It’s Hard to Eat When You’re Holding Your Ears

A few weeks ago, I took my decibel meter with me to dinner at one of the restaurants in my retirement community. It was a busy night, and the steady growl of conversation kept rising to a roar. The meter told me the noise in the room was averaging 76 dB but sometimes hit highs above 90. 

To put that in perspective: talking and listening in a room where the noise level is around 70 dB is like carrying on a conversation while standing near a dishwasher that’s in action. When the background noise shoots into the 90s, it’s as if you’re competing for air time with a power mower. 

The meter readings didn’t surprise me—everyone I know complains about the noise in that restaurant. But the readings gave me hard evidence I could present to management as they moved ahead with plans to renovate the place. 

Many restaurants today are incredibly noisy, a fact that affects my social life. Much of the time when I’m sitting at one of our tables for six, I can only hear the people immediately to my left and right, and I often have to ask them to repeat things. I miss entire conversations. I smile and pretend I’m following what my friends are saying, but I’m not, and I hate that. 

Restaurant hubbub never used to be a problem for me, but these days I wear hearing aids. Though they work fine in every other situation, in a noisy restaurant I’m at a loss. (I do, however, have one advantage over people with normal hearing: if the decibel level rises to the point where it’s downright painful, I can always remove the hearing aids—for instant relief.) 

Many diners of all ages object to having to shout across the table to be heard, but it’s particularly hard on older people who don’t hear well. Some of us also have more difficulty than we once did, singling out the one voice we want to listen to when it’s half buried in background babble.  

Restaurant noise is a health issue as well as a social liability. Anything above 60 dB can increase your risk of heart disease if the noise lasts too long or you’re exposed to it too often (a hazard for restaurant staff). Researchers suggest that’s because loud noises can trigger a surge of stress hormones that damage blood vessels. Above 85 dB, there can be permanent harm to your hearing. 

According to Consumer Reports, noise is the top complaint restaurant diners have, not the quality of the food or the service. Why, then, don’t restaurant owners do something about it?

Partly, they’re going along with prevailing design trends, which are the opposite of the ones my generation grew up with. In the years after World War II, the best restaurants had a feeling of quiet luxury. There were carpets underfoot, curtains or drapes at the windows, crisp tablecloths and upholstered chairs. All those relatively soft surfaces absorbed noise. So did the low ceilings, covered with acoustic tiles, that were common then. 

Beginning in the mid-1970s, restaurants became more casual—less stuffy, according to some. To convey a look of luxury, they went clean, spare and minimalist, with bare floors, bare tables, bare windows and lofty ceilings. Noise bounces off all those hard surfaces and reverberates. 

Then more and more restaurants adopted open kitchens, where you could watch your food being cooked, accompanied by the clattering of pots and pans. Many began to include a bar, adding louder voices to the sound mix. 

To some extent, the cacophony in today’s eateries is the result of these design changes, but there’s more to it than that. Researchers report that high noise levels encourage people to drink faster, consume more alcohol and leave the premises sooner—making room for more diners. All of that’s good for the bottom line. 

Ageism may be involved as well. Nowadays, restaurant owners like to attract a young crowd, and many 20-somethings enjoy a bustling, noisy ambiance. Silver Century president Kay Klotzburger observes that some of them seem to associate high decibel levels with successful, happening places—the kind where they want to be seen. 

Older people, on the other hand, value good food along with a chance to have a relaxed conversation with friends. When we linger over our postprandial coffee, we’re not helping that bottom line.

It doesn’t look as if there will be a change for the quieter any time soon. But if you dislike restaurant noise as much as I do, there are things you can try—besides learning sign language. Julia Belluz, senior health correspondent for the news and opinion website, offered a few suggestions: dine early, before the dinner rush begins; request a quiet table; ask for the music to be turned down. If none of that helps, lodge a complaint with the management. 

You can also campaign for broader changes by using the power of social media: mention noise problems in particular restaurants on websites like Yelp that publish crowd-sourced reviews. Or download the SoundPrint app onto your iPhone and use it to record the average dB level whenever you go out to eat; then send the results to the website where SoundPrint maintains a crowd-sourced database. In a growing list of cities nationwide, the website has accumulated enough information that you can search it for quieter places to eat. 

One more suggestion: have dinner parties at home. If you have the food delivered from your favorite restaurant, this is manageable even if you work long hours or are low on energy. 

Kay recently tried a version of this. She belongs to a group of older people who often go out to dinner together—and almost always wind up complaining about the noise. She invited the members to bring entrées from their favorite restaurants to her house, where they shared the dishes. Afterward, all 10 of her guests told her how much they appreciated the change. In a noisy restaurant, they’d have split up around the table into several groups, talking only to those nearby. That evening, they were able to have general conversations that drew everyone in.  

As for me, I got some good news the other day. I learned that the restaurants in my community are being redesigned with acoustics in mind. There will be lots of soft, sound-absorbing fabrics in carpets, curtains, furniture and on the walls. And our cavernous dining rooms will be broken up into more intimate spaces with lower ceilings that will have acoustic panels built in. All this was decided before I had a chance to present my findings on decibel levels. 

Those changes should make a huge difference. I can hardly wait.