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Restaurant diners -- when they can make themselves heard above the blaring music from a chef's iPod playlist, the clatters and shouts from an open kitchen, and the roar of the cocktail drinkers in an adjacent lounge -- are talking about restaurant noise these days more than the food. And the sound of that is finally reaching management ears.
To address higher than anticipated noise levels -- and diner complaints -- the new Los Angeles brasserie Comme Ça has put carpets under tables, and Pizzeria Mozza has installed acoustic panels on its high walls. But don't look for either popular restaurant to change its ethos, or radically alter those noise levels.
Although restaurant designers, acoustics experts, industry professionals and restaurant owners agree that noise is increasingly a problem, the solution is not as simple as issuing a call for silence.
How loud a restaurant is -- or isn't -- has to do with the quality of noise as well as the quantity. The challenge is not necessarily to quiet a restaurant but to successfully manage its sound level, and, in the process, allow the ambient noise to be a complementary part of the mood communicated by the food, the chef, the location, the entire dining experience.
In the sedate beige dining temples of decades past, this wasn't really an issue. Chefs in white toques did their work largely behind closed doors; diners ate in respectful, if slightly bored, silence. But these days restaurateurs want "high energy," and night-on-the-towners want a "scene." Translation: Both want the noise and bustle that we have come to associate with good fun -- and good business.
Maybe that's because, accurately or not, we now often associate quiet restaurants with empty restaurants.
But the ideal noise level at a particular restaurant isn't just about the decibel count. It's about the combined effect of those decibels with all the other factors that contribute to how the restaurant sounds. There's a texture to that sound, a way it operates in a given space: Call it the art of noise.
All in the acoustics
AT 9 p.m on a recent Monday, over moules frites and duck with spaetzle, Tony Hoover of the Westlake Village acoustic consulting firm McKay Conant Hoover Inc. measures Comme Ça's noise level as he describes how the sound is working in the room.
Is it loud? Absolutely. "But the acoustics are about right for this crowd," Hoover says. In fact, he says, one of the first things he tries to gauge is the mood of the diners -- whether they seem happy, if he can hear people asking their companions or servers to repeat what they just said.
"Sona and Comme Ça are vastly different restaurants," says chef-owner David Myers, comparing his new place with his first, the stately (and quiet) Sona. "There's a very different energy. I notice it the most when I'm running back and forth between the two: I go to Sona to relax. Comme Ça is about a fun, high energy environment, and with that goes volume, noise. A brasserie is not where you go for a business deal."
Current design trends have upped noise levels. Architects now favor loft-like spaces, exposed ceilings and hard surfaces. Chefs and restaurateurs like open kitchens, busy bar scenes, hip rock music.
"Restaurants are loud because there's nothing in them that absorbs sound," says Martin Newson, whose acoustics firm Newson Brown Acoustics consulted on Wolfgang Puck's Beverly Hills restaurant Cut and Joachim Splichal's Patina in downtown Los Angeles.
"There's nothing apart from the tablecloth and maybe a little bit of carpet that absorbs any noise," Newson says. "You go into the Pacific Dining Car, it's great acoustically, but that's really not where people want to get a $12 mojito."
Loud restaurants, Hoover says, "tend to be more exciting, they turn tables over faster, they sell more drinks." But quiet restaurants often aren't as quiet as people think they are.
In Huntington Beach, a block away from the darkening surf, Izakaya Zero is packed with diners on a recent Thursday night. The long booths are filled with couples and families with children and contemporary music plays continuously in the background.
The atmosphere is beachy and casual, with a consistent level of chatter and laughter that matches the sociability of the small-plates pub food. An izakaya is a Japanese tavern, not a Zen palace, and the vibe fits. So does the sound level.
"The noise determines the quality of the experience," says co-owner David Lee, who designed the space, which had previously housed the Red Pearl Kitchen.
"Red Pearl was loud," Lee says, so he put in a dropped ceiling, added fabric wall panels, installed center dividers. Sushi chefs work behind the open sushi bar; behind them, soft white curtains block the kitchen's interior. Because of these acoustic features, the restaurant's noise level is muted, permitting easy conversation around a table.
That Lee is owner and designer might have helped the process. Acoustics experts say that when restaurants don't put in acoustic treatments, it's either for aesthetic reasons or budget concerns.
"The fix is easy; you need to get sound absorption," says Jim Good of Veneklasen Associates, a Santa Monica acoustics consulting firm. But, Good says, "at least 75% of the time nothing's done, because it will change the appearance of the restaurant or it's going to cost more money than they want to spend."
Turning down the volume
PART of the problem is that restaurant owners and designers often don't think about what they can't see. When sound issues do come up -- neighbors complain about the noise, or diners do -- they're left with trying to fix the acoustics after the fact, which can be dauntingly expensive.
At Comme Ça, Myers' designers, Los Angeles-based KAA Design Group, knew sound would be a challenge. "We knew that acoustics needed to be dealt with at the very beginning. He [Myers] really wanted to have an energetic bustling place," says Devanee Niednagel, KAA's interior designer. "We put in the banquettes in the front room to help."
When Hoover describes how the sound is working in the room, he points out that the coffered ceiling, the rectangular open space and the hard surfaces of the closely positioned tables and chairs all contribute to the noise level, as does the volume of raised voices in the packed room.
But, Hoover asks, "see those bookshelves?" -- indicating floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books, china and glassware. "That's my favorite acoustic treatment." Turns out that the pretty shelves scatter the sound waves, thereby diffusing the noise of the room. And they scatter even more sound waves if filled asymmetrically, as Comme Ça's are.
At Culver City's Fraîche restaurant, designer Ernie Roth worked with owners who wanted an open kitchen and sleek surfaces in an irregularly shaped space that previously had housed a bank. "We've got these angles, that's the big thing," Roth says about the potential for daunting noise at Fraîche. The angles accomplish the same thing that the bookshelves do at Comme Ça: They diffuse the sound by making the sound waves bounce at different angles.
For restaurateurs playing the high-energy edge, it's hard to know just how loud a place will be until it's filled with people. The "cocktail party effect" is the name given to what happens when diners raise their voices, in waves, at peak hours to compensate for an increasingly loud environment.
Restaurant designers and acoustics experts also have the challenge of finessing what's called the expectation of privacy, Hoover says. Diners want to hear their companions' conversations, but they don't want to hear those around them; likewise, they don't want their conversations to be overheard. Unlike a concert hall or a library, the acoustics have to accommodate -- and match -- the communal environment of the restaurant.
The best-case scenario is when restaurateurs (maybe because they've had noise issues with restaurants in the past or have known others who have) consult acoustics experts beforehand.
"In both Patina and Cut," Newson says, "we were able to work with the architect and sneak in some acoustical materials that they could live with early on in the design phase."
In those restaurants, designers solved the open kitchen issue by placing glass walls between the dining rooms and the kitchens.
But Patina's designers had a bigger, more unusual problem: The restaurant is at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Being respectful of the neighbors takes on a whole new meaning when the neighbors are world-class musicians playing for a packed -- and hushed -- house. Because of this, says Patina chef and founder Splichal, "We hired acoustics experts to study every inch of the restaurant's 'footprint' before the construction had even started."
To isolate the noise from the restaurant, Patina's designers floated the kitchen on thick rubber isolators, essentially buffering the entire structure from the concert hall.
Newson blames his first gray hairs on the Patina job. "You've got a catering kitchen with a bunch of guys chopping carrots and dropping things on the floor, and 20 feet away you've got absolute silence. It was the hardest thing I've ever done."
NOT all restaurant designers have that kind of challenge, but they do have to work with what they have.
At Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza, what designer Lisa Eaton inherited was a space that needed a lot of physical work -- and a boss with a penchant for loud rock music.
"Mario hands us an iPod when we're ready to open," says Eaton, who has designed most of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's restaurants, including Del Posto and Babbo in New York. "We never incorporate that aspect [sound] into the design. You can never tell what a room's going to do."
What the Pizzeria noise did was reverberate around the high ceilings, so much so that diners complained. Eaton says they installed acoustic panels on the upper part of the walls, "then we painted them a very dark brown [like the ceiling] and it disappeared; it became this ambient umbrella that you don't really notice."
As for the Osteria, Eaton says the space has worked without any acoustic treatment. "We hope for the best in terms of sound; when it's out of control we address it. The music is part of the experience, but we try to balance it."
Achieving that balance isn't easy, not least because it's a very personal determination. One person's Led Zeppelin is another person's migraine.
"The number of decibels doesn't necessarily translate into comfort," acoustic consultant Hoover says, packing his sound meter away after dinner one night.
" 'Loud' can be a very subjective impression."