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Pleasant dining is about more than just good taste

July 27, 2018

Restaurateurs know that their guests eat with their eyes. Sure, the food has to taste good in the first place, but the lingering impression of our breakfast, lunch and dinner is partially dependent on plate size, shape and color, along with the look of the surroundings. All have been proven to affect a diner's perception of his or her overall experience. In fact, that's the basis for many modernist restaurants that strive to make the food as pleasant to look at as it is to eat.

As restaurants begin to cater to a younger crowd, soft and fluffy carpets are being replaced by tile and slate floors. Walls that used to be draped with curtains and fabrics are now drywall or wood. 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, but that's another column) are now "open plan." That means that all the metal works like air ducts, lighting and lighting conduits and supports, speaker supports and even the roof deck itself are open and exposed. Yes, it's a great look. But it can be the recipe for an acoustical nightmare. Next to emails yearning for ethnic restaurants, and people complaining about prices (those I delete), some of the most frequent emails I receive have to do with noise in restaurants.

Here at the beach, many of our eateries are located in old houses and Victorian beach cottages with low ceilings and relatively close quarters. 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 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 experience 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 the 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. Ears and microphones are two different things: When you play back the recording 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 ignore are 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 inbox.

Sadly, noise abatement is not cheap. As restaurants compete more and more in the price department, a several-thousand-dollar outlay for acoustical materials and design can be painful when payday comes for servers, cooks and the like. 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," and it's a lot more involved than just gluing some packing foam to the ceiling. But, again ... another column. Many acousticians use a combination of absorption and "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.
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, similar to airflow through a vent, through speakers in 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 the resultant acoustical behavior into harmony. Using what I wrote on this page, a close look around some of these places will reveal who they are.

  • 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 byesbek@capegazette.com.