly and the hearing impaired," she said.

"So yeah, I think that things are potentially moving in a quieter direction."

To hear the full interview with Kate Wagner, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.