By the time Downtown restaurateur Alex Stupak had opened his flagship two-story Empellon Midtown in March, he knew he might need to add something more practical than another highly Instagrammable avocado dessert. Instead, it was something most diners don’t even notice: sound absorption panels.
Stupak was resisting because fixing sound in a restaurant is a huge expense in an already expensive build-out. “I didn’t want to put sound panels in my new restaurant,” he says. “To do a ceiling the size of the one I have is $50,000 or $60,000 . . . It wasn’t bothering me that it had a bump to it at the bar. What was bothering me was that it was traveling up to our mezzanine."
Stupak anticipated acoustics, considering he had already been burned by sound — or rather critics remarking on it. In 2011 when Sam Sifton reviewed Empellon Taqueria he wrote, “It does not matter that Genesis-era rock is playing loud in the background and a shouty office party next to your table is screaming as if one of them is on fire. The restaurant’s food and drink are a balm for nerves scraped raw by its din.”
Though sound was in the front of Stupak’s mind through construction, he needed to see the space in action, with people in the restaurant, before committing to the expense. His architect Glen Coben of Glen & Co. Architecture — who oversaw the design of Empellon Midtown as well as spaces like Gabriel Kreuther — says “we planned for it.” He knew which panels would need a fix if a problem if it arose. “It’s not a retrofit.”
What’s the difference between Stupak’s scrappier taqueria Al Pastor where tacos start at $5, and the now-flagship in Midtown where two octopus tacos with celery and peanut butter fetch $20?
Of his downtown spots, he says, that’s “us as a garage band.” Uptown: That’s “us as a studio album.” And like all studio albums, the sound needs to be calibrated and harnessed, highlighting certain sounds while suppressing others.
In the decade since loud restaurants have become ubiquitous, small to mid-sized, casual restaurants — often with less backing — still embrace and work around the din, while a new generation of fine-dining and higher-end places with deep pockets are going back to if not a hushed dining room, one that allows for across the table conversation. In 2017 — like the truffle add-on or the VIP table — a quiet restaurant is becoming an amenity or a luxury for those who can afford it.
In 2013 Adam Platt penned “Why Restaurants Are Louder Than Ever” dubbing the era part of the Great Noise Boom that arose when tablecloths were tossed aside and restaurants opened on a shoestring during the recession. “It was kind of ‘Let’s not give a shit about how we build it. We’re in the middle of an economic crisis,’” he says. “It was comfort food in stripped-down environments.”
There was also an embrace of sound, which arguably goes back a decade earlier to Babbo’s opening in 1998 when Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich decided to play the music the kitchen listened to in the dining room. “Music was and still is a large part of the equation,” Batali says. “We played music that we liked at full volume. We didn’t do it to piss people off. We did it to set a mood.”
But in the four years since Platt’s article, restaurateurs began to dial back the noise — at least at places where comfort is an integral part of the experience and there’s money to spend on a build-out.
Consider Danny Meyer’s relocated Union Square Cafe which, particularly on the second floor, has remarkably good acoustics in part because sound absorption panels sit between the rafters, Sabato Sagaria the chief restaurant officer of Union Square Hospitality Group, explains. The restaurant also has carpeting “that definitely helps where we don’t have tablecloths,” he says.
While it’s difficult to say whether quieter restaurants are becoming more common in the accessible price point range — there’s no noise grade like the DOH letters — there’s certainly a trend in newer fine dining where diners can find quiet. Look to a rise of high-end Japanese places like Tempura Matsui, where guests are served in one of two temple-like rooms, as well as the newly debuted Suzuki, which, despite that it’s a vast 6,500 square-feet, manages to keep volume at a level where conversation is comfortable and easy.
There’s also been a return to some of the traditional trappings like drapery and tablecloths that keep sound in check. Nowhere is that more present than Daniel Rose and Stephen Starr’s James Beard award-winning Le Coucou, where banquettes are lined with velvet cushions, tables are covered, and large windows that look out onto Lafayette Street have drapes that Martha Stewart would approve. Other elements help keep the sound level comfortable, too. “They have an exposed ceiling in the middle,” explains Brett Traussi, the COO of The Dinex Group, which operates Daniel Boulud’s restaurants, who is deaf in one ear. “That low ceiling: They made the weakness of the room a strength.”
With pricey soundproofing comes expensive check averages at these restaurants. “I don’t think we can overlook the cost of construction,” Traussi says. “Sound-proofing is extremely expensive and you can open a restaurant without spending what ever amount of money on [it].”
A month after opening, Stupak posted a shot of the bar from the mezzanine to Instagram with the note: “Due to an unexpectedly robust and jovial happy hour/bar scene we are experiencing a bit more echo than we were anticipating at our new Empellon. Please know that we are rushing to have in further sound absorption technology installed by the end of next week. Thank you for your solidarity.”
Stupak’s installation was easier than most since it was planned, but many aren’t. “It happens all the time,” Edwin Sellers the general Manager of BASWA acoustic, which manufactures sound absorption materials explains. “It’s the most common call I get. Restaurants realize the acoustics aren’t working and might be driving away patrons.”
The product can be installed quickly, “but never quick enough that they wouldn’t have to close for a few days,” he says. On top of being closed for a few days, there’s the price of $35 or $40 a square foot for materials and installation. Competitor, SoundSuede, which Coben has used, prices wall panels between $74 and $92 for a 2’ x 2’ panel.
But the impact can be invaluable. Sellers and SoundSuede focus less on dropping decibel levels and more on NRC or the Noise Reduction Coefficient: how much sound their products absorb or reflect, aiming for between 85 or 100 percent of sound absorption so little to nothing is reverberated.
“When you sit in a space with great acoustics you don’t think, ‘This has great acoustics,’” Sellers says. But “everything would be what we call ‘intelligible.’”
Sure, there will continue to be restaurants that want to blare on like Dirty French and Empellon Al Pastor — where Stupak says he’s trying to make it “as loud as humanly possible on purpose.” But those places are for drinking and a party. “We’re trying to be a proper dive,” says Stupak. “We invested in the best speakers and amplifiers. We want them to get drunk.”
But that’s not Empellon Midtown or the new breed of higher-end spots where diners can hear their dining companions. Since installing the extra sound panels, Stupak says, “I don’t hear complaints.”