Restaurant noise levels affect dining experience, studies show
Moments after the award-winning Detroit noodle shop Ima opened its doors for lunch on a recent Monday, a decibel meter perched high on a ledge above the dining room hovered around 70 decibels, about the same level of noise intensity as a working dishwasher.
Electronic music thrummed through two adjacent speakers, mixing with the low hum of kitchen equipment as the day’s first guests sauntered into the snug space for their fix of udon noodles in savory, umami-laden broth.
None of the guests paid any mind to the fluctuating red LED numbers near the ceiling, but the staff certainly did — by design.
“It kinda is rooted in the fact that our music and playlists were such an important part of our dining experience,” said Ima chef-owner Mike Ransom, who spent much of his early adult life moonlighting as a DJ. “And because we’re all music-minded, the levels are always something we’re very conscious of. And just like when you’re DJ-ing, the levels of music have to be adjusted and fine-tuned throughout the day or service.”
But, as Ransom found, one man’s loud is another’s library noise. Despite not being a totally accurate read thanks to its placement next to the speakers, Ima’s decibel meter was installed as a simple way to standardize the restaurant’s noise levels among the staff, who are instructed to keep the levels within a certain sweet spot, lower at lunch and higher during the busier dinner services to match the mood.
Unbeknownst to him, Ransom intuitively hit on a phenomenon a growing body of science is now beginning to help explain.
Louder and louder
Anyone who eats out regularly has noticed restaurants grow significantly louder over the last two decades and it doesn’t take a scientist to understand why. Modern restaurant design trends favor open spaces and hard surfaces over their compartmentalized, acoustical ceiling-tiled, carpeted, linen-wrapped forebears.
And the loud rock ‘n’ roll or rap that was once reserved for the back-of-house prep staff’s boombox is now commonly piped into dining rooms — a trend often traced back to chef Mario Batali, who was known for blaring Led Zeppelin at the high-end Italian restaurant Babbo in New York in the ’90s.
Thanks to a proliferation of open kitchens, there’s now often little separation between the kitchen and the dining room to begin with.
As restaurants have evolved, the noise inside them has become such a nuisance Americans named it the No. 1 most bothersome aspect of eating out, according to Zagat’s 2018 survey of dining trends, outweighing the usual suspects of bad service and high prices.
There’s now even an app for that, a self-styled “Yelp for restaurant noise” called SoundPrint, which allows diners to rate and submit noise levels at local restaurants using their smartphone’s internal microphone.
New noisy normal
Over the last 10 years, other critics have noted this clamorous phenomenon, some even incorporating noise levels into their reviews.
More recently, the Washington Post rightly pointed out the adverse effect that loud restaurants particularly have on people with hearing impairments, suggesting potential widespread violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act by the worst perpetrators.
All these issues are important and valid, but there’s been less media hand-wringing over how this new noisy normal may be impacting our perceptions of what we taste.
That, in fact, does take a scientist to explain.
Charles Spence is the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University and is one of the leading psychologists synthesizing the research of how “the everything else” other than our taste buds affects our perceptions of taste.
“The pleasures of the table reside far more in the mind than we realize and perhaps even more in the mind than in the mouth,” Spence wrote last year in the journal Nutrition.
He has been studying “the everything else” in the dining experience for the past 15 years or so, beginning with an experiment that found people perceived Pringles to be crunchier and fresher when the researchers artificially boosted the sound of biting into the chip.
And thus, Spence began his journey into the world he calls “gastrophysics,” which marries gastronomy with psychophysics, publishing a book by the same name in 2017.
During a recent phone conversation, Spence called dining “perhaps one of the most multisensory of the experiences we have,” noting that the taste buds alone only provide a fraction of the experience we think of as taste.
Gastrophysics incorporates all the senses, and Spence says smell is one of the most important. But research in this field has also shown that everything from plate color to the weight of the cutlery to the the color of the walls to the tone and tempo of the background music all affect what we taste.
It’s an interesting phenomenon that certainly has implications for the noisy restaurant world, but Spence is careful to say that explanations for why it occurs should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism at this point. They are merely hypotheticals.
“The simplest idea might be that any sort of loud noise or too much stimulation kind of masks our ability to taste, where one sense blacks out the others,” Spence said.
Speed up or slow down
The deployment of this science often eludes independent restaurants, but larger chains use it more subtly in the casual dining realm.
Separate studies have shown that fast music and loud music make people drink alcohol faster, but that playing slow music led people to linger longer at dinner and spend more on drinks. This knowledge allows savvy restaurateurs to play their dining rooms almost like composers, speeding up the tempo during the busy rushes to turn tables and slowing it down when empty seats are ample. Many, like Ima’s Ransom, already do this on an intuitive level.
But it’s the big chains, Spence said, that are in a better position to use this knowledge and incorporate it.
Spence points to Chipotle, which very intentionally plays music with faster tempos during the lunch and dinner rushes to get people in and out quickly. And there’s the Hard Rock Cafe, which famously played loud, fast music because its founders realized it made people eat and drink more and get out quickly.
“Of course, we won’t tell you that’s what we’re doing,” Spence said of the big chains who deploy this body of research to their benefit. “As a consumer, we’d rather you just focus on the food and how much you enjoy the experience.”
Pushed to the extremes, though, this sort of sonic flavoring can have the opposite effect, turning people away instead.
“There’s also a threshold,” Ransom said. “That’s where the decibel meter comes in. You want it to be something people are experiencing but not noticing to the point where it interrupts their meal.”
Shouting across the table
Spence’s findings have potential ripple effects up and down the dining food chain, perhaps nowhere more obviously than at the upper echelon, where the world’s best chefs go to extreme lengths to serve diners a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In the hands of these chefs, Spence says a multisensory approach can create what he calls “extraordinary experiences.”
Everyday diners are more likely to experience the negative side of noise in restaurants.
“My friends and I often have lunch or dinner out, and we increasingly find that we are unable to carry on conversation in a normal tone of voice,” Sally Lindroth of Novi, Mich., wrote in an email.
“It seems we always end up shouting at each other in order to make ourselves heard. We’ve tried going to places as early as possible, and that helps at the beginning, but as soon as a place begins to fill up, there we are again shouting across the table.”