The Conundrum of Restaurant Acoustics

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Photo by Arnold Gatilao via Flickr

In 2008, Frances Anderton of KCRW’s DnA did a segment on the role of sound in the eating experience at L.A. restaurants. To find out more, she spoke with local gourmand and restaurant critic Jonathan Gold.

Gold says that many liken the dining experience with that of theater, and that sound is one of many ways that an eatery creates an immersive environment restaurant to its customers, or audience. And in a city as brimming in restaurants as L.A. is, there’s a wide range of sound levels to choose from.

“Sometimes I think that if you blindfolded me and you walked me into say Providence or you walked me into Golden Deli, I could probably tell what the restaurants were just by the sound. It’s as much a part of the total ambiance as what’s on your plate sometimes,” he said.

But what makes a restaurant noisy, too quiet, or just right? Anderton spoke with acoustic designer Jerry Christoff of Veneklasen Associates to find out. He said that loud restaurants, or what he calls “high energy” restaurants typically have high ceilings and feature hard surfaces such as metal, glass and gypsum boards that reflect sound.

Back in 2008, Osteria Mozza was identified as one of the loudest L.A. restaurants, and not much has changed. It features large glass windows, high ceilings, wood floors and marble countertops, all features that Christoff identified as conducive to loud environments.

Since then, Jonathan Gold has named Bestia as one of L.A.’s louder spots; he has a decibel app on his phone, and when visiting Bestia early this year he recorded a near constant 92 decibels during his meal, “which is to say a little less than a leaf blower, but not a lot less than a leaf blower.”

Providence, on the other hand, features an ideal level of sound according to Gold. It’s not too loud, but not so quiet where you fear you need to whisper.

The owners of Providence made changes to the building before the restaurant first opened to foster a quieter environment. They removed wood, covered the walls with padding, and used sound-deflecting art; but, they were careful not to drown out all sound.

So why don’t all restaurants adapt their spaces for these acoustics?

Bon Appetit’s restaurant critic Andrew Knowlton notes that it’s expensive to soundproof restaurants. He told Evan Kleiman,”They are packing as many tables as they can in a room and if the restaurant is full I don’t know how you get around [the noise].” 

Plus, Christoff says that high energy restaurants are less challenging for designers than those with a lower volume, because sound-reflecting surfaces are seen as more attractive than many sound-absorbing ones like carpeting or cottage cheese ceilings.

Which L.A. restaurants do you think are too noisy? Which ones are uncomfortably quiet? Which ones are just right? Let us know in the comments.