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New restaurant designs get it wrong

An article titled ‘Hard facts on noise-trap restaurants’ (The Australian, 4 February 2010, p. 25) highlighted a disturbing trend in the design of restaurants. Its author, Katy McLaughlin, stated that many restaurants are becoming noise traps, with open kitchens, lively bar scenes, loud rock music and lack of soft furnishings. Design features such as hard surfaces make sounds reverberate around the room, effectively making it hard for customers to have good conversations with others at the dining table. A continuous high noise level also makes conversations uncomfortable for customers, particularly if shouting to other people is needed for a long period of time. Yet there are strategies which can be used to manage noise in restaurants, such as sending assertive messages to restaurant designers.

What are the features of a ‘noise-trap’ restaurant?
According to McLaughlin, a fashionable restaurant in San Francisco is ‘the ultimate noise trap’ restaurant, as it seats 300 people in a 1020 sq m loft space in a converted ferry building. It also has hardwood floors, bare wooden tables, open kitchen and a large noisy bar area, all contributors to a noisy environment.

Worried about design-conscious restaurants being so noisy where these features are found, McLaughlin consulted restaurateurs, design professionals and acoustic engineers about what they thought were important design features for a restaurant. Her investigation results are interesting, although the article does not describe her methodologies in getting her information very well.

Mclaughlin suggests from her findings that:
• Some restaurateurs (who have the final say on restaurant design) consider noise as an ‘excitement’ rather than a problem.
• Many restaurateurs avoid purchasing tablecloths or soft furnishings as a cost-minimising measure and, at the same time, use loud music or open kitchens as a means to attract customers.
• Design professionals can find their advice to reduce noise (such as carpeting) ignored in favour of stimulating visual or sound experiences.
• Acoustical engineers can also find their advice ignored, despite the fact that they can provide good advice on interior design to provide a lively atmosphere without too much noise.

McLaughlin again consulted restaurateurs about noise complaints. Many reported that the only complaints they got about noise came from older customers. But when McLuaghlin consulted customers about their dining experiences, she found that noisy environments can upset younger people too, as they often have to shout to make themselves heard in a noisy restaurant.

Based on her investigations, McLaughlin suggests that the dining experience is likely to be compromised for customers if noise levels remain loud or increase. She also suggests that restaurateurs are likely to lose customers (both young and old) if customers:
• cannot talk to friends over the table,
• have to speak louder or shout in order to compete with restaurant noise
• cannot dine at a table away from noisy hotspots, such as bars and open kitchens.

In a response to these issues, McLaughlin interviewed audiologists about what customers could do to deal with noisy restaurants. Recommended strategies include:
• seeking out tables in alcoves which can act as sound barriers
• avoiding tables near bars, large parties or open kitchens
• asking management to turn down the music, even if getting dirty looks from other diners or from staff
• googling photos of the restaurant ahead of time to check for hallmarks of a noisy restaurant, such as no carpeting or soft furnishings, or other noisy design features
• asking for additional light and looking at your companions – in order to lipread.

As a fluent lipreader and a hearing-impaired person (who loves eating good food in a restaurant where there is not too much noise), I agree with all of the above advice.

I also recommend
• seating yourself and your companions so there is no light behind heads
• arriving at the restaurant earlier than most customers so you get the best table with good lighting arrangements, or booking a favourite table if you have dined there before.

If you, like me (or Katy McLaughlin), want to make a statement about noisy restaurants, sending an assertive message to the restaurant staff is likely to be effective such as saying the music was too loud when asked for feedback. Voting with your feet is another option, by patronising quieter restaurants, or even cooking for your family or friends at home. If enough people send the right messages about noisy restaurants, the designers of new restaurants are likely to listen if they want to keep getting business.

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