I don’t know about you, but I have given up going to noisy restaurants. You know the type I mean. They’re the ones where you can barely hear what the person who’s sitting alongside you is saying, much less whoever happens to be sitting across the table.

Obviously, I never know what a restaurant’s going to be like, noise-wise, before I arrive, and once I’m there, even though I can usually tell it’s going to be noisy, just by looking around, I don’t actually cancel my booking, because I figure this would be unfair on the restaurateur, who’s put aside a table for me and whoever I’m dining with. Instead, I just go ahead with my meal, and once I’ve paid the bill, I leave… never to return—which also means telling any friends who ask me to suggest or veto a dinner venue that the restaurant is on my ‘no-visit’ list. And that’s no matter how good the food is.

I used to think that I was pretty much on my own about having such a serious aversion to noise that I wouldn’t patronise a restaurant solely because of this failing, but it turns out that I’m not alone: far from it, in fact. According to Michael McCann, of Dreamtime Australian Design, who actually designs restaurants for a living, a noisy restaurant can kiss goodbye to 40 per cent of its repeat business. That is, 40 per cent of people who have eaten at the restaurant and would other-wise have returned to spend more money will decide not to make a return visit, simply because of the excessive noise.

Another kitchen designer, Rachel Luchetti, told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Lissa Christopher that many people didn’t realise that it was noise that was the issue. ‘[they] don’t even realise the noise is what’s bugging them; that the acoustics are why they’re feeling a bit frustrated or are losing their voice, or are getting a headache,’ she said. Luchetti says that although she always recommends restaurateurs use acoustic solutions to reduce noise levels, they will rarely do so because of the cost, and because they have a mentality that if their restaurant is crowded, they must be doing well, so they don’t need to spend money to make customers more comfortable.

This is an attitude they can’t afford to have, according to McCann.

‘If you have a restaurant in a big tourist city such as New York or London or Paris, you might get away with it,’ he told Christopher. ‘But most restaurants need repeat clientele.’

If you’re one of those who checks out restaurants before making a booking, it’s pretty easy to spot trouble ahead of time. If the floors are concrete, tile, granite or some other hard surface, you’re in trouble already. Then look up. If the ceiling is also a hard surface, and is also flat, rather than being vaulted and is not broken up with beams, you’re already looking at an acoustic nightmare. If you can also see lots of glass, plus there’s one of those trendy ‘open kitchens’ where you can see (and hear) the chefs at work, don’t even bother to check the menu unless you plan on eating alone while wearing earplugs.

Solving the problem of a noisy restaurant is always going to cost money: acoustic consultants don’t come cheap, and most times the corrective ‘surgery’ on the building will also cost a bit. But if you are a restaurateur, and you’re reading this, consider that the fix might give you 40 per cent more customers (and cost not a cent in advertising) before you dismiss the cost out of hand.

My other pet hate is restaurants that have cheap, crappy-sounding sound systems. This problem is so endemic that I know I’ve only ever been in one restaurant that had a good system, and when I asked if there was a particular reason why, it turned out the owner was an audiophile and had figured that if he had to spend his working life in a restaurant, he would prefer to be listening to high-quality sound. Again, the problem seems to be money. I once spent some considerable time for a friend working out what would give the best result at the lowest price, only to be told that the (very moderate) price it would cost was far more than he’d intended to spend. From what I can see, most restaurants simply buy the cheapest ‘three-in-one’ they can find that has speakers that can be removed from the main unit, and use that as their sound system. The result is not just poor sound because of the quality of the gear, but also because they’re using only two speakers, so the sound will be too loud or too soft for every person in the restaurant who’s not a precise distance from the speakers.

It must be said that between restaurants I won’t visit because they’re too noisy and those I won’t visit because the music sounds so bad, I’m not exactly running out of restaurants, but I’m certainly eating at home more than I used to. And that can’t be good for the restaurant business. 

Greg Borrowman, Editor