I see and hear a lot of restaurant goers discussing the noise levels they encounter when dining out. I get it. As I age it’s harder and harder for me to hear my companions’ conversation in the midst of a noisy crowd. However, I have yet to cross a restaurant off my to-visit list simply because I heard someone, or even several someones, say it was “too loud” in the dining room.
I’m not sure exactly when quiet dining started to become a status symbol. Perhaps the village rich wanted to let their subordinates know they didn’t have to swim into the sea of the great unwashed down at the local tavern and could, instead, dine in a members-only club. Maybe if a restaurant could afford all the velvet upholstery, ankle-deep carpets, heavy drapes, tapestries and tablecloths that help muffle the clinking of glassware and silver, it meant the poor couldn’t afford to eat there.
Some folks will say a quiet dining room is romantic. I guess that can be true, but unless you’re in a practically empty dining room the quiet just means you can easily overhear the conversations of the people at the other tables. Gazing across that LED candle flame into your lover’s eyes is nice, until you hear the couple at the next table discussing their tax attorney or their son’s poor chemistry grades. Or politics.
Modern design doesn’t really embrace a lot of fabric and soft surfaces. And carpets, upholstery and drapes are difficult and expensive to keep clean and hygienic. Imagine you’re a restaurateur, and you’ve just opened your new spot to a monster buzz, only to have someone complain on social media that it was “just too noisy” in the dining room. You’ve already poured your life savings into this joint, and now you may feel compelled to scramble for money to hang expensive (and fairly inefficient) sound baffles or resort to tablecloths to cover the expensive tabletops you so lovingly picked out during the design phase. Oof! There goes your carefully curated aesthetic.
Who wants to eat in funereal silence? Noisy can be fun! Remember the most fun you’ve ever had? I do, and it wasn’t quiet. Maybe your most-fun memory was a concert, a sporting event, or your wedding reception. A crowded, joyful venue has an energetic vibe. A full, lively dining room can stimulate your appetite, your mood, and your digestion. If you’re a people-watcher, that’s a guilty pleasure that’s a lot less creepy in a vibrant atmosphere, as well.
Do you think it’s quiet back in the kitchen? It’s not. Oh, sure – we’ve all heard the tales of tony restaurants where the cooks aren’t allowed to speak unless spoken to by the chef. That doesn’t sound like much fun. Happy cooks make good food. A restaurant kitchen is an engine room, and when fully operational it sounds like one, too. There’s steam, pans clanking, orders being called out, servers arguing with the expediter, and dishwashers ragging loudly on each other the entire shift. It might seem chaotic, but even a well-oiled machine makes a lovely humming sound when operating efficiently. The kitchen door isn’t fully a plane that separates the disconnected dimensions of the back of the house and the dining room. The dirty jokes may and should stay behind it, but the energy spills out into the front of the house as servers and captains carry it with them.
I’m not advocating dining in bedlam every single time you go out, but please don’t miss some of the best meals you’ll ever have because you heard that a certain restaurant has great food and service but a noisy dining room. And, let’s face it – gazing raptly into your lover’s eyes won’t weird your table-neighbors out nearly as much in the middle of all that action as it would in a stodgy country club dining room. Change up your M.O. and embrace the vivacious atmosphere of a place that’s really jumping at least once in a while!
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.