In his terrific recent piece in Crosscut Roger Downey complains about the growing noisiness of restaurants—many so loud, diners are hard-pressed to hear their companions across the table.
Credit the un-upholstered, industrial-look restaurant design so in vogue right now (which amplifies sound) and ever-louder background music—both favored by young, hip urban dwellers who think nothing of out-shouting ambient noise, and in so doing elevate it further. Some restaurateurs believe such noise signals liveliness, Downey reported, so they purposely design it right in.
“I would call bullshit on that,” counters Patric Gabre-Kidan, the former co-owner with Ethan Stowell of Tavolata, How to Cook a Wolf, and Anchovies and Olives, who now works in restaurant design for Method Construction. “I don’t think anybody wants to have a super noisy restaurant. Lively, yes. But if it’s noisy to where you can’t hear the person across from you—you just want to punch yourself in the face.”
Gabre-Kidan should know. “We were one of the prime offenders at Tavolata,” he recalls, identifying that Belltown restaurant’s perfect storm of noise-enhancers: rectangular shape, high ceilings, and hard surfaces. Blogs mentioned it, older customers complained. “But you know, I saw plenty of younger people who might not vocalize it, but were having a hard time shouting to make themselves heard. You could just see conversations come to a grinding halt.” As for the staff—they found the noise level chaotic. “By the end of our shift we would be physically exhausted.”
I certainly hear that: I’ve dined in plenty of restaurants which left me feeling sound-pounded. Bastille, Toulouse Petit, The Walrus and the Carpenter, Volterra in Kirkland, and Brave Horse Tavern are just the ones that come to mind. Brave Horse was so deafening it crossed into the realm of hilarious—the joint was nightclub loud, place-lips-directly-on-companion’s-ear loud, which is no small trick when you’re simultaneously sinking teeth into a fully-loaded burger.
Were these restaurateurs trying for this level of noise?
I’ve seen too much surprise and expensive fixes for that to be true. When Tom Douglas opened Lola I remember him apologizing all over himself for the roar. Both Renee Erickson of Walrus and Carpenter and James Weimann of Bastille have confessed that they were flabbergasted by the sheer numbers they were getting through the door—300 covers on a Monday, Weimann says of the early (mid-recession!) days of the subway-tiled Bastille. That many people create a din whatever room they’re in.
But shouldn’t restaurateurs who design with subway tile and concrete have a clue what’s coming? “Generally speaking, nobody thinks about it,” marvels Gabre-Kidan. “It’s extremely expensive to open a restaurant, and most people aren’t looking to spend an extra $10,000 on sound attenuation.” So they open their noise-boxes, begin fielding complaints—then get an audio consultant on the phone, stat.
Which is exactly what Weimann did soon after Bastille opened. “Our consultant told us people will pay between $20,000 and $80,000 for noise reduction panels,” he said. “He talked about covering 80 percent of our ceilings with them—and they looked like 1980’s office ceilings.”
Gabre-Kidan likewise considered noise abatement at Tavolata, but, like Weimann, rejected the idea. “Sound control is ugly,” he says. “Who wants acoustic panels over beautiful wood walls and reclaimed ceilings?”
But when the noise is as significant as the Kirkland Volterra’s was—and it was so extreme our servers were trying to lip-read our orders—noise abatement becomes the only choice. Co-owner Michelle Quisenberry and her husband/co-owner Don Curtiss waited six weeks to take noise readings, then added custom acoustic panels at a whopping price tag of $19,000. “It’s not as chaotic now,” she says.
It’s a wonder more restaurateurs don’t think about excessive noise in advance, Gabre-Kidan says—especially when it’s not impossible to address the issue off the top. He credits Johnathan Sundstrom at Lark as one who got sound right, by weaving a sheer curtain among the tables to create zones of privacy. The Book Bindery, which Gabre-Kidan helped design after he parted with Stowell, features low ceilings, noise-soaking upholstery, room partitions, and thoughtful speaker placement, for a nice low burble. Even Shanik, the most consistently packed restaurant in town at the moment, is designed like a mid-century destination property, with lush fabrics, far-apart tables, and no problem with ambient sound. Lively yes; deafening no.
It’s that fine line between the two that remains the rub—because a sense of liveliness, as Downey argued, is critical to a restaurant’s image as popular and significant. That audio consultant Weimann talked to? It turns out a big part of his business was doing the opposite of what Bastille needed. “He helps owners plug the noise of crowded restaurants into their stereo systems,” Weimann marveled.