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.
Crowded spaces in which patrons are too tightly packed together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.