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The Psychology of Restaurant Interior Design, Part 4: Acoustics

Of all the elements of restaurant interior design, acoustics probably needs the most delicate balancing. Too loud and you’ll irk diners who can’t hear each other over their hors d’oeuvres; too quiet and guests will be uneasy, worrying that the next table can hear everything they’re saying. What is the right level of restaurant acoustics?

Welcome to Part 4 of our five-part series on the psychology of great restaurant interior design. In this article, we will explore the effects of restaurant acoustics on the perception of food and drink, and how it affects restaurant diners’ behavior.

When Restaurant Acoustics are Too Loud

In 2011, a Zagat survey of over 47,000 readers showed that restaurant noise is customers’ second most common complaint, coming only after poor service.

There are many causes of excessive noise:

  • Poorly planned architecture and interior design where noise generators and amplifiers face each other.
  • Using too many hard surfaces which amplify sound.
  • Open kitchens.
  • Live music.
  • Crowded spaces in which patrons are too tightly packed together.
Restaurant Acoustics- The Psychology of Interior Design, Part 4 | Fohlio | Untitled
Untitled, New York. Hard surfaces, open kitchens, and lack of tablecloths contribute to noise. Image: Pablo Enriquez for The New York Times

Of course, if diners can’t hear each other over the din, they resort to raising their voices, which in turn raises noise levels even further — this is called the Lombard Effect. Sabato Sagaria, the chief restaurant officer for Union Square Hospitality Group, says that the art of conversation cannot be overvalued. “People dine out to socialize.”

Perhaps even more important: Loud noises actually distract diners from smelling and tasting their food to its full effect.

Restaurant Acoustics- The Psychology of Interior Design, Part 4 | Fohlio | Lombard Effect
The Lombard Effect is when people have to shout to be heard above the noise, making it even louder. Image: Colorado Springs Gazette/Getty Images

Meyer Sound acoustic engineer Pierre Germain has the solution. “You want to be able to have a pleasant dinner, where no one is shouting, but at the same time you want to feel like you’re in a social environment. It should sound like there’s stuff happening around you, but you’re not bombarded by it.

The perfect environment, therefore, should be similar to a gathering at home: There’s carpeting, drapes, and table linen, all of which absorb some of the sounds, so you don’t have to shout to be heard across the table. If you're designing a more upscale restaurant, this shouldn't be a problem, as nice linen is the norm.

Restaurant Acoustics- The Psychology of Interior Design, Part 4 | Fohlio | WA Frost
W.A. Frost is one of Minnesota's most romantic restaurants. Chair cushions and rugs help mute sound. Image: CBS Minnesota

What else can be done?

  • Consider whether you want an open kitchen or not. If you do, have contingency plans for when it gets too loud.
  • Booths with high walls can mute sound, especially if the backs are padded.
  • Look into high ceilings, beams, and porous acoustic plaster that absorb sound.
  • If you can afford it, consider investing in a microphone and speaker system that samples room noise and adjust sound levels accordingly.
  • If road noise is a concern, you may need soundproof paneling for your walls and doors.
Restaurant Acoustics- The Psychology of Interior Design, Part 4 | Fohlio | Four Horsemen
Slats of cedar help to reduce noise at the Four Horsemen in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Image: Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Live music in the form of a piano player is also a simple, obvious solution. Its elegant and sparse sound, coupled with a lower volume and slower tempo, are relaxing and encourage modulated tones. Positioning the piano near the entrance will help set the tone immediately.

Keeping the lights on the warmer, dimmer side is another way of creating an atmosphere of intimacy and relaxation. Like we mentioned in a previous article about restaurant lighting, relaxed patrons will tend to linger and order more food and drinks.

Loud Isn't Always Bad

If you agree with the general consensus that most restaurants are too loud, then it may seem counterintuitive that some restaurant owners and chefs actually seek out the noise. Why is this? They believe that it signals that the establishment is popular, and that it produces a sense of conviviality and hospitality.

Although this is up for debate, there's evidence that a loud environment is actually profitable. Hard Rock Cafe, for example, has the practice down to a science. Just like bright lights, loud, fast music cause patrons to talk less, consume more, and leave sooner.

Restaurant Acoustics- The Psychology of Interior Design, Part 4 | Fohlio | Hard Rock Cafe
Hard Rock Cafe isn't exactly conducive to intimate conversations. Image: Wedding Wire

This strategy seems even more beneficial for bars. A study on music in bars (McCarron and Tierney) found that people drink soft drinks faster when popular music is played at 88 decibels, significantly more than when it’s played at a more reasonable 72 dB. A study in France observed that patrons ordered more drinks when music is at 88-91 dB instead of the normal 72-75 dB.

When Restaurant Acoustics are Too Quiet

On the other side of the spectrum, we can see why restaurant owners are partly justified for gravitating toward noise. A too-quiet restaurant gives off the sense that nobody likes to go there. If guests do come in, too little noise can actually be distracting, in that they can become hyper-aware of the sound of other diners’ silverware and conversation.

The right amount of noise also helps fill up lulls in conversation — again, because dining out is a social activity, anything a restaurant can do to keep interactions comfortable helps. Background noise also creates a sense of privacy: If guests are unable to make out what other diners are talking about, they’ll feel relaxed enough to carry on their own conversations.

Here are some ideas to try:

  • Install a fully open or partially open kitchen (the addition of delicious smells wafting into the dining area is a bonus).
  • Consider a piano player, especially in the evenings.
  • Strategically place speakers in walls or ceiling beams to provide just the right amount of background noise.

Catch up on Parts 1 (color), 2 (scent), and 3 (lighting) of our series on the psychology of restaurant design. In the meantime, try creating your own mood board and FF&E schedules with Fohlio. 


Acoustic Sciences
Ceilings& Interior Systems Construction Association
Popular Science
The New York Times
BioMed Central

You can also look through our earlier articles for tutorials and useful tips and tricks.

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