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Turn Down the Volume on Restaurant Noise

New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles -- every major American city is chockablock with painfully noisy but nonetheless popular restaurants.
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By Thomas McNamee

If Craig Claiborne were alive today, and he walked into The Slanted Door in San Francisco, I believe he would turn around and walk back out without tasting the food. He'd find the noise unbearable. I spent more than two years researching a book called "The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance" (just out, by the way), so I'm pretty confident in saying this. Craig was the first food editor of the New York Times, having started in 1957, and he is the father of the food world we now inhabit. Some of his legacy would appall him. He prized civilized conversation.

Yet The Slanted Door, the highest-grossing restaurant in San Francisco, is very popular. Clearly a lot of people can tolerate the racket and like the food. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles -- every major American city is chockablock with painfully noisy but nonetheless popular restaurants.

The San Francisco Chronicle's restaurant reviews do their readers a favor by bestowing not just the usual star ratings for food, but also noise ratings: one bell for "pleasantly quiet," four bells for "can talk only in raised voices," and finally a bomb icon indicating "too noisy." It's not unusual for the Chronicle to give a restaurant three stars and a bomb. Why so many people willingly go to a restaurant in the full knowledge that they will have to shout throughout the meal and and still may not be heard would be a mystery to Craig Claiborne.

- Managers and servers know that turning up the music makes a crowd louder, and they perceive the resultant shouting with having a good time. I know from a long string of commentary on Chowhound that the majority of restaurant-goers are irritated by noise, but there are certainly those who do like it. "I don't think of it as noise," New York restaurateur Tony May told the Wall Street Journal. "It's excitement. The new consumer is looking for energy, a good vibe."
- Owners tend not to mention it, but the din makes people drink more, eat faster and leave sooner.
- Many restaurants are physically designed to be noisy, with hard surfaces and no sound-deadening materials. "When the metal legs of the formed wooden chairs drag across the floor as patrons scoot in or away from the table, it's the 21st-century version of nails scraping across a blackboard," Chronicle critic Michael Bauer wrote of the Slanted Door. "All through the night, the already explosive noise level is pierced by the screech of metal against stone."
- A small number of very noisy people raise the noise level throughout a restaurant.
- Ear-splitting noise increases the secretion of the "fight-or-flight" neurotransmitter epinephrine, and the edgy sensation that that induces can be perceived as an exciting "buzz."
- Many American children are no longer instructed in civil behavior. When they grow up, they do not know the difference between public and private space.
- There are fewer and fewer alternatives. In the of San Francisco Chronicle's "Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants," ratings one or two bells are scarce. There's a lot of hearing damage being done, a lot of blood pressure being raised. The argument can be made that the abundance of noisy restaurants and the paucity of quiet ones actually shows that people like noise. I believe, on the other hand, that there's a disconnect between what restaurateurs think people like and what they prefer in fact. If there were more alternatives, I'm pretty certain my belief would be proved right.

In Craig's last years -- he died in 2000 -- he was disturbed by how people were behaving in restaurants. In 1992, in his last published work, a slim little book titled "Elements of Etiquette: A Guide to Table Manners in an Imperfect World," he showed discomfort with the behavior he saw around him in restaurants, but the real crescendo was still to come. If he were with us today, I am certain he would be writing impassioned pleas for quiet and considerateness.

The big question for the rest of us, now, without Craig Claiborne to speak on our behalf, is, What can we do about this? One thing I'm sure of is that if enough of us complain, to the people who can make a difference -- restaurateurs and managers -- things will change. So complain. Assertively. Just not too loudly, please.

Thomas McNamee is the author of "The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance" and "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution."