Remember the days when fine dining rooms were truly fine? They murmured the soundtrack of haute cuisine as diners came and went. Plates and silverware were precisely positioned and silently cleared. Linen tablecloths, padded chairs, lush carpets, deluxe draperies and explosive flower arrangements sucked the vibrations from the room creating cushions of muffled sound.
Inobtrusive music like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Sara Vaughn, Vivaldi or Mozart drifted like incense from invisible speakers, just barely heard in the background, creating a velvet acoustic envelope for each diner to cuddle into. From the coveted corner table you could murmur your most seductive sanzas to your blushing partner across the table over a bottle of elegant white burgundy without having to raise your voice.
Servers nimbly flitted about the dining room in soft soled black shoes. Like professional actors they confidently described elaborate dinner specials in soft, butler-like tones. They took orders by memory with their hands folded behind their backs, never writing on a pad or typing into a phone They understood the role they played and the special service they provided, regardless of the debaucherous lives some, not all, led outside the dining room.
Obviously, as I rewind this vintage film footage of my memory I am romanticizing. But there is something to it. We can’t go back into the past, but we can learn from it. Dining in a fine restaurant provides a unique service: a fantasy and escape from hectic, fast-paced work environments or the ennui of suburban, monotonous lives. A fine restaurant is indeed a show that was designed to appeal to all of the senses, and the sense of sound is as important as taste, sight and smell.
According to Zagat’s 2018 restaurant trends survey, diners reported that noise is the most bothersome aspect of eating out, even outweighing bad service and high prices. The San Francisco Chronicle, when rating restaurants, is giving a decibel rating so diners know up front whether they are going to be able to carry on a conversation. In my opinion, excessive noise combined with diminishing service standards are a major contributor to the culture of cranky customers that bloggers are all wailing about. The quality of your food will long be forgotten if the experience is too intense and jarring. Dining out should not frazzle your guests.
The most important question a restaurant designer should ask is “Who are you expecting your customers to be?” If investors are backing a chef whose intention is to create an upscale fine dining experience with a generally high price point, the answer should be obvious; customers who can afford the experience. And who is that? Gen X and Baby Boomers. These two generations have more expendable income, are willing to pay for quality service, wine and cuisine and crave a sense of exclusivity for the money they are dishing out. I am in that category and I eat out often. Sure, I enjoy a fun casual dinner at a raucous party themed restaurant on occasion, but when I am looking for a real dining experience, I don’t want to look like the guy in the Miracle Ear commercial, constantly asking my wife, “What did he say?” In noisy restaurants, I have learned to ask to be seated at the head of the table so I can see everyone who is speaking so that I can read their lips to understand them better.
Ill-designed or overlooked restaurant acoustics have escalated into controversy due to basic design misunderstandings. Places may look cool on Instagram, but what about real life? The “Hipster” hangout with distressed barn wood, long farm tables, stained cement floors and faded paint, the “Industrial” look of cement, rusted steel and glass, the “Taverna” with its high ceilings, euro style terra cotta and stucco and the “Retro” variations on stainless and subway tile cafeteria nostalgia are all virtual echo chambers. You will never find carpet, tablecloths or drapery in these modern designs. The soundwaves ricochet around like molecules in a bouncing ball, amplifying every dropped plate, every clank of silverware and every burst of laughter. Add to this the excessive thumping bass of loud background music and you have a recipe for agitation. Also, let’s not forget that the din of an open kitchen is like having a working factory with its garage doors open into your living room. As the restaurant fills and the kitchen gets busier, the ambient sound swells, and so do the voices of the guests and servers alike. I have left many dinners with ringing ears.
Think about your noise levels and how that affects your customers. It’s time to listen to your place. How does it sound? I suggest sitting at different tables in the busiest times of service to get a “bird’s ear view” of your restaurant’s acoustics. This is your place and your world, but you need your guests to want to be a part of your world to be a success. Restaurants are much more than food and beverage, they are an experience. Create an experience that your guests will love to savor over and over without earplugs.
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