Loud Noise in Restaurants Really Isn’t So Bad, Except It Ruins the Meal

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells addressed a lively topic in Wednesday’s paper: whether the level of noise in restaurants is really an issue.

His answer is that except in extreme cases, it’s not.

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“I don’t really believe loud restaurants are a problem,” he writes, adding that in thinking about it, he realized that “one of the things I must enjoy is the noise itself.”

It’s rarely fair to take a 2,000-word essay and distill it into two. In this case, the temptation is irresistible.

What Mr. Wells is politely saying to people who don’t like loud restaurants is “Okay, boomer.”

He’s telling those who find it frustrating not to hear their dining companion(s) that this is like buying an ice cream cone and being annoyed that it’s cold.

“When we complain about the noise,” he writes, “we’re really complaining about ourselves.”

Dining out is a social experience, he explains, and the ambient sound of kindred spirits is part of that experience. .

That’s a fair point, because ambient sound often reinforces a sense of shared enjoyment. The murmur of the crowd at a baseball game, for example, enhances the pleasure.

Noise in a restaurant, Mr. Wells explains, even loud noise, should be embraced as part of dining out.

I would beg to differ. Ambient noise at a sporting event doesn’t make it impossible to watch the game. Loud noise at a restaurant can make it impossible to enjoy the meal.

I would also suggest Mr. Wells, while his writing is calm, reasoned and polite, underestimates the demographic divide among restaurant patrons.

My wife and I live near Morristown, N.J., a New York suburb with a large recent influx of seemingly affluent young professionals.

Accordingly, the old hardware stores and bookstores have been largely supplanted by financial services centers and restaurants. Lots and lots and lots of restaurants.

There must be 50, 70, 100 restaurants around this modest-sized town, with almost all the new ones catering to that younger crowd.

My wife and I, along with most of our friends, wouldn’t consider eating at 80% of those restaurants, however appealing their food might be, because we couldn’t hear each other across the table.

The acoustics seem designed so every sound bounces off a wall or ceiling and back into the crowd. And as if fearful that still doesn’t create enough noise, the restaurant owners usually add music.

Mr. Wells sees a message here, that this must be what patrons want, and it’s hard to disagree. Restaurants had another record year in 2019, grossing an estimated $863 billion, and we have to assume that’s not just because millennials famously hate to cook.

Millennials and other younger folks, to indulge in a bit of demographic stereotyping, like to go out. They also like the idea that when they do, they’re stepping into some action. People talking quietly over poached salmon is not action.

And that’s fine. They’re entitled. It’s just that not all restaurant patrons are looking for a loud party.

My wife and I are in our 70s. We’re not going out for action. We’re going out for the food and the company, both of which we enjoy more when we’re not fighting to hear our friends or each other through hundred other noises.

Maybe my wife and I and our friends are cranky old outliers. I don’t think so.

A couple of times a year my wife goes to the city to meet nine or 10 former work friends for dinner. They swap stories, they catch up.

At least half the time, my wife reports that she had a great time catching up with the person next to her, but that she could barely hear a word anyone else was saying.

Our hearing isn’t what it was 50 years ago. In my case, I left some of it in the arenas where I covered rock concerts — an experience that was worth the tradeoff, give or take a few Bon Jovi shows. But neither my wife nor I carries around an ear trumpet. We can hear normal conversation in a room where dozens of other people are talking — as long as there isn’t a loud soundtrack and the place isn’t designed so everyone’s every word ricochets back to the center of the room.

The net result, for us, is that we go out less than we used to, or we might like to, and we avoid places where the noise level cancels out the pleasure from the food. We don’t require a code of silence. We just want the noise absorbed enough so we can hear each other, and I can’t believe only a few fanatics share that sentiment.

Mr. Wells implicitly notes that restaurants, like television networks, clothing manufacturers and pretty much every other industry, are really just following the money, to millennials, Gen-Xers and other folks who barely remember the 20th century.

If the kids want noisy, we’ll give ’em noisy. If the old folks want quiet, let ’em buy a Hungry Man TV dinner and click the sound to mute.

This isn’t a new syndrome. A generation ago, when baby boomers became the money demo, corporate and cultural America were right there to sweep the old people aside.

Now baby boomers are the old people. New target, same broom.

So when people who want to hear a normal-volume conversation in a restaurant complain that they’d like the noise lowered a bit, the answer probably shouldn’t be surprising.

Okay, boomer.

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David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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