Look around you in a restaurant and they will be there. Their faces lit by the blue light of a smartphone screen, they scroll with one hand and stab at their food with the other. These mute diners are not eating alone; they sit opposite a companion who is just as engrossed in Twitter. These are not internet-obsessed “millennials”, though, but people who came out for a meal and were unable to hear their own voice above the din.
As far back as in 1998, restaurant critics for the San Francisco Chronicle started carrying decibel meters so that they could rate eateries by noise level. Since then, restaurants have only got noisier. A study published in July by the charity Action on Hearing Loss (AoHL) found that 81 per cent of those surveyed had experienced difficulty holding a conversation while eating out.
The rise in noise levels is partly to do with the trend in interior design for minimal soft furnishings. If you remove tablecloths and replace carpets with tiles, you create hard surfaces that amplify sound, as well as increase the volume of scraping chairs and clinking cutlery. This hipster aesthetic is often accompanied by loud music, which forces diners and staff to raise their voices.
“[Modern restaurants] are designed with looks rather than comfort in mind,” Jeremy Luscombe, the marketing manager at the acoustics treatment firm Resonics, told me. His firm frequently offers advice to restaurants wanting to reduce noise after receiving complaints from diners. “Acoustics is an afterthought. Architects often don’t take it into account when designing a space.” Putting up curtains or laying carpet would help, but this would be “impractical”, given the popularity of minimalist design. Instead, Resonics suggests installing panels made from a high-density insulation material known as glass wool.
Peter Wilby wrote about his experience of loud restaurants in a New Statesman column in September. He told me more about them. “I have a lifelong hearing problem that makes it difficult sometimes to understand speech, and noisy restaurants make it almost impossible to understand what my companion is saying,” he said. “Increasingly, I find that friends, as they grow older, also have hearing problems. . . and, being unused to such problems, find it even harder to cope than I do. We frequently have to change tables or leave.”
Wilby is far from alone in this. AoHL found that nearly 80 per cent of respondents had left a restaurant early because of noise. There are more than 11 million people in the UK with some form of hearing loss, and a substantial proportion of the survey’s respondents have good hearing but still reported disliking noisy restaurants. Yet the catering industry doesn’t seem to want to keep these disgruntled customers onside.
According to Rob Burley, the head of public affairs and campaigns for AoHL, this is partly because the problem is invisible. “People are simply staying away,” he said. AoHL is encouraging people to be outspoken about noise, in situ at restaurants or on review sites such as TripAdvisor. “Once the industry starts to see the scale of the business they’re losing out on, they’ll want to act.” There are simple steps that restaurants can take, he said, such as turning off speakers or fitting rubber caps to chair legs so they don’t scrape.
Yet there is a suggestion that the high noise levels are deliberate. Marina O’Loughlin, the restaurant critic for the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, told me she sees the loudness as an effort “to get us in and out faster”. “It’s really hard to make money from restaurants,” she said. “That has led to a number of elements that benefit restaurateurs more than diners: no reservations, uncomfortable bar-stool seating, loud music. It means you eat and get out – no impetus to linger . . . I don’t like it at all, but I understand it.”
Joe Mossman, who runs the Japanese restaurant Tenshi in Islington, north London, told me that he thinks the problem is partly a result of the spread of chain restaurants, where the manager has no personal stake in developing customer loyalty.
“The other, more cynical explanation,” Mossman said, “is that the noise is deliberate, probably to make people drink more. You get parched and hoarse trying to have a conversation. The inevitable outcome of that is that you buy more drinks.”
Not being able to hear while out for a meal can be isolating. It shows how a great deal of the joy we take in eating out is social – food doesn’t taste as good if you can’t share your enjoyment. It’s no wonder that diners appear ever more obsessed with checking their phones. As O’Loughlin put it, “It all feeds into itself: I can’t hear, so I might as well instagram my dinner.”
This article appears in the 16 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world