Comfortable dining is more than just food on a plate

January 10, 2020

A few years ago I wrote about how different noise levels in restaurants tend to match the concept of the restaurant. A sports bar with 150 TVs will be pretty noisy. A swanky steakhouse will be just the opposite. But what about all the places in between?

It’s a proven fact that people eat with their eyes, and a guest’s lingering impression of a restaurant is partially dependent on plate size, shape and color and presentation. All have been proven to affect a diner’s perception of his or her experience.

As many restaurants attempt to target a younger crowd, fluffy carpets are being replaced by tile and slate floors. Walls that were draped with fabrics are now drywall, wood or even metal. Surfaces are devoid of tablecloths in favor of exposed wood or stainless steel. Overstuffed chairs are now metal and vinyl. Ceilings with “acoustical” tiles (not really “acoustical” at all) are now “open plan.” That means that air ducts, lighting and lighting conduits and supports, speaker supports and even the roof deck itself are open and exposed. Yes, it can be a great look if done right, but it can also be the recipe for an acoustical nightmare.

Next to the emails yearning for ethnic restaurants, and people complaining about prices (those I delete), some of the most frequent comments I receive have to do with noise. Many of our eateries in downtown Rehoboth and Lewes are located in old beach cottages with low ceilings. Or they’re in large spaces with hard (but easy to clean) floors and lots and lots of glass windows. A by-product of this trend toward clean-looking austerity has been the realization that diners also eat with their ears. Sure, some restaurants trade in loud music and raucous “people noise,” and enjoy a loyal following of customers who come for the upbeat atmosphere. But diners who appreciate a quieter spot are finding that those experiences are becoming fewer and farther between.

Unpleasant noise isn’t entirely about the number of people in a restaurant. It’s more about the shape of the room and the floor, ceiling and wall materials. My tiny corner of Cape Gazette doesn’t allow me to print all the science (about which many books have been written), but suffice it to say that the human ear is easily confused by sounds that reflect off hard, unyielding surfaces.

Try a little experiment: Find a reflective room like a big bathroom, or perhaps a big living room with minimal furniture and no carpet. Stand about 10-15 feet from a person speaking in a normal voice. You will be able to understand them just fine. Now, using the sound recording app on your phone, stand in the same spot and record that person speaking. When you play the recording back you’ll find that it’s more difficult to understand what that person is saying. The simple explanation is that the human brain “filters out” nearby reflections of sound. But microphones don’t have brains, and they simply record what they “hear.” So the reflections and interference that our brains try to ignore are faithfully recorded and easily heard on playback. That’s why professional sound recording studios are designed the way they are.

And here’s where the fun begins: As the walls, floors and ceilings get farther apart or even more reflective (like in a restaurant), the time it takes for the sound to reach those surfaces – and to bounce back – is increased. At a certain point (acousticians call it the “critical distance”) the reflections begin to interfere with one another and the human brain can no longer recognize those sounds as words. Instead, the reflected sounds are perceived as a jumbled mishmash of unrecognizable noises that can be downright annoying. Bingo! Emails start arriving at my in-box.

Sadly, noise abatement is not cheap. As restaurants compete more and more in the price department, a several-thousanddollar outlay for acoustical materials and design can be painful. But some restaurants are indeed addressing the issue as diners make their feelings known on social media and review websites.

One way to quiet things down is by installing specially mounted panels to “trap” the sound when it arrives at the ceilings or the walls, i.e., keep it from reflecting back. We call that “absorption.” Note that it’s a lot more involved than just gluing some packing foam to the ceiling.

Many acousticians also use a concept called “diffusion.” Imagine looking at something through frosted glass: The light is scattered in such a way that it’s hard to see what’s on the other side. Diffusion does the same thing, but with sound: Rather than allowing it to reflect directly back into the room (like a mirror with light), it scatters the sound waves in all directions. This is much less annoying to the human ear.

Yet another slightly more high-tech solution is what we call sound masking. Interestingly, adding sound to a space can actually make the space seem quieter. Sound masking is the introduction of an ambient sound (e.g., airflow through a vent) through speakers into the room. The sound is specifically engineered to reduce the intelligibility of conversational distractions to the human ear. When deployed properly, sound masking is barely noticeable.

More and more Cape Region restaurants are turning to experts to design cost-effective systems to bring their interior layout and its acoustical behavior into harmony. Just another way to keep the business of eating going strong here at the beach.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter