Noisy by nature

Some Tristate restaurants try to create 'energy' with loud music, TV and conversation

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Some new restaurants are putting the din back in dinner.

When Mary Sanker of Hyde Park ate at a new and popular restaurant, she liked the food but was taken aback by the noise level.

''I couldn't hear the people I was sitting with,'' she says. ''It was almost like being in a bar. I don't mind a normal amount of noise, but I don't want to have to yell to be heard.''

Some of the most exciting restaurant openings the last year have been places where you can eat wonderful food in a casual atmosphere with sound levels ranging from above a pleasant hubbub to ear-rattling clatter.

Boca in Northside, Arboreta in Over-the-Rhine and Plaza 600 and Ciao Baby, both downtown, are far above the china-clinking noise level. Elsewhere, big restaurant chains have atmospheres of controlled cacophony. Some casual places have the sound system and televisions going at the same time.

Whether it's lots of noise or a boring hush, the sound level in a restaurant is one of the most important aspects of its atmosphere. Because my job as a restaurant reviewer is to report on a dining experience, I'm going to let readers know the sound level in the restaurants I visit.

I am armed with a nifty little sound pressure level meter from Radio Shack that measures decibels. Most restaurant noise ranges from 60 to 90 decibels. Sixty is the reading for normal conversation; 90 is the level at which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires hearing protection for prolonged exposure.

Readings will be reported in the ''If you go'' information that accompanies each review. Readers can use the information to decide whether a restaurant will be an appropriate place for a romantic dinner, a family meal or a night out with friends.

Deliberate atmosphere

Linda Glaser, restaurant designer and owner of IntraDesign in Silverton, thinks that rising sound levels the last five years resulted from restaurants becoming more casual. At one time, eating out was a special occasion, and restaurants were formal. Now, we eat out more and for more reasons, including convenience and entertainment.

And, the last thing restaurants want to do is intimidate. Gone are the trappings that say ''expensive'' or ''exclusive.''

''They've gotten rid of the plush furnishings,'' Ms. Glaser says. ''Carpeting is kept to a minimum, tablecloths, which are expensive and a hassle, are gone.''

Design trends call for big windows, tiled surfaces and open or dry-walled ceilings instead of acoustical tile.

''Everything in the dining room is a hard surface,'' Ms Glaser says. It makes for a sound-reflective, ''live'' room.

A certain noise level is deliberate.

''You want to (create a feeling) of energy, that you're always full, even at quarter to five,'' Ms. Glaser says. ''You don't want that first table to feel they've entered a no-man's land.''

Many restaurants achieve this feeling through music.

Some chains that rely on volume business set the music's noise level high to encourage customers to get in and out quickly. Other elements, such as uncomfortable chairs and frenetic activity, also move people in and out.

Sound quality vs. decibels

Not all noise is the same. Ian Budd, who designs and sells commercial sound systems as owner of ICB Audio in Bond Hill, explains that the quality of the sound can be as important as the decibel level.

''If you get a lot of conflict in the 200-3,000 hertz range, the range of the human voice, you'll have a hard time hearing conversation,'' he says.

Some ''mid-rangy'' sound systems make it even worse, while better systems leave room for conversation.

''Music can actually act as a masking noise, absorbing the conversation of the person next to you,'' he says. Design techniques, including breaking up long walls or installing sound baffles, also can break up and manage noise.

And of course, the experience of sound is subjective.

''Generally, lunch can be louder,'' Ms. Glaser says. ''If you're with a group, noise doesn't bother you as much as it does a couple. And the more expensive the restaurant, the quieter people expect it to be.''

The sound level numbers I'll report should be considered a rough guide. When I review a restaurant, I visit on two evenings, usually once on a weekend and once on a weekday. One would expect the sound levels to be different on those two nights, so I'll report both. I'll also try to give a subjective feel for the quality of the sound and its sources.

The noise level in most restaurants is in the 60 to 90 decibel range. Here's an idea of what decibels sound like:

Under 60 decibels: Funereal hush. You could fall asleep in your soup.

60-70: Dignified calm. You can hear conversation at your table (and at the table next to you).

70-80: Lively hubbub. You can talk and be heard normally.

80-90: Clatter. You have to lean forward to be heard.

90-100: Din. You have to raise your voice to be heard.

Over 100: Lip reading comes in handy.

Armed with a noise-level meter for several weeks, dining reviewer Polly Campbell came up with these readings:

Her dining room at home: 45 decibels.

The bar at the Palm Court in the Omni Netherland Plaza Hotel, downtown, on a Friday night: 64-70 decibels; with grand piano tinkling: 70-80.

Greyhound Tavern in Fort Mitchell on a Friday evening: 80-84 decibels.

Rio Bravo, Mexican chain restaurant in Montgomery, on a Sunday night: 78-82 decibels; when waiters sing Happy Birthday: 86.

Baxter's Eatery and Saloon in Blue Ash on a Saturday night (with TVs and sound system going): 80-85 decibels.

Level at which OSHA stipulates sound protection (at eight hours duration): 90 decibels.

BrewWorks in Covington's main bar on a Friday night: 85-95 decibels.

The 1207 Bar on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine on a Friday night with the band playing: 100-120 decibels.

Chain saw: 110 decibels.

Really loud rock concert: 140 decibels.

Comments? Questions? Criticisms? Contact Greg Noble, online editor.
Entire contents Copyright (c) 1996 by The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper.