Kill the noise, not the vibe: The importance of acoustics to restaurant success

Pascal van Dort
Pascal van Dort
September 11, 2019
People eating in restaurant

Dining out isn’t just about the food, it’s an experience for all the senses. And if you’ve ever left a restaurant irritated or exhausted, you may be aware that one of your senses (hearing) plays a big role in the experience. Perhaps more than you know. 

Whether you’re a food lover, restaurant owner or an architect working on a restaurant project, knowing how acoustics will impact the experience is a good idea.

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Whether it’s the Lombard effect or other reasons, most restaurants have a serious noise problem that is affecting customers and staff and therefore the business. In the United States, for example, the 13,000 American diners who responded to the Zagat Survey 2018 indicated noise was their biggest complaint (24 percent), more than service (23%) and even crowds (15%).

On top of that, we also know that exposure to noise impacts our hearing, influences our mood and even our long-term health. This should be worrying enough for restaurants who want customers to return and recommend them and for high-quality staff to stay. But they face another problem, more specific to the business—noise affects taste, too.

Research from Charles Spence found that sweetness, saltiness and overall appeal (“liking”) of the food increases in quieter environments (45-55dB) and goes down significantly in louder environments (75-85dB). If the food’s important, acoustics should be too.

In the video below, Peter Munch, restaurant manager of Café Toldbolden, one of Copenhagen’s oldest restaurants, talks about how investing in better acoustics has improved the dining experience.

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Designing acoustics into a restaurant

Most restaurants will put a lot of effort and focus into the taste of their food, but they aren’t looking for a library-like atmosphere to go with it. Achieving the right vibe is the result of many choices from design and decoration to layout, music and more.

So what factors affect room acoustics and what can restaurants do to improve them without killing the vibe? The answer to both questions is ‘A lot.’

Some of the factors affecting room acoustics include: the type of restaurant it is (café, bar, fine dining, food hall); the type of room (shape, volume, ceiling height, open kitchen, people capacity) and the ratio of sound-reflecting surface areas to sound-absorbing ones.

To improve room acoustics, we generally need to absorb sound. Hard, smooth surfaces and materials like concrete, wood and glass reflect sound, causing unwanted effects like echoes. In acoustical terms, a room like this has a long “reverberation time” (RT), the measurement of the time it takes for a sound to fade away.

Low-tech and high-tech acoustic solutions

Materials like rugs or carpet, drapes, plants and furniture help shorten the RT, which makes conversation easier to understand despite background music and nearby conversations. The RT isn’t the only acoustic parameter to consider, others include Speech Clarity (C50) and the A-weighted equivalent continuous sound level (LAeq (dB)).

Decorative elements can only accomplish so much though—their absorption abilities are limited even in large amounts—and they require the owner to add elements to a room that they may not want.

More effective options are acoustic ceiling and wall solutions, which can absorb far more sound and give restaurants and architects a range of design options to choose from, including nearly invisible elements that blend into ceilings or ones that contribute more to the overall design of the space.

Take the noise off the menu

Whether you’re eating out or in the restaurant business yourself and building or renovating a space, the acoustics are critical to success. Customers are already choosing restaurants based on acoustics (see the Washington Post food critic, Tom Sietsema’s ‘noise ratings’) and with good reason, given the impact it has on the food and more importantly, our long-term health.

If you’re building or renovating a restaurant space, the next step is finding out what’s best for you—what the acoustics in your space are like now and how you can improve them. An architect or interior designer can guide you or you can contact an acoustic professional directly. Let’s kill the noise, not the vibe.

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