Loud restaurants have become the bane of customers across Baton Rouge as eateries embrace industrial, noise-bouncing designs and lively atmospheres.
It’s a lunchtime scene blaring out inside a packed Capital City Grill: Silverware clinks against entree plates and glasses clatter on sleek tabletops as chairs screech along the tile floor; somehow these everyday sounds are amplified to nails-across-a-chalkboard decibels. Background music, playing at a level far from background, thumps through the air. Servers make the rounds, shouting out the day’s special and inquiring about refills or the check. And trying to cut through it all is the barrage of voices from patrons—who crane forward and pump up their own volume—to discuss business, politics or the events of last night between bites of food.
This Phil Spector-like wall of sound can be heard most weekdays at the trendy downtown Baton Rouge eatery, when the noise during peak lunch hours cranks to between 80 and 90 decibels. That, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, is as loud as dining next to a running lawn mower, blender or blow dryer.
Yet, in spite of this cacophonous symphony of noise ricocheting off tile floors, glass walls, hardwood tables and exposed ceilings—or maybe because of it—the customers are enjoying themselves.
This, it seems, is what we want. The restaurant is packed with satisfied customers, as it is most weekdays during lunch. And Capital City Grill is hardly alone in Baton Rouge when it comes to restaurant ambiance that’s determined to test every barrier of sound. It turns out people—especially millennials—crave the fortissimo created when modern restaurant design meets our desire for a boisterous good time.
But it does beg the question: Are we eating ourselves to deaf?
“We’re known for being louder,” says Y’zell Williamson, general manager of Capital City Grill. “A lot of it has to do with aesthetics and design. There’s not much we can do to cut out noise.”
“When we hear people talking and laughing, we feel people are having a good time. We keep the music up because it creates high energy. When people come in, they feel that. It creates a good mood.”
—Y’zell Williamson, general manager, Capital City Grill
(Photo by Don Kadair)
The restaurant has an open layout in the main dining area, with tall ceilings and no tablecloths. Capital City Grill does have some carpeting and mats, which help absorb sound, and it offers quieter sections at the tables along the windows and the outdoor patio. But beyond that, the noise is welcomed.
“When we hear people talking and laughing, we feel people are having a good time,” Williamson says. “We keep the music up because it creates high energy. When people come in, they feel that. It creates a good mood.”
Capital City Grill isn’t alone. The Overpass Merchant on Perkins Road reached 91 decibels on a recent Wednesday night, while a Tuesday lunch crowd at Bistro Byronz on Government Street experienced a high of 83 decibels, comparable to a garbage disposal. Sunday brunch at The Chimes on Highland, just outside the north gates of LSU, hit 84 decibels, while Sammy’s Grill reached 86 on Sunday evening.
A General sound level meter was used to measure the sound intensity. But restaurant noise varies depending on time and day, so these are merely noise snapshots, not average decibels over a period of time.
Nonetheless, noise levels have been rising for years in eateries nationwide as they eschew traditional fine dining, white tablecloths and gentle music. Instead, restaurants are adopting contemporary industrial designs with stripped-down interiors, hard surfaces, upbeat music and lively atmospheres.
“Restaurant noise has gone up for those reasons,” says Brent Bueche, president of BBI Architects in Baton Rouge, which specializes in restaurant and retail design.
The Overpass Merchant and Bistro Byronz are both good examples of modern restaurant designs, with a mix of urban-rustic styles and sleek surfaces that bounce sound, creating a noisy milieu and yet still drawing large crowds. Owners of both restaurants declined to comment for this story.
The increasing din also stems, in part, from restaurants catering to millennials, who are widely known to eat out more than any other generation, Bueche says. This age group seems to prefer fast casual dining where they can share and socialize, so restaurants are responding.
“Let’s focus on millennials because they’re driving this train right now,” Bueche says. “Their impression is that a place is fun when it’s lively and loud.”
Yet, even as the noisiness has become more common, it’s still a big issue for restaurant design, Bueche says. If acoustics are not addressed on the front end, it can be difficult for restaurants to find a balance between being lively and being too loud to hear yourself think.
Noise is the No. 2 complaint cited among diners in Zagat’s 2016 dining-trends survey, second only to service. Prominent restaurant critics, along with Yelp and OpenTable reviewers, have begun to rate acoustics in reviews. The National Restaurant Association cites a study that reports the average restaurant noise level is 70 decibels, although other sources say it’s closer to 80. The volume of comfortable conversation is about 60 decibels.
Interestingly, loud background noise may not only impact our experience, but also our ability to taste food and drinks, according a 2014 research review in the scientific journal Flavour. Noise appears to affect ability to detect sweet and sour tastes, although other flavors are essentially unaffected.
“Let’s focus on millennials because they’re driving this train right now. Their impression is that a place is fun when it’s lively and loud.”
—Brent Bueche, president, BBI Architects
Adjustments can be made to curtail restaurant noise that has gotten out of hand. Bueche says it’s a matter of soft surfaces, which absorb sound, versus hard surfaces, which bounce sound. Restaurants can introduce soft surfaces with mats, ceiling panels or cloth seats. For one restaurant, Bueche says, they glued porous boards to the bottom of tables and chairs to help absorb sound.
“It can be more expensive to address noise levels after the fact,” Bueche says. “It’s certainly something to consider when putting together a business plan.”
Lava Cantina in Perkins Rowe had noise issues when it started out, says owner Ian Vaughn, so they added acoustical foam above the ceiling tiles, which helped tremendously. But, as most know, Lava Cantina is a rock-themed restaurant known for live entertainment so noise is to be expected.
On a Thursday night with a performer singing outside, the indoor area topped out at 83 decibels, which is a bit higher than average but not as loud as other restaurants. When live entertainment is playing, Lava Cantina is careful to monitor noise levels.
“We have a sound crew that runs events so that it’s not overly loud or obnoxious,” says manager Aaron Crawford. “But at same time it’s still there.”
Despite techniques to keep the clamor in check, most restaurants today don’t seem to be getting any quieter—if anything, the opposite is true. The noise is apparently here to stay, and customers may just have to accept it. But that doesn’t mean they have to stop griping about it. Patrons leaving Capital City Grill after grabbing a meal during the Friday lunch rush confirmed those suspicions.
“On a scale of one to 10, the noise was a 10,” says Denay Hawkins, of Baton Rouge, adding that she had to nearly shout so that her companion, Emily Mason, could hear her.
Hawkins and Mason, who both work downtown, say they enjoy Capital City Grill and eat there often. The din doesn’t keep them away, but it also doesn’t enhance their experience.
“The food is great,” says Mason, “but the noise is way too loud.”
Bistro Byronz, with its mix of rustic and urban design, tends to be loud because sound bounces off the restaurant’s hard interior surfaces, yet it remains a popular Mid City destination. (Photo by Don Kadair)
For those who are hard of hearing, noisy restaurants aren’t just an annoyance. They’re practically intolerable. Laurie Morrison, an audiologist at Scallan Hearing Aid & Audiology Center who is legally deaf, says eating out is such a popular social event in south Louisiana, but people who are hearing impaired struggle more than most to hear their companions at restaurants.
Trying to find one voice in a sea of other voices and sounds, even with a hearing aid, is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, Morrison says. She suggests her patients go to restaurants at off times when there are less people, request a table near the wall and sit facing the wall. Otherwise, options for quiet restaurants are slim.
“There is only one quiet restaurant in Baton Rouge: Maison Lacour,” Morrison says. The upscale eatery has five dining rooms and offers a more traditional white-tablecloth experience.
Roughly 20% of Americans, or 48 million, have some level of hearing impairment, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. Developing hearing loss, Morrison says, is not just a process of aging, but a process of noise exposure. Long-term exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can cause hearing damage.
While most restaurant noise levels are not constant or severe enough to cause hearing loss, it can still keep people from having a pleasant experience, especially customers with hearing impairments—which is a wider population than most know because many people are unaware they have hearing loss, or simply refuse to have it treated, Morrison says.
“With the number of hearing impaired people, noisy restaurants are hindering people from having normal conversations,” Morrison says. “Even most people with normal hearing are not aware of how much concentration they are using just to have conversations at restaurants today.”