Tone It Down, I’m Trying to Eat Over Here!

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restaurant2As someone who has spent 30 years preaching to the architectural community about the negative effects of poor acoustic design, I was pleased to see a recent feature article in a major U.S. newspaper take up the issue of how restaurant owners and designers are/are not addressing noise in their establishments. After all, noisy restaurants are a prime way to illustrate to the general public the importance of well-crafted acoustic design. I am a long-time believer that restaurant noise is a huge reason why many one-time patrons never return—even if the food is sublime.

For years, Craig Laban, a local restaurant critic here in Philly, has included decibel readings in his reviews. I often reference these evaluations in conversations with architects and designers as evidence that “noise matters” and that I use Mr. Laban’s acoustic evaluations as a deciding factor for where I will spend my hard-earned restaurant dollars.

I don’t think I’m alone in having had otherwise wonderful meals compromised by overly loud dining rooms. As detailed in a new white paper from the Ceilings & Interior Systems Construction Association (CISCA), a 2011 Zagat survey revealed that noise was second only to poor service as diners’ most common complaint. Furthermore, in a Consumer Reports survey of 47,565 readers, reflecting 110,517 experiences at 102 different table-service chain restaurants, one out of four complained about the noise level at least once.

Yet some restaurateurs maintain that a lively space (what some might call noise) is a desirable ambiance that will attract diners. So you’re seeing a trend toward live music, densely packed dining rooms, and spartan designs that are open to the structure or to the kitchen with many hard, reflective surfaces. Curtains, tablecloths and sound absorbing ceilings—all of which traditionally helped control the decibel level in restaurants—are no longer as desirable as they once were. This is bad news for those of us who want to be able to carry on a conversation while we eat.

The good news is that there are options for restaurant owners and designers who want to control noise without compromising the modern design aesthetic. Though a traditional ceiling is usually the best way to add sound absorption, materials like fiberglass wall panels, acoustical trim and softer flooring options can help lower decibel levels where an acoustical ceiling isn’t possible or desirable. And in some cases, owners have found success painting or printing ceiling panels to combine style with superior acoustics.

At CertainTeed Ceilings, we’ve started a movement—Down With Decibels—to drive home the message that the sounds around us play a significant role in our wellbeing. Check out www.nonoisenow.com for real stories from architects, designers and building occupants detailing how acoustical design has impacted their lives. And while you’re there, we’d love to hear whether noise has ever negatively affected your dining experience.

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Robert Marshall is the Manager, Marketing Technical Services for CertainTeed Ceilings

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