Noisy Restaurants Draw Complaints from Diners Complaints have been on the rise in recent years about the volume level in restaurants. Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema took a noise monitor to some of the hottest eateries in the nation's capital.

Noisy Restaurants Draw Complaints from Diners

Noisy Restaurants Draw Complaints from Diners

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Complaints have been on the rise in recent years about the volume level in restaurants. Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema took a noise monitor to some of the hottest eateries in the nation's capital.


Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?

I'm wondering because I'm not in my usual seat in Studio 2A. Instead, I'm at a popular Washington D.C. restaurant called Brasserie Beck. The dining room is almost full. I'm here for the lunch, and I should say the food is fabulous.

I'm also here to check on an increasingly common complaint about eateries. Not cold food or slow service; I'm talking about, in this case, trying to talk over the noise. Concerns about noisy eateries have reached a crescendo in recent years. It's a frequent subject on foodie Web blogs, and food critics say their readers often pipe up about the topic. So why are so many of today's restaurants so loud?

Mr. TOM SIETSEMA (Food Critic, Washington Post): The ceilings are quite tall. There's a lot of glass and wood, and I don't believe the floor is carpeted either. So there's lots of room for noise to bounce around.

NORRIS: That's Tom Sietsema. He's a food critic for the Washington Post. We've now moved away from the restaurant to our studio, where it is much quieter. Hello, Tom.

Mr. SIETSEMA: I love this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Tom has stopped by NPR to talk about a recent article he wrote for the Washington Post magazine called "No Appetite for Noise."

Tom, what's the explanation? I mean, restaurants have been around for a long time. They just haven't always been this loud.

Mr. SIETSEMA: Well, you know, I think part of this is the technology. You know, years ago, even five years ago, people weren't using their cell phones and their BlackBerrys, and I even see people with laptops now. And you've got a limited amount of space, tables seem to be a little bit closer together, and the design penchant these days is for big, open, airy spaces. Lofty ceilings and uncarpeted floors and all those hard edges and straight lines just bounce the noise around like crazy.

NORRIS: Just how loud are these restaurants?

Mr. SIETSEMA: Well, I was really surprised. You know, when I went around, I took a sound level meter with me around to some 20 restaurants. Some of the places that we measured were upwards of 90 decibels, which is the sound of, you know, city truck traffic or the equivalent of a lawn mower right next to you. And for the sake of comparison, 60 decibels is the volume that we're talking at right now. It's normal conversation.

NORRIS: How does all these noise affect the dining experience?

Mr. SIETSEMA: I found that just, personally, I noticed that I was, you know, eating with rounded shoulders, sort of leaning into a table to listen to my dining companions. I also tend to eat a little bit faster, and obviously, you get a little hoarse if you're talking a little bit louder.

People also have to keep in mind, as a doctor told me, about the emotional impact too. I mean, you know, a lot of conversation is missed. People are not participating in what should be a sociable aspect of dining out.

NORRIS: Now, Tom, you know, it sounds like you get a lot of complaints about this, but some people like this experience. They like to be in the middle of a hip, happening place.

Mr. SIETSEMA: Right. As a restaurateur told me, no one likes to walk into a mausoleum, and I think he's right. I did talk to a number of people who appreciate noise, you know? One, they don't have to - one woman told me she didn't have to talk to her husband if she didn't want to. Another woman told me, who is a young mother, told me - she was, I like noisy restaurants because I can bring my kid in there. He might be screaming and banging on the glasses or whatever and no one notices.

NORRIS: So you plan to introduce noise ratings to include them as part of your restaurant…

Mr. SIETSEMA: Absolutely, along with price and Web site information, all that.

NORRIS: Do you think it will make a difference?

Mr. SIETSEMA: I hope so. You know, I got something, like, three, 400 e-mail right after the story came out. I think - and what surprise me was that I wasn't hearing from senior citizens alone. I was hearing from a lot of people in their 20s, their 30s and their 40s who also noticed the problem with noise and would like something to be done about it. And I noticed, you know, business wise, I mean, restaurants should really take heed because a lot of people listed names of restaurants that they no longer go to as a result of all the noise. They walk in - it's too noisy - they walked out.

NORRIS: So you got an earphone.

Mr. SIETSEMA: Absolutely.

NORRIS: Sorry, I couldn't help that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: That's too easy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Well, Tom Sietsema, thank you very much for coming in to talk to us. I'm glad we could provide a quiet environment for this conversation.

Mr. SIETSEMA: Thank you for having me.

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