The restaurant is a hub for socialization. Any restaurant-goer should know that these places are not only attractive because of the cuisine or the culinary experience that they offer, like the Mexican dishes at Abuelo’s in Myrtle Beach, or the American menu of the family restaurant, 54th Street located in Kansas City, but also for its ambiance, which should be inviting and inspiring enough to instigate intimate conversations. But do restaurateurs take this as a primary consideration when conceptualizing their space? Or is this placed on the back burner with such confidence that “if people like our food, they will come no matter what?”
For example, in a restaurant in the United States called “Untitled,” the issue is acoustics. Any conversation would be drowned out in the surroundings along with the chaos of the kitchen’s activities. Imagine this design – the walls are primarily glass, the back wall is concrete, the floor is limestone, the tables don’t have tablecloths, and all the cooking is done in an open kitchen. There are just too many hard surfaces that noise does not get soaked up, and rather, it is amplified.
Finally, after years of service, the owners of Untitled are addressing this problem and at last, the customers will get what they have been asking for. This indicates some sort of shift that restaurant owners are “listening” after all. But you just can’t erase the fact that there will still be those places, like New York City’s pizzerias and brasseries that generate a pandemonium enough to shock you like ice-cold water, but that’s different.
For the customers who are well into their 20’s, it pays to have a night out that is desirable and decipherable because the last thing you want is a conversation that you have to decode by lip reading. The good news about it is that there are specialized technologies to pave the way for a better soundscape, and restaurants are prioritizing this.
An architect like David Rockwell, who has designed several restaurants, has seen this specification rise to the top of the priority list, especially for a lot of his new projects. The soundscape is the over-all sound quality and not just minimizing noise. It is giving the customers a chance to have audible conversations, as if you are creating a bubble for them. The knowledge about acoustics comes into play significantly because now, the talk about soundscape is real.
The question is, how do you improve the soundscape? At Untitled, what they did is to cover the ceiling with a porous acoustic plaster called Baswaphon, which acts as a sponge for noise absorption. This makes it possible for diners to hear each other with utmost clarity even while a song is playing in the sound system, and without drowning out the chat.
Then, there are the restaurants that offer deafening silence, as if a sneeze from one of its customers can qualify as utter disturbance. While some restaurant designers already make acoustic buffers and panels as part of their design, the precision is not to be escaped so that sound design is concentrated on each table without losing the natural elements of the surroundings. This is after all, what gives the place a sense of vibrancy.
Louis Yoh, the architect of Houseman, a new restaurant in SoHo, and a designer of home recording studios for hip-hop artists, says that “you have to approach the space like a speaker,” which means that you treat it like a stereo speaker that has a balance of loud and soft volume, along with the treble and bass. The aim is to amplify the good noise while decreasing the bad noise.
So what is good noise? For Louis, it’s not just the customer’s conversing but also the activity that keeps the restaurant alive, whether that’s the entrance or the kitchen of the restaurant. To achieve this perfect mix, he installed linen-covered acoustic panels on the ceiling and covered a large part of the ceiling with it. His 20-year old interns comment that “the louder, the better,” but for Louis Yoh, blocking out the noise becomes important as you age.
And like him, many restaurant owners are putting an emphasis on noise reduction, and these are the people who have the same experience in the music industry as he does.
In a wine bar in Brooklyn called the Four Horsemen, the conversations are crystal clear, and that is mainly due to the burlap and slats of cedar that is installed in the surroundings to suck up all this noise. But in other places, restaurateurs are still hard-set on maintaining the aesthetics of their establishment, such as in Untitled, where glass, stone and metal are part of the restaurant’s design, which makes noise reduction more challenging.