The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Opinion  / Soapbox  / Turn Down the Volume on Restaurant Noise

Turn Down the Volume on Restaurant Noise

Thomas McNamee

If Craig Claiborne were alive today, and he walked into The Slanted Door in San Francisco, I believe he would turn around and walk back out without tasting the food. He’d find the noise unbearable. I spent more than two years researching a book called “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance” (just out, by the way), so I’m pretty confident in saying this. Craig was the first food editor of the New York Times, having started in 1957, and he is the father of the food world we now inhabit. Some of his legacy would appall him. He prized civilized conversation.

Yet The Slanted Door, the highest-grossing restaurant in San Francisco, is very popular. Clearly a lot of people can tolerate the racket and like the food. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles — every major American city is chockablock with painfully noisy but nonetheless popular restaurants.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviews do their readers a favor by bestowing not just the usual star ratings for food, but also noise ratings: one bell for “pleasantly quiet,” four bells for “can talk only in raised voices,” and finally a bomb icon indicating “too noisy.”  It’s not unusual for the Chronicle to give a restaurant three stars and a bomb.  Why so many people willingly go to a restaurant in the full knowledge that they will have to shout throughout the meal and and still may not be heard would be a mystery to Craig Claiborne.

Why all the restaurant noise?

— Managers and servers know that turning up the music makes a crowd louder, and they perceive the resultant shouting with having a good time.  I know from a long string of commentary on Chowhound that the majority of restaurant-goers are irritated by noise, but there are certainly those who do like it.  “I don’t think of it as noise,” New York restaurateur Tony May told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s excitement. The new consumer is looking for energy, a good vibe.”

— Owners tend not to mention it, but the din makes people drink more, eat faster and leave sooner.

— Many restaurants are physically designed to be noisy, with hard surfaces and no sound-deadening materials. “When the metal legs of the formed wooden chairs drag across the floor as patrons scoot in or away from the table, it’s the 21st-century version of nails scraping across a blackboard,” Chronicle critic Michael Bauer wrote of the Slanted Door. “All through the night, the already explosive noise level is pierced by the screech of metal against stone.”

— A small number of very noisy people raise the noise level throughout a restaurant.

— Ear-splitting noise increases the secretion of the “fight-or-flight” neurotransmitter epinephrine, and the edgy sensation that that induces can be perceived as an exciting “buzz.”

— Many American children are no longer instructed in civil behavior.  When they grow up, they do not know the difference between public and private space.

— There are fewer and fewer alternatives. In the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants,” ratings of one or two bells are scarce. There’s a lot of hearing damage being done, a lot of blood pressure being raised.  The argument can be made that the abundance of noisy restaurants and the paucity of quiet ones actually shows that people like noise.  I believe, on the other hand, that there’s a disconnect between what restaurateurs think people like and what they prefer in fact. If there were more alternatives, I’m pretty certain my belief would be proved right.

In Craig’s last years — he died in 2000 — he was disturbed by how people were behaving in restaurants. In 1992, in his last published work, a slim little book titled “Elements of Etiquette: A Guide to Table Manners in an Imperfect World,” he showed discomfort with the behavior he saw around him in restaurants, but the real crescendo was still to come. If he were with us today, I am certain he would be writing impassioned pleas for quiet and considerateness.

The big question for the rest of us, now, without Craig Claiborne to speak on our behalf, is, What can we do about this?  One thing I’m sure of is that if enough of us complain, to the people who can make a difference — restaurateurs and managers — things will change.  So complain.  Assertively.  Just not too loudly, please.

Photo: Thomas McNamee. Credit: Morgan McGivern

Thomas McNamee is the author of “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance” and “Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution.”

  • Patti Sewall 8·7·12

    Interesting piece on a component of dining out that most people don’t stop to consider. I’ve dined in restaurants that were far too noisy for me to converse at all with the person sitting a foot and a half away from me, and I’ve tried to enjoy myself in too-quiet restaurants where the tables were practically on top of each other. I felt compelled to keep my table talk toward mainstream subject matter so as not to offend and/or embarrass. I think talk equates to energy, and it usually means that people are having a good time.

  • Elaine Corn 8·7·12

    Excellent piece. [Although I think we’re done with the word slim]. Restaurant noise is a constant irritant. In pick up bars, how can one even hear the words “will you go home with me?” Many of my friends avoid the most popular spots in my city because it is so unsettling and ruins our digestion. There’s a fine line between what Tony May calls excitement and a room filled with conversation and bearable din.

  • Nicholas Gilman 8·7·12

    Cara Buckley recently wrote in the NY Times on the same subject (; seems to be in the air. Here in Mexico City, where space is not at such a premium as it is in SF or NY, the problem is not the blaring voices of yuppies but too much ‘bad’ music and blaring TVs. I just returned from France and Spain whose restaurants feature little or no ambient music at all, but people tend to ‘shut up and eat’!

  • wendy 8·7·12

    i live in phoenix. i am constantly amazed at the number of restaurants here that are just downright obnoxiously noisey. it’s almost as if the designers of these spaces purposely find ways to increase noise levels- lots of hard surfaces, open ceiling designs, etc. thank goodness we can eat al fresco most of the year. i wont patronize a loud reataurant, don’t care how hip or how great the eats.

  • Catherine 8·7·12

    I have never enjoyed noisy restaurants, where it is difficult to hear the person sitting across from you and you are asking each other what specials the waiter just said but we couldn’t hear. Since having recently become partially deaf, noisy restaurants are now a complete misery. It does seem obvious to me that in many restaurants noise is encouraged by loud music, and open spaces with little if any sound absorbing materials. The owners may be encouraging people to “drink more, eat faster and leave sooner”, but they are also encouraging many diners to never return again, no matter how good the food and service are.

  • Penelope 8·7·12

    This past Sunday, we were invited to lunch, at a new – and 3rd – location of a familiar local restaurant in Austin , TX. The two older restaurants are housed in old buildings and are VERY colorful and noisy, but both have patios for those who wish to escape the din within. The new location was custom-built for the restaurant, with a soaring 2-story rock fireplace, lots of glass, and natural wood, and no patio. And . . . the new location is even noisier than the old, with “hard surfaces, and no sound-deadening materials.” as stated in the article above. In addition, the 2-story ceiling is a metal roof. I asked my partner, “Why in the world didn’t they learn from their original locations and use sound dampers in the construction.” She quickly replied, “Because restaurateurs think that noise equals excitement and fun. Guess who thinks the restaurateurs are wrong, and will not be returning to that location!

  • Tom McNamee 8·7·12

    Okay, so–so far everybody who has written in agrees that way too many restaurants are way too loud. All these writers-in, however, are customers. Can we now please hear from a restaurateur or two? That is, can we please hear a DEFENSE of noise, for God’s sake?

  • Richard 8·7·12

    Why do we need a restaurateur’s defence? Isn’t the customer always right?

  • TomG 8·7·12

    As a restaurant owner in Austin for 36 yrs., I can honestly say that I agree that restaurants
    are often too noisy, beyone the level of jet takeoffs. Restaurateurs need to be told about their
    being mistaken about what patrons want. Neither to quiet (whispering) nor eardrum busting.
    There IS a happy medium…..

  • Tom McNamee 8·7·12

    A reply to Richard: If the customer is always right, then you’d expect quieter restaurants. I wanted to hear from an owner of a noisy restaurant telling us why he or she thinks that’s such a desirable quality. Still waiting.

    Glad to hear from TomG, however. Bravo!

  • JeanE 8·18·12

    Most Phoenix restaurants are so noisy it is impossible to have any conversation with companions. I simply do not return to noisy places for a repeat experience. I had not thought of speaking with managers of my concern. have become so “fed up” with noisy restaurants that I prefer to prepare dinner with friends at home now, so we can enjoy the company of dinner companions and hear the conversations.