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Bring in the Funk, Turn Down the Noise

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Hofbrau Bierhaus in Midtown, where noise levels reach above 130 decibels

I have two noise-level apps on my phone, and whenever I sit down in a restaurant, I turn them both on. Remarkably, they agree in the data they generate, and it always points to one inescapable conclusion: Modern restaurants are too damn noisy. And on purpose, too.

Go with a friend to a place that's currently hot, and I can almost guarantee you won't be able to have a real conversation. At normal speaking volume, you'll miss half the words, and find yourselves bending over the plates to get your heads closer together. Even then you'll have to shout to be heard. The only carefree restaurant conversationalists these days are the lip-readers.

And how many times have you returned from one of these wildly popular places to find yourself hoarse, feeling like you might be coming down with a cold? Don't blame the viruses! Your throat hurts because you've spent the last two hours SHOUTING.

I sat with a friend a few evenings ago at Lafayette, a new French brasserie where the sumptuous décor and cunning compartmentalization of the space suggest a well-designed restaurant. I had hoped the interior design would extend to some sort of sound dampening, but no such luck. Even on a slow night the noise level was nearly deafening, topping out at 88 decibels. I lamented the loudness of the place to my companion, but I doubt that she heard me.

But that isn't the highest level I've ever recorded. A couple of years ago at a Midtown beer hall, I recorded levels that briefly shot above 130 decibels, which is referred to by audiologists as the Threshold of Pain, which would make a great punk-rock band name, but totally ruins a restaurant visit. Many restaurants I go to routinely have noise levels that spike at over 90 decibels, and remain consistently in the high 80s.

But there are other consequences to noise exposure in restaurants, aside form not being able to enjoy yourself by conversing. According to the National Institutes of Health, "Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss," which may be short-term or long-term. Overexposure to high levels of noise may result in muffled hearing, making it difficult to distinguish speech; a loss of abilitiy to hear high frequencies; or in a constant ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus.

As a diner, is your hearing in danger from these noise levels? Since your exposure to a restaurant noise-level of, say, 90 decibels probably only happens intermittently, and then for only an hour or two at a time, probably not. It's the restaurant employees I worry about the most, waiters and bartenders who regularly pull eight-hour shifts. They should have their hearing checked, and regularly.

What can restaurants do? Well, noise dampening is a well-advanced art. Acoustic tiles are no longer ugly, and spray-on noise mitigation is available. Simply reducing the number of noise-reflective surfaces in a restaurant would have a profound effect on sound levels. Not playing loud music that ramps up the decibels – even though the customers can perceive nothing but the drums and bass – would help, too.

But, as long as loudness remains an actual objective of restaurateurs, we are all in some danger; some of us profoundly so. Why do they do it? Well, that's the subject of a future rant.
— Robert Sietsema
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