Business & Real Estate

Even some of Sacramento’s hottest dining destinations struggle with the noise factor

You arrive for dinner at one of the city’s hottest restaurants. When you walk in the front door, sure enough, the place is hopping.

Somehow, it feels like this is the place to be, even if it’s jarring to the senses.

The tables are full. People are talking, laughing. But if you study what’s actually going on, this sophisticated and pricey restaurant isn’t exactly inspiring sophisticated behavior.

When a restaurant is loud, according to several studies dealing with acoustics, people subconsciously raise the pitch of their voices and speak louder. They elongate their vowel sounds and, subsequently, stretch their mouths in deliberate fashion. Their expressions are exaggerated as they strain to get across the point they are trying to make.

“When else do you use your facial muscles a lot and speak slower to accentuate your point and increase intelligibility?” asks Keith Yates, an internationally known acoustics expert based in Auburn. “The answer is baby talk.”

That’s right, we go out to eat, spend a hundred bucks or more on a great meal with good wine, and all of us are pretty much reduced to some version of baby talk because so many restaurants are impossibly loud.

“Restaurant owners as a group are guilty, with a few exceptions,” said Yates, whose company, Keith Yates Design Group, does acoustics work throughout the United States and overseas in high-end homes, restaurants and many other commercial buildings. “The fashion in the restaurant industry is to do nothing to address this unpleasantness because when new people come into the restaurant, they say, ‘Man, this is a happening place.’ There is a lot happening, but soon after they take their seat, they are yelling at each other.”

Design companies such as Yates’ use proprietary software to model what the room will sound like when improvements are made.

Sound-dampening fixes can range from inexpensive compressed fiberglass on the ceiling to pricey panels that look like wall tapestries.

“I always tell restaurateurs when they come in that having too much noise is the best problem you can have – that means you’re busy,” said Bruce Benning of Benning Design Group, which has done interior design for numerous restaurants. “But it’s vitally important to get the acoustics right. In any business. All of the pieces need to fit.”

Noisy restaurants have become such an issue in recent years that many newspapers, including The Bee, along with online sites such as Yelp, address acoustics in restaurant ratings. Some say noisy dining areas are intentional so guests don’t linger, allowing restaurants to turn tables more frequently (and make more money). But many critics of loud restaurants say the noise is a turnoff and would discourage them from returning regularly.

“My wife and I enjoy eating out, but in some places, the noise level is intolerable,” said Jim Affleck, a retired physician, who singled out Biba and Waterboy for having good acoustics.

Some of the disdain for noise may be age-related. Affleck and his wife are in their mid-80s and both have suffered gradual hearing loss.

With all of the issues involved in getting a restaurant open – installing kitchen equipment, designing an attractive dining space and hiring good people – the way a space will actually perform when full is often overlooked. That is, until the restaurant fills up for the first time.

Scores of the most popular spots in town have struggled with acoustics, from OneSpeed, a well-regarded family-style bistro and pizzeria in east Sacramento, to LowBrau, a hugely popular craft beer and sausage restaurant in midtown, to Carpe Vino, an intimate wine bar and fine dining restaurant in Auburn.

Because it is so crowded so often, LowBrau is a frequent target when it comes to acoustics complaints. At capacity, when scores of people are enjoying beer and food – and the sound system is blaring music – an extended conversation is nearly impossible. LowBrau has a capacity of 183 people inside and 75 more on the patio out front.

“Having a restaurant is like having guests over to your house. If the guests are uncomfortable, we’re uncomfortable,” said co-owner Clay Nutting. “You want people to enjoy themselves and have a conversation with each other. But sometimes (especially on Friday and Saturday night) it’s more of a tolerance than enjoyment.”

Biting the bullet, LowBrau hired an engineering firm, aware that a nearby restaurant spent $10,000 on acoustics without noticing any improvement.

“We paid several thousand dollars to have them come out. They had sophisticated equipment and they measured the surfaces and our square footage. They offered solutions, but several solutions were over $30,000,” Nutting said. “We have developed a few other solutions that we think will be more cost-effective.”

LowBrau’s challenge is a reflection of a much bigger issue. Restaurateurs like noise because noise means excitement and, whether they know it or not, customers are drawn to it. Further, the current trend in restaurant design – concrete floors, plenty of hard surfaces, open kitchens, no draperies or tablecloths, and ceilings with exposed rafters – only exacerbates the noise problem.

Rick Mahan, the owner/chef at highly regarded Waterboy, knew what he wanted when, in 2009, he opened his second restaurant, OneSpeed, a pizza-centric eatery that would attract families and friends in the neighborhood.

“I like to have noise. I like to have hustle and bustle,” Mahan said.

When OneSpeed opened for business, there was plenty of fanfare about the pizza. But the acoustics – voices pinging off every hard surface and overwhelming the space – rattled the chef. The restaurant has a capacity inside of 62 people. “It was beyond loud,” he said.

Mahan said OneSpeed went on to spend several thousand dollars to address acoustics in three phases. Among other things, it installed inch-thick fabric-covered panels on the ceiling to absorb noise before it can deflect back down to the tables.

“I think it’s at a nice level now. I don’t want it to be a quiet restaurant, but conversations are manageable now,” he said.

Kimio Bazett, co-owner of the popular restaurant and bar Hook & Ladder, says he thinks about acoustics all the time. Is the music too loud? Are customers straining, or relaxed? His restaurant was cited by several in the business as having reasonable sound levels.

“It’s the first thing I think about when I walk in. It’s a constant battle,” Bazett said.

Hook & Ladder enjoys a few structural advantages over some of its competitors. Its low ceiling, for one, doesn’t allow sound to build up and bounce around. The restaurant also took pains to install sheets of cloth – actually, they are painters’ tarps – on the expanse of ceiling to muffle the noise. That was an inexpensive fix – until the fire inspection. They had to remove the tarps, treat them with costly fire retardant, and then reinstall them.

Ella Dining Room & Bar has received international recognition for its interior design. The elegant urban restaurant, owned by the Selland Group, has very high ceilings and large windows, both of which wreak havoc with sound. Co-owner Randall Selland said they had initially planned to use Mexican cement tiles for the floor because of the rustic aesthetic appeal, but acoustics expert advised against it.

Ella also has eye-catching shutters as decorative elements on the walls and some areas of the ceilings. In addition to the largely decorative shutters, which may muffle some sound, the acoustics consultant suggested installing baffling on the ceiling to further absorb noise.

“Even when the place is packed, you can still have a conversation with each other,” Selland said. “Yes, it can still get loud, but we’re not getting complaints.”

As savvy as the Selland Group is, when it opened its second Selland’s Market-Cafe in El Dorado Hills, the sparkling concrete floors and decorative tin roof proved to an acoustics nightmare, albeit a lovely one to look at. Selland and his wife/business partner, Nancy Zimmer, had considered all facets of the restaurant build-out. Or so they thought. Selland said it’s difficult to assess how a room will function until it is full of customers.

“We opened up the doors and the noise was so amazingly loud,” he said. “Nancy and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, we’ve made a huge mistake.’ If it’s uncomfortable for us, then we have to make a change to it.”

They went on to spend close to $10,000 to lower the volume at their new eatery.