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The trouble with noise

When Zagat surveyors were asked what irritates them most when dining out, noise came in second only to bad service. The poll confirms a disquieting trend: there’s a deafening din in many of the nation’s restaurants. 

Sometimes restaurant noise is deliberate, to create a lively vibe. But can turning up the volume turn off patrons so much that they won’t come back?

Consultant Clark Wolf advises his clients to “calibrate background music carefully, like you would seasoning—none is undesirable but too much can be a nightmare. It shouldn’t overtake a normal conversation.”

Even when the music isn’t booming, other factors can make conversation impossible, says Marshall Long, a Sherman Oaks, California-based acoustical engineer who consults with restaurant designers. “Lots of hard surfaces and lots of people in the room intensify the din,” he explains. 

So how can you muffle the racket without sacrificing sleek design? The best solution is to discreetly incorporate sound absorbers into a room, says Long. He recommends a straightforward formula: measure the area of the ceiling; the sound-absorbing materials you install should be at least equal to that.

Standard acoustical tiles may be the cheapest—but not the most attractive—way to go. A more stylish fix is to cover the ceiling with 1-inch fiberglass board that’s overlaid with a porous material like cloth, wire mesh, perforated vinyl or perforated metal. “It’s up to the acousticians to provide a palette of choices that works with the restaurant’s design,” Long says. “There’s more available now, including cloth-covered panels in an assortment of colors, perforated metal coverings in glossy finishes and absorbent plasters.”

You can also start with the same square footage of sound-absorbing material and divide it throughout the restaurant. To quiet down a large, square space with 18-foot ceilings, wood floors and curtain-less windows, A Voce restaurant in New York City made acoustic “repairs” at key spots. 

Bonnie Schnitta, president of SoundSense, an acoustical engineering firm brought in for the project, says they discovered the room echoed a lot and started by treating the “reverberation spots.” She covered two tall architectural columns with Paradise Foam—a highly absorbent material invented and trademarked by SoundSense. Panels made of the same material were added behind a wall sculpture in the back and more foam was tucked behind artwork. “Patrons don’t notice anything different, but they comment that the restaurant just ‘feels’ so much better,” Schnitta says. In the warm weather, A Voce opens its French doors to a patio cafe; this allows some of the interior sound to travel outside, further quieting the room.     


How to take the din out of dinner

  • Carpeting is better than bare floors. High-pile types absorb more sound than dense, flat carpet, says Deborah Adams, marketing VP for carpet manufacturer Brinton’s. Partially covering walls with carpet and inlaying it into hard surfaces also helps.
  • Hang fabric banners from the ceiling; they not only trap sound, but can serve as artwork.
  • Add a water feature. The sound of a tinkling fountain or gentle waterfall can distract from the din.
  • Install a baffling system on the ceiling and walls. Rows of wooden, fabric or composite slats can add an architectural element while they absorb sound.
  • Use tablecloths. Top a standard white cloth with a couple layers of printed fabric or burlap for a modern look.
  • Space out the tables. Marshall Long suggests a minimum of eight feet for normal conversation.

Sound Solutions

Fabric-covered acoustic panels in many colors and finishes can go on walls and ceilings. 

Fiberboard Ceiling Clouds can be suspended above noisy areas or set between beams.

Patented by SoundSense, Paradise Foam is a dense absorber that reduces reverberation.

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