When readers wrote to us about their favorite restaurants, one thing came through loud and clear. They don't like a lot of noise when they're eating out.
"Why don't restaurants become conversation-friendly?" wrote Joy Crawford of Sandy. "Are they afraid talking will make us take longer and keep the table full so they can't move as many customers through? Or are they trying to create a very impressive atmosphere? To me, it is not impressive, but oppressive. I would love to know of more places where you can converse without having to resort to lip-reading."
Most people expect to hear the low buzz of happy customers — if it's like a ghost town, there's probably something wrong. And it's unrealistic to expect peace and quiet at "theme-aterias" (places like Hard Rock Cafe, Rodizio Grill, The Mayan). You go there for a party, not a business lunch or an intimate dinner for two.
A co-worker told me about his ear-splitting birthday dinner at Joe's Crab Shack. "It was a lot of fun, but it was so loud that we couldn't really talk, especially because our table was near the speakers. I'm glad I wasn't going out on a first date there," he said.
It's also a given that the decibel level goes up at "Kids Eat Free" places. (I have a friend who says, "Where kids eat free, I eat drive-through.")
But in general, noise annoys.
Maybe some restaurateurs think the way to a "happening" atmosphere is to crank up the volume until the music bounces off the walls and squeeze the tables so close you're within earshot of four other parties. Sometimes this is fun, but you need a megaphone to talk to your dining partners. As an added insult, some have overhead TVs, so you're forced to compete with "The Simpsons," too.
I've also had to shout my order in smoothie shops where the workers pumped up the music to hear it over the sound of the blenders. It's not necessarily heavy metal or rap music that folks find bothersome. Some friends have complained that live folk singers or even classical pianists got too loud in fine-dining establishments. Background music should provide ambience, not try to grab all the attention.
Reader Thomas Coppin, of Bountiful, wrote of trying to hide at a back table to avoid constant announcements, such as, "Smith, party of five, your table is ready." Of another Salt Lake restaurant, he wrote, "I think they bang the dishes intentionally."
Paula Bergeson, of Orem, said one reason she likes Joe Vera's in Provo is because "It's quiet, and a great place to sit down and relax and enjoy someone else doing the work."
Loudness isn't just a complaint from the older generation. My 16-year-old son, Jeff, gave a big thumbs-down to the food court at the Layton Hills Mall. "That place is so noisy!" he protested when I suggested meeting there after school shopping. He was right. On two prior visits, jackhammers were blasting away at some type of construction work, which didn't add any lunch-hour ambience. Even without any construction going on, the noise level seems pretty high.
My son is not an atypical teen — he likes playing his CDs pretty loud and can make quite a racket himself. But he also noticed the lack of noise at Dylan's, a burger-and-fries place that opened earlier this year in Kaysville. While we were eating there, he said, "Look how crowded this place is, and yet it's pretty quiet." He was right: Even with all the booths and tables filled, there was only a low buzz. My husband pointed out the acoustical tile on the walls, which apparently absorbs a lot of sound. Other restaurants would do well to consider sound-absorbing features. They could also turn down the music and avoid overhead paging.
Usually, the noise level isn't something you notice, unless it's too loud.