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What? Seattle's restaurants are loud by design

Noisy is the new normal -- in the restaurant scene. And these days it’s the diners who are generating the din.
Tom Douglas's Cuoco in South Lake Union

Tom Douglas's Cuoco in South Lake Union Photo: Sarah Flotard

Ryan Magarian

Ryan Magarian

The other night I took a lady friend to Cuoco, Tom Douglas’s year-old restaurant in SLU. As I’d heard, the food was marvelous, the décor atmospheric, the room romantically dim. My companion was agreeable and chatty, probably witty, too; unfortunately, I could barely hear a word she said.

No surprise there; as I age, I’ve become accustomed to struggling to hear in any busy public place. But at Cuoco, as I was struggling to make out what my friend was saying from two feet away, I noticed a gent at the next table. A voluble 30-something, he was clearly enjoying himself mightily — and working so hard to make himself heard above the ambient din that the tendons were standing out in his throat.

Whoa, I thought; maybe it’s not just me that’s changed; maybe it’s the whole business of dining out. And so it appears to be. In conversations with architects, designers and restaurateurs, I found universal agreement: In restaurants, noisy is the new normal. And these days the racket isn’t coming from loudspeakers; it’s the clientele generating that inchoate roar.

“When five or six people sit down at a table to discuss a new restaurant design, it isn’t long before someone says the word ‘chatter’,” says Peter Miller, for decades the owner of the architecture bookshop that bears his name, and an inveterate diner-out. “You have to understand that these days the noise is deliberate, designed right in.”

Doyen Seattle architect Gordon Walker offers no opinion on motivation, but agrees on the result. “All the fashionable materials these days, the metal and tile and stone, they all contribute to the noise level," says Walker. "Open kitchens do too. And the kind of spaces favored these days contribute their share: industrial conversions with concrete floors and ceilings, with no attempt to mitigate the sound-level through design.”

It’s probably no coincidence that what’s fashionable just now is also economically favorable. “Fabric and carpets and drapes add considerably to the cost of creating a space and maintaining it,” says Walker.

Noisy isn’t new on the Seattle dining scene. I first noticed how hard of hearing I was getting years ago, at il Terrazzo di Carmine, with its impeccable classic-Italian cuisine and superb old-timey formal service. And "chatter" hasn’t conquered all; every table at Canlis, in business for over 40 years, offers intimacy, while the lovely room vibrates with the inaudible conversations of others.

Amplified music pioneered the new school of feeding a crowd. “Fine dining” used to mean white linen and heavy tableware, and at most a discreet tinkle of Scarlatti over the sound-system. But today all background music is pumped up in volume. “I’ve been to fashionable places in Manhattan where you can’t get lunch for under three figures, and they’re as loud as anyplace else." says Tom Douglas. "And they’re packed. At Babbo [the flagship of Mario Batali’s fine-dining empire], the sound is totally in your face.”

But except in venues with disco pretensions, it isn’t the background music that dominates these days: The diners create their own wall of sound. People have become so inured to recorded din that they think nothing of having to shout over it. In the process, shouting to be heard has become part of the “experience.”

Old-school fine dining was always the amusement of a small minority, and the solemnity of the old-school posh dining room (the kind portrayed in Pixar’s "Ratatouille," for example) was part of the ambience, along with the velvet swags and chandelier. Most public eating houses were informal, rowdy and clamorous—and cheap. But today fine dining has been democratized, for democrats with the wherewithal.

And that’s just fine with most up-and-comers in what has come, tellingly, to be called “the food industry.” “Noise? Bring it on,” says Ryan Magarian, the Northwest cocktail maestro who’s advised hundreds of entrepreneurs on setting up or reconfiguring bars and restaurants. “I’ve developed a mantra: ‘E.S.P.’ Environment. Service. Product. In that order. The environment is what brings the customer in, the service provides the warmth. And, the reality is, what’s on the plate comes last. The intensity of the experience is what counts. And I’m fine with that. The noisier they are, I figure, the better I’m doing my job.”


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 7:33 a.m. Inappropriate

It's not just "fine" with restauranteurs that their dining rooms are loud -- it's deliberate. We had suspected as much for a long while, but it was confirmed a year ago at a Seattle Architecture Foundation event at Town Hall on restaurant design. Four Seattle restauranteurs held forth on their design criteria and intent. The subject of acoustics did not come up until they were asked.

When asked, the two partners in trendy Ballard Ave establishments not only affirmed the desirability of noise in their restaurants, but dismissed the needs of anyone who could not hear above the din -- going so far as to say that they would just as soon not have any patrons over 55 years of age.

Although we are not yet in that demographic, we have not darkened any of their doors since.

argus

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 7:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Good reporting by Roger Downey on a rebarbative trend. In case Tom Douglas and Ryan Magarian are interested, here's one diner who votes with his feet: whenever I find myself in a restaurant that's too loud for normal conversation, I cross it off my list and don't return.

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

I do like the restaurant reviews that indicate the noise level. If it says loud then I and my friends have learned to avoid them. We prefer establishments that respect the diner by and this is one clear indicator of such.

ruffner

Posted Sat, Mar 2, 9:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree. I also avoid places with the whole "industrial design" look. Not only are they noisy, but they're ugly. Who wants to eat in a factory?

NotFan

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 9:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Ie, Cheesecake Factory. Gross.

But that isn't a 'factory environment', that is simply the sale of sugar to people who frequent malls as their main entertainment.

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Years ago I was told that some restaurants were deliberately designed to be loud so diners wouldn't stay too long, vacating their tables for other diners and increasing the restaurant's revenue. It was an evening at a noisy restaurant where, like Roger Downey, I couldn't understand what people in our conversation group were saying, that drove me to get hearing aids. Fortunately, they work fine and I'm hearing not only restaurant conversations but many things that I didn't know I had been missing.

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 9:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Ahh, but you might not have needed those hearing aids if you had not spent so much time in noisy venues! Loud noise destroys the tiny hair cells in the ear that transduce sound waves into neural impulses that your brain can interpret. Humans, unlike chickens, have lost the ability to regenerate those cells once they are damaged or destroyed.

word

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 7 p.m. Inappropriate

Anyone who lived in the 60's and 70's are likely to be destined for hearing losses. So I guess that means noisy bars will be too quiet.

But, I hear ya on the too-loud-to-have-a conversation places. I just leave and so does my wallet, who I have named Wally.

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 11:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Hey everyone,

Ryan Magarian here.

Upon reading the article, it looks to me like I didn't quite articulate my thoughts on this topic as clearly as I would have like to have (no fault of Rogers, I just don't phone interview very well :)), and would be thankful for the opportunity to clarify a few things below:

1. Noise - I am definitely an "environment forward" restaurant/bar owner and the comment "Bring the Noise..." definitely reflects this. This being said, though, it is specific to concepts where the demographic is toward the younger and more progressive end of the spectrum, where an energetic music strategy definitely makes sense, I do want to make it clear, though, that I am not into to "noise for noise sake," but rather that the sound calibration be intentional and appropriate for the concept at all times.

2. ESP - This is one of my favorite ways of creating box to work within when developing a new concept or experience, and that reality is that like a great cocktail or glass wine, the ideal comes down to balance. The best hospitality/entertainment concepts in the world are generally a perfect balance of E..S..P. This being said, my experience has led me to believe that if there was an order of overall importance to organize them in, it would lean first toward Environment, next toward service, and finally toward product.

Important! - The above being said, though, anyone who knows my work, products, and concepts understands that I am an extreme believer in the importance of a quality product and while according to the above paradigm it comes in third, that doesn't mean the product itself should be anything less than the very best you can do for your guest...

Be Wonderful,
R

magarian

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 7:02 p.m. Inappropriate

You have your order in the wrong priority: product and service are all that are important, and in that order. The environment that is so staged as to be 'first on the list', sucks.

- Wally

Posted Fri, Mar 1, 12:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Ryan,

Thanks for your comments, but you're digging yourself deeper. "Progressive" ain't necessarily tied to "younger".

argus

Posted Sat, Mar 2, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

"Be wonderful"

No wonder this idiot designs noisy places. He wants to attract people as vapid as he is, so they can give each other Hollywood air kisses while saying "Be wonderful!"

Gag!

NotFan

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 9:37 p.m. Inappropriate

You caught it so well. "Be wonderful." "Be well." Gag me.

Can't we just have a great meal, in a great place, and have a conversation where we don't have to shout? Without people telling us how to beeeeeeee ?

Posted Wed, Mar 6, 11:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Can anyone supply a complete list of restaurants and bars this guy has been involved with? I want to be sure I never go to any of them. If I didn't know better, I'd assume that Magarian's reply was from some snarky sketch on Saturday Night Live or part of a Colbert monologue...it really does read like satire, and the wonder of it is that Magarian with all his "cutting edge" babble doesn't even know it!

TaylorB1

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

rggr, a crt ag w y pt.

Eh?

ROGER, I CERTAINLY AGREE WITH YOUR POINT!

What we are seeing (barely hearing) is a cultural devaluation of intercourse in public spaces.

You confirm my long-held suspicion that architects and interior designers, at the behest of their clients, are substituting I-beams and old brick for acoustic treatments. The subtext, of course, is that these are a direct and predictable result of efficient management of the entire "dining experience.? It is, in fact, a vast international capitalist conspiracy, bought into and sustained by the purveyors of grub.

The "E" of Environment / Service / Product is pinched into the narrow confines of mere visual interest (interiors of a repeated and now-predictable style: you may choose "steel girders framing empty space" or "dairy-barn birthing stall"). Auditory factors are virtually ignored--or, as I often think, designed for the interest of workers who must labor in these establishments on a daily basis. We so rock!

But enough of this current-day self-pity. I must return to my reading of "Down and Out in Paris and London." THERE was an epoch of fine dining!

Seneca

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 11:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Noisy environments are actually painful to me and I'm definitely on the right side of 55. I had sudden hearing loss in one ear a few years ago and suffer terribly in many, if not most, Seattle restaurants and cafes. Once your hearing is gone, it's gone (hearing aids only go so far and if you have no hearing at all in one ear, they are useless) and I'm at the point that I check a place in advance before I agree to go.

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm with the critics of noisy environments, plus I hate the feeling of the industrial look. I could purchase picnic foods and go dine under I-5 if I want that level of discomfort and noise. I loved the era when one went to a fine restaurant and, as the writer said of Canlis, "offers intimacy, while the lovely room vibrates with the inaudible conversations of others."

While I don't live under I-5, or in one of the new industrial style dwellings so popular with builders and developers, I still want a restaurant that represents a little more comfort and style than I have at home. And I want to enjoy the company of my dining companions without any of us having to shout ourselves hoarse.

Aside from the noted financial benefits of building restaurants with no expensive carpets, etc., to maintain, I have to think that the upcoming generations may prefer the noisy environments because texting each other across the table or just being absorbed in their phones while ignoring their companions may be more within their comfort zones than having to listen and converse person to person without electronic mediation.

I join those who vote with their feet!

mspat

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Food and conversation go together. Food and noise do not. We eat out frequently at all levels of restaurants. If it is too noisy, we are gone for good no matter how good the the food or ambiance is. If we wanted to scream at each other, we prefer our home. It's free, and we can actually get it all off our chest...then go out for a good meal and some quiet conversation.

fooddog

Posted Thu, Feb 28, 9:07 p.m. Inappropriate

We are always on the look out for places where we can enjoy a good dinner and a good conversation. Having to yell is no fun - it makes us cranky. We do not order another glass of wine or dessert. We do not go back.

Yep - we are old folks in our 60s - but we are the demographic that can afford to eat out. Why wouldn't restaurant owners want to cater to us?

Saratoga

Posted Fri, Mar 1, 2:17 p.m. Inappropriate

I can verify first hand that certain trendy restaurant designers don't give s**t about those of you who dislike noisy venues. Or who have children for that matter. Their conception of society is a narrow demographic of cool people. Boisterous singles like the noise because it forces people into close proximity in order to hear each other. That in turn elevates the sexual atmosphere, because you know you might just have to touch or even have incidental facial contact. My lips may have to touch your ear lobe, which in turn may lead to arousal, and so on. Highly charged, yes. And ideal for people on the make. There are still plenty of civilized establishments out there, however. Cafe Juanita, for example, which oddly enough trades on the quality of their food.

stan

Posted Fri, Mar 1, 4:37 p.m. Inappropriate

It is amazing to me that restaurants purposely make their place noisy. I guess they cater to the folks that need noise in order to feel festive. I suppose that is why Disco got popular. Why have a rhythm section manage a great bass line when you can just have a drum machine and synthesizer do all the work? Each beat is exactly the same so I guess it is easy to dance to. Ugh.

For the most part, I think there are plenty of restaurants who don't do much to stop the noise, but don't encourage it either. The Big Time is a great example of that. They have wonderful beer, but it is often just too noisy in there. If you catch them when things aren't that crowded, it is wonderful place to have a pint. But on a busy night, not so much. The noise manages to bounce around quite a bit in there and it would take some work to try and minimize it.

The Outlander in Fremont (another brewpub) seems to have spent some time and effort creating a quiet place. They have old style cushy chairs and rooms that seem to separate the noise fairly well. They could use some hanging carpets, but that requires a lot of work and upkeep (dusting would be a real pain). Unless it is a busy Friday and Saturday night (and lots of people are standing around) you can carry on a conversation quite comfortably in there. Hopefully things will trend back towards quiet places like that in the future.

RossB

Posted Fri, Mar 1, 8:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Instead of seeing to the comfort and enjoyment of diners and treating them as guests, many restauranteurs seem to view their establishments as a kind of scene and their patrons as expendable players in it. Diners are forced to endure decibel levels that squelch conversation, to sit at tables with (sometimes boorish) strangers and to have flashlights ready for reading menus in semi-darkness. When I dine out with friends, I want to savor food and enjoy conversation. I don't want to spend a lot of money to have a bit part in some self-important chef's idea of a restaurant "experience."

au

Posted Sat, Mar 2, 9:05 a.m. Inappropriate

I've got a dip in the upper-midrange of my hearing. As far as I know I have had it most of my life. I could hear the 15kHz sweep frequency of the picture tube in an NTSC TV long before I could hear what was coming out of the speaker. I can hear my watch ticking on the nightstand. I can hear the furnace in my house rumble to life when I'm outside in the yard. But I cannot for the life of me hear someone sitting across a table from me in a loud restaurant. I'm never looking at their eyes - I'm looking at their mouth, trying to lip-read what they're saying in an environment where if you're lucky you'll catch half the vowels, and the consonants don't have a chance. I don't gave a damn how trendy or hip these places are, I'm not going to spend good money on an evening I can barely tolerate, let alone hope to enjoy. The trendsetters have what they deserve - each other.

dbreneman

Posted Sat, Mar 2, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Loud noise is more attractive to a younger crowd than it is to an older crowd. It's a marketing decision every business owner needs to make, and the noise level is definitely one way to target the younger demographic.

Besides, young people really aren't that interesting to talk to, anyway.

There are plenty of nice, quiet restaurants in Seattle. It isn't necessary to put up with every new trendy place that gets written up. Most of these noisy places are serving overpriced fluff anyway.

That's another advantage of young people - they are easier to manipulate and sell to.

Posted Sun, Mar 3, 9:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Those of you voting with your feet, you are a smaller piece of the demand pie. Get used to it, your slice is getting smaller year by year.

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, my reply to your comment is total ambivalence. It's not like I'm missing out on something by staying away from a place I can't stand.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 9:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Ahhh, to be told our spending choices don't matter.

Ya gotta love that depth of market research!

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Obviously these restaurants don't want older patrons for whom hearing becomes an issue. I understand the ease of cleaning wooden or metal chairs. I also understad the aim of a 'party' atmosphere, especially at happy hour. I heard about these factors over 20 years ago when I did some IT consulting with a restuarant chain.

I'll just take myself to a place like 13 Coins when I want to actually relax and converse, continue to go out much less, and let the kids whoop it up in the loud party atmosphere.

Posted Mon, Mar 4, 8:02 p.m. Inappropriate

These noisy restaurants remind me of TV advertisers. They also value the younger demographic, even if they have less disposable income. As you get older, you care less about trends or following the crowd, so less likely to respond to advertising. Or overpay for restaurant food.

I also vote with my feet, and even when I'm prepared to make an exception (for outstanding food), I find many of my friends now veto noisy restaurants, even if they might enjoy the food.

SilviaC

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 6:02 a.m. Inappropriate

I usually give up and go to another restaurant. Conversation is part of the "eating out" experience for me. If this truly is designed in I believe they are mistaken!

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this article Roger. What is the point of a restaurant where you can't hear people at your table speak? Portland has a great food scene, and the restaurants aren't all hard surfaces and blasting music. Every restaurant built in Seattle in the last ten years seems to have been designed by a lazy, uninventive architect with nothing to say. Nothing one can hear for sure.

rorric1

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 12:03 p.m. Inappropriate

One of the joys of traveling iss quiet restaurants....you can hear a pin drop in most French restaurants and even the outside table in Rome are more quiet than the typical Seattle restaurant. The cactus in Madison Park has wonderful food, but unless one goes alone why bother...piped in msuic and every other conversation make it imposssible. No one over 30 could posswible enjoy eating at Toulouse! And that goes from most places except Canlis, and who can afford that?
lpc

lpatrick

Posted Sat, Mar 9, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

It's fun to be lectured by Seattle's wannabes about Euro this and Euro that, but never (it seems) about Euro dining. See, I've been to Europe a dozen or so times, and eating is a far quieter and more civil experience. Also, they use cellphones at least as much as we do, but somehow the Europeans don't have to yell into them.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Mar 6, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Actually, Canlis is not that much more expensive than many of the kiddie noise factories which pass for "fine dining" among some of the population. Nell's is also quiet. For some reason, the noise level at Carmine's does not bother me...perhaps because it's generally low-key conversation between people who don't feel the need to holler to show they are having a good time. The Georgian Room in the Olympic is also quiet. Roger, let's have an article about quiet places to dine!

TaylorB1

Posted Thu, Mar 7, 4:10 a.m. Inappropriate

I really appreciate this topic being raised. It is a real struggle to find a restaurant where you can enjoy your companion's conversation. I found Caravan Kebab in Edmonds after searching articles for quiet eateries that I could enjoy with my father, who has some hearing loss. I encourage all reviewers to make note of the the noise level in their reviews.

lisau

Posted Thu, Mar 7, 7:26 a.m. Inappropriate

It would be really nice to have a list of quieter places. I'm tired of going out with friends to a new spot only to find it jarringly noisy.

au

Posted Thu, Mar 7, 10:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Old People have hearing loss by design.

Also- Get Off My Lawn.

Ries

Posted Sat, Mar 9, 10:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Hear that sound? It's my wallet snapping shut.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Mar 7, 7:42 p.m. Inappropriate

It's not just older people who are tired of the noise, the average age of the people I work with is 34. We like and expect noise in bars and clubs, we hate noisy restaurants. It's easy (and quite discriminatory) to dismiss everyone who does not agree with you as "old". This trend of building noise into restaurant design is all about turning over tables, pure and simple. Discourage lingering, increase seatings, ca-ching!

au

Posted Mon, May 6, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

I am sick of restaurants and stores that bombard customers' ears not only with loud volume, but with music that has repetitive drums banging in one's ears. In some stores there is different music in different zones, and customers can be subjected to two types of irritating music at the same time. Believe it or not, some people's taste in music isn't loud, aggressive repetition and simple drum rhythms over and over again. Seattle is an urban center so - gasp - there are those of us who actually prefer classical music. And it's especially nice to visit an ethnic restaurant that plays the classical music of that culture. Readers, please keep add to the list of quiet restaurants being posted here and also mention any restaurants that have classical music in the background. It's nice to know where to eat when in any particular neighborhood.

Clarify

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