The clang of silverware on plates. The din of chattering restaurant guests. The music blaring from the speakers. The shrill sound of a blender at the bar.
Working in the restaurant industry, you get used to a certain amount of noise. Even so, chances are you’ve found yourself frustrated in a loud restaurant, forced to ask people to repeat themselves or speak loudly in hopes of beating out the noise. It can be hard to think in so much noise, let alone get a six-top’s complicated orders right.
Restaurants are naturally bustling environments, but when this heightened energy is reflected in the restaurant’s overall sound, diners can be turned off in a big way. According to Zagat’s 2018 Dining Trends Survey, diners reported that noise is the most bothersome aspect of eating out, even outweighing bad service and high prices. In a recent article by The Washington Post, the writer underlines the adverse effects loud restaurants have on people with hearing impairments.
Loud noise is not only irksome and unhealthy for guests but also dangerous to restaurant staff. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, sounds above 85 decibels — the unit in which noise levels are measured — can lead to hearing loss if you listen to them for more than eight hours at a time. Background noise in the range of 75 to 90 decibels is common in restaurants, pointing to adverse effects in restaurant workers’ long-term exposure to loud noise levels, like permanent hearing damage.
What’s Up with All the Noise?
There’s no question that restaurants have grown louder over the past few decades, and people from guests to critics have taken notice.
Restaurant noise levels are frequently called out on review sites like Yelp. Restaurant critics like The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema include noise ratings in their dining columns. There are now even apps to rate restaurants’ noise levels. SoundPrint, which works like a Yelp for restaurant noise, allows users to rate and review places based on their sound levels.
Gregory Scott, Founder of SoundPrint, writes this on the SoundPrint website, “I recall many times sitting at a restaurant table feeling completely lost in the conversation while others conversed and connected with each other. I would often nod my head in unison with the conversation, pretending to hear my companions when I could not, and then idly pass the time by entertaining myself with whatever fiction entered my head.”
But what’s to blame for the increase in restaurant noise? There are a few different factors at play. One factor is design: Modern restaurant design favors open spaces and hard surfaces over the more old-school, compartmentalized style. Tall ceilings and larger rooms amplify sound volume, while open kitchens only add more noise to a restaurant space. Surfaces like marble countertops, brick walls, and bare table surfaces also reflect sound — these design elements leave nowhere for sound to go.
Another factor is sound’s impact on table turn rates and alcohol consumption. Loud music with a faster rhythm can encourage guests to eat faster. There’s even some evidence that noisy spaces encourage people to drink more and faster. While these things might be good for your bottom line, it’s not worth irritating guests and potentially harming your staff in the long run.
Some ways of reducing noise levels — like working with acoustic consultants or engineers and doing major renovations — can be really expensive, but there are more cost-effective ways you can reduce the noise levels in your restaurant. Let’s take a look at some of them below.
6 Cost-Effective Ways to Reduce Restaurant Noise Levels
1. Keep background music in the background
Music is an integral part of your restaurant’s atmosphere, and you want it to align with your restaurant’s concept and be appealing to target customers. While the volume of music played in your restaurant will vary based upon these factors, background music should largely remain in the background. Keep an eye on the volume, and leave room for your guests to chat without having to speak over one another.
When chosen carefully and played at a pleasing volume that allows for conversation, music will have a positive impact on the dining experience. Always reduce music volume if someone complains, and if you get multiple complaints that music is too loud, reassess your baseline volume and bring it down permanently.
2. Sound-proof your chairs
The sound of chair legs scraping against the floor of your restaurant isn’t a pleasant one. You can easily help to eliminate this sound by putting rubber caps or fuzzy floor protector pads on the bottoms of your chair legs. This will also help you avoid scuffing up the floors, killing two birds with one stone.
3. Utilize curtains, area rugs, and tablecloths
Curtains, carpeting, and tablecloths have become less common in modern restaurant design and decor, but they do help to prevent acoustic issues.
Windows and glass reflect sound, and curtains can help absorb and soften noise levels. Area rugs and carpeting in high-traffic areas like reception or near restrooms can help absorb the sound of staff and guests moving about. Tablecloths help reduce the sound of silverware and glassware clattering on tables.
Implementing this type of decor doesn’t mean your restaurant’s vibe will suddenly be that of a 1950s steakhouse. There are ways to add soft furnishings in a modern way that align with your target market’s tastes.
4. Keep machinery out of dining areas
Ice machines, soda machines, espresso machines, and other equipment add to the overall noise level of your restaurant. Be careful about placing machinery such as this near main dining areas: If your guests have to raise their voices over these sounds, it’ll only cause other guests to raise their voices as well.
See if there’s a way you can relocate these stations and machines away from dining areas or if you can utilize sound-absorbing materials on nearby walls and ceilings.
5. Create a barrier to kitchen noise
If you already have an open kitchen concept, separating kitchen noise from your dining areas will be challenging. But if you don’t, make sure kitchen doors are kept closed when possible; you can even soundproof kitchen doors to muffle loud kitchen sounds.
Restaurant architect Justin Alpert suggests closing off an open kitchen with a pane of glass, which leaves the visual effect of an open kitchen intact, but blocks out many of the irritating noises.
6. Let your walls and ceilings absorb the noise
The walls and ceilings of your restaurant may be the biggest culprits of amplifying sound in your restaurant, but there are ways to get them to halt noise from spreading.
You can make your ceiling “soft” by installing sound-absorbing ceiling tiles or soundproof panels. These will prevent the sound from bouncing around. As an alternative, you can hang fabric from the ceiling or on the walls to help absorb sound. You can install other acoustic products like sound absorbers and wall panels while avoiding major renovation and keeping costs to a minimum.
These panels and acoustic products don’t need to be eyesores. Get creative and integrate them into your decor: Drape them in fabrics or paint them in a way that sticks to your restaurant’s theme.
What you are or aren’t able to implement will all depend on your concept and budget, but we hope the tips and information above help you better tackle issues with restaurant noise.