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.”
Douglas doesn’t go that far. But he freely admits that noise “is not my issue. Go to the Palace [Kitchen, one of his longest-established restaurants] and it’s loud. You can hear the dishwasher, you can hear the range hood, and nobody’s bothered. If you want a quieter place, go to the Dahlia [Lounge]."