Oh, the Noise, Noise, Noise
At 8:25 p.m. on a typical Thursday evening in August, a somewhat humble reporter enters Carrabba's [3115 Kirby Drive, (713)522-3131]. Since it is a typical weekday evening, the foyer is packed with waiting customers. The bar area seems as crowded as a New York subway car at rush hour. All the tables are filled up with diners enjoying the Carrabba family's take on Italian cuisine. The reporter adjusts the dial and toggle switches on a Radio Shack sound-level meter, the sort used by police departments to gauge noise complaints, and takes a reading. The red needle on the analog display jerks back and forth between 88 and 90 dBs, or decibels. This is above the 85-dB level that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration claims is the baseline for potential permanent hearing loss.
On the same evening at Chuy's [2706 Westheimer, (713)524-1700], a Brinker International operation serving a Mexican-inspired cuisine to an enthusiastic and young clientele, the stereo combined with the margarita-fueled conversations keeps the noise level dancing at 82 to 84 dBs.
While one can expect, even desire, loudness at a rock concert, disco or drag strip, this trend toward deafening hub and bub in restaurants is newer and affects vastly more people, both customers and employees. Customers have freedom of choice and are typically exposed to these noise levels for only an hour or two. The employees can be exposed for eight or more hours a day, five or more days a week, and they have no choice -- other than to quit, of course.
Food-service professionals pinpoint the beginnings of this odious trend with the McDonald's corporation, the same patty-peddling multinational octopus that created high-fat, high-sodium foods aimed at a children's market and invented ecologically disastrous packaging. In the 1980s the McDonald's researchers found that playing up-tempo music loudly encouraged people to eat faster, thus freeing up the equally uninviting seats. The McDonald's discovery, given human nature, has now been taken to its logical extreme by more upscale dining chains, and even some independent operations.
To understand what a restaurant with a 90-dB ambient noise level means, a little background is needed. The decibel sound scale is based on human perceptions of relative loudness. While each single unit (advancing from zero to about 130 dBs) represents the smallest difference in sound that a healthy human ear can detect, the overall scale is not linear but logarithmic. Thus, one dB represents the faintest sound a human can hear; 60 dBs represents the level of normal human speech; and 120 dBs represents the sound of a military jet taking off. By logarithmically extrapolating, scientists can assign a value, for instance, of 165 dBs to the loudness level of a shotgun blast. A shotgun blast causes the same long-term hearing loss as 24 hours spent in an 80-dB environment.
A fondness for game birds on the dinner table is a very frequent cause of permanent, total hearing loss. Dr. Clifford Dacso, professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, reports that "I have many patients with total deafness in the right ear" as a result of using a firearm without ear guards. Thus, 90 dBs is not half again as loud as 60 dBs. It is a number that represents an amount of sound energy that is many times that of conversational speech, and one that is the OSHA threshold for instituting a hearing-conservation program for employees.
For someone without a sound-level meter handy, Dacso has a simple rule of thumb: "If you have to shout to have a conversation, it's too loud." Dacso cited Mi Luna [2441 University Boulevard, (713)520-5025] as a place he'll "never go to again" because of its noise levels. A meter check during a weekday happy hour, with the Gipsy Kings playing over a four-speaker sound system and the popular tapas bar only moderately crowded, put the sound at 80 to 84 dBs.
Brett Tatar, a Houston-based certified industrial hygienist who has a masters in public health, explains the federal guidelines in this way: "OSHA has set a threshold noise limit of 90 dB-A. The 'A range' is for sounds from 500 to 10,000 hertz, which is where the human ear is most sensitive. If you have 90 dB-A over an eight-hour weighted average, you need to take immediate corrective steps. If you have an exposure of 85 dB-A over a weighted eight-hour average, you need to be put into a hearing-conservation program. That would consist of an audiometric test to set a baseline. That's individual. Then there would be annual audiometric testing, training, personal-noise monitoring and the employer's providing of hearing protection devices."
Aside from turnover, there seem to be few concrete reasons for the blasting roar at many new restaurants. Dr. Alan T. Stutts, dean of the University of Houston's Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, observes that for "most of the mid-market, casual dining restaurants, it creates more of a life .It's the sense of a place being the place to be, an entertainment experience."
Stutts frequently dines at Eric's Restaurant [4800 Calhoun, University of Houston, (713)743-2513], where it is possible to have a 60-dB conversation. The space was recently redesigned and rebuilt by Bordelon Nodler Design Associates, a Houston firm. Beth Nowling, one of the firm's architects who worked on the space, explains that steps were taken to suppress noise. For instance, she says, "we put cork liner" under the wood floors to dampen both footsteps and reflected sound waves. Nowling considers the mega-noise trend to be a passing fad, observing that part of it is a design trend. "A lot of hard surfaces are in," she says. Nowling thinks there may be two other factors at work: the previously mentioned desire to turn over tables faster, and that loudness "also attracts a younger crowd." On that last observation, she has a bit of advice: "If it's too loud, you're too old."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.