What? What did you say? I’m sorry, what? We nod, we smile. We cup our hands behind our ears. We attempt lip-reading. There is a number of times (right between four and five, I believe) that Americans can bear to ask and re-ask “What did you say?” After that, all bets are off. We nod and smile again, but this time, we are sort of pretending we understood what you said.
The truth is, we have no idea, but we’re too embarrassed to press the point. So, we nod uncertainly a final time and smile a tortured smile, knowing we might be agreeing to be the driver/lookout man on a bank job, or to look after the speaker’s aging dog while he goes on a five-week vacation (did he say something about brushing its teeth daily?). We hope it’s nothing so troublesome, but if it is, we’ll just have to try and get out of it later. Anything’s better than saying “I’m sorry, what?” even one more time.
Professional restaurant reviewers, amateur dining-out buffs and food bloggers seem to yearn to tell us about the noise level at the new local hot spot. It was so noisy! We couldn’t have a conversation! I mean, I sympathize if you genuinely couldn’t hear and understand your dining companions or your server. But it can be difficult, as a restaurant, to try and dampen the ambient noise in your dining room — especially for casual venues that don’t sport wall-to-wall carpet, fabric-covered banquettes or linens on every table. Hard surfaces reflect sound all over the room; even the expense and installation of sound baffles near the ceiling might hardly make any difference.
On the other hand, who wants to eat in a crypt? Total silence is a bore, and the clink of silver against china, the surreptitious clearing of throats and rustling of starched napkins as the only accompaniment to dinner, is just depressing. And if I can clearly hear the conversation of the party at the table next to me, that’s kind of uncomfortable, too.
More often than not, I embrace the happy, noisy din of a restaurant full of people enjoying themselves. The hustle and bustle of efficiency. The occasional wave of laughter from a table full of friends having a great time.
Most of my time in restaurants has been spent in the kitchen rather than the dining room, and the kitchen has its own noisy pulse: the roar of the hood fans, the hum of the dish machine and the chatter between the cooks, servers, managers and utility workers. I guess a happening dining room puts me at ease, because it reminds me of the kitchen.
Of course, one man’s noise is another man’s jazz improvisation. But, speaking of jazz improvisation, nothing strikes terror into my heart more than a restaurant advertising live music. Now, should I end up dining there without having known the band was going to be part of my meal, and if they are far away from my table (say, in another room), it’s fine.
However, anything remotely approaching an ensemble playing a set mere yards from my table fosters a dread in me so deep I can barely figure out my salad order. Perhaps it’s because I was once a music major and then later a culinary school graduate. All the little nitpicking critiques my subconscious sends up in both categories — musical and culinary — seem to short circuit my brain, and suddenly I’m sputtering, “This cheese dip came in late” and “That solo had too much dill for me.” How do you all-inclusive Acapulco vacationers abide those mariachi bands while you’re trying to eat?
A caveat here, if you’ll allow me to contradict myself: If it’s a music venue and suddenly I’m hungry, somehow it doesn’t bother me to eat those chicken wings during that 13-minute cover of “Purple Rain.” I guess, for me, noise expectations are all about what I signed up for. Naturally, if you were lucky enough to have had a bit of a pre-game on the band bus, you will eat whatever they are offering. Pickled bologna links. Buffalo pork rinds. Chili-hot Fritos. Just keep it coming. Nice solo, xylophonist!
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou.