Think about your favourite restaurant and, chances are, subconsciously, you’ll be playing back the soundtrack. Because how a place sounds directly affects how it snags into our soul.
Take, as exhibit A, Matou on Liverpool’s waterfront. A festival of steely surfaces, it’s all mosaic pillars, onyx bars, crude concrete and harsh tile. It’s just about the shrillest, noisiest and most painful acoustic experience this side of a Slipknot gig in Topps Tiles. All those hard surfaces just let the sound ricochet around like charged particles in the Large Hadron Collider. In short, it’s painful. As is the food. But that’s another story. Same goes for Almost Famous. Deafening. But it should worry – it’s as packed as it’s ever been.
The sound in restaurants has changed. As the recession hit, their bars have become bigger, and that ‘party atmosphere’ has been turned up to 11 in an attempt to woo a younger crowd, who are happy to wait around with numbered frisbees in a thick crush, until their deathburger tower arrives. As the saying (that we’ve just made up) goes: if it’s too loud, are you too old?
Now, noise levels of 95db (equivalent to pneumatic drills and peak-time traffic) are the norm, and conversations are carried out at screaming pitch. All of which means that for those who work there, hearing loss and tinnitus is officially an occupational hazard. Really.
What’s happened to silence? Are we frightened of it these days? Do we need a barrage of Nicki Minaj with our chicken wings to stop us from remembering that we’re all on a one way ticket to the great falafel in the sky?
R2Architecture’s Richard Eastwood walks a tricky path between client demands and customer comfort: “We’ve been looking at an underperforming international chain of restaurants keen on rebranding. One issue that hasn’t been addressed is the acoustics. Walk-rounds will have taken place and computer-models of designs made, but I suspect that no one has actually sat for a period of time in the spaces.
“If they had maybe they would have experienced the same issues as I did. The creeping headache that started to grow after 20 minutes. The interior with its ubiquitous ‘international modern’ design of hard surfaces, concrete, metal and timber conspired together so that after a while the sounds of clattering and chattering started to echo within my skull.”
It’s true that we’ve – perhaps thankfully – eschewed the flock wallpaper and carpets of the suburban Indian restaurant, and even linen tablecloths are an expensive luxury. Soundproofing is expensive – porous surfaces, baffles, fins and curves all help in absorbing unwanted decibels. But pack in lots of tables, choose a high-ceilinged ex-warehouse or industrial unit and you’re in ear-splitting territory before the first fork hits the plate. Throw in ‘London Calling’ over the Bose speakers and, sorry, what was that you were saying?
“We try to get the balance right with the hubbub adding to the positive sense of a venue,” Eastwood says. “We’ve all been to restaurants that serve amazing food but have no atmosphere where everyone sits in silence and at the other end of the scale bars where you can’t hear yourself think.”
“Sound plays a massive part in our enjoyment of a space. Some spaces are spectacular and need to be left with their grandeur in place. This can lead to terrible acoustics and a loss of any sense of intimacy. That’s where elements such as booths can come into play. Using fabric and the adjusting the height of seat backs to stop the scripts of blossoming romances or break ups echoing around the spaces it vital.”
Hearing, Eastwood says, is as important as any of the five senses. He, like us, believes that to really work – a great restaurant needs to treat them all with equal love and attention. That’s why Mowgli, his latest, carefully mixes up the wood with the brick (and the birdcages).
Get a hundred drunk people in a high ceilinged barn, turn up the music and take away the soft woods and padded chairs and it won’t just be the cash tills that are ringing. Chances are your ears will be too.
But maybe there’s hard retail science at work here. Behavioural psychologist Sally Tipliss thinks so: “Crank up the music, keep the setting spartan, and you can turn tables so much quicker, it’s that simple,” she says. “Studies show that the optimum exposure level at 96 dbs is about 40 minutes. That’s just enough time to enjoy a burger, grab a beer, and be on your way.”
So, while these places may be deafening – maybe they’re not daft.
(pic: Peter Goodbody)