After spending a concerted 15 minutes trying to draw the wait staff’s attention at a noisy restaurant, Ducleiyana John decided to step up her efforts by stepping up on a chair. And waving out to them.
For a beat, the clanging of pots and pans, the high-pitched wailing of toddlers, clattering of plates and cutlery, and the roar of conversation rising in waves over the omnipresent thumping bass of pop music leaking out of overhead speakers all came to a standstill. It was as if someone had pressed mute on the scene. Diners and restaurant staff alike gaped, open-mouthed, at her.
But, that silence was shattered soon. ‘In a matter of seconds, it was deafeningly loud again,’ the 26-year-old Indian doctor rues.
So, when the Covid-19 vacuum drained out overfull restaurants of both diners and din with new social distancing rules, John a found renewed joy in eating out.
‘With the silence I can appreciate the food better and enjoy the company of people I’m actually eating with instead of inadvertently eavesdropping on the adjacent table’s conversation and learning all about someone’s new Netflix binge-watch.’
John is one of a growing number of patrons who appreciate the fact that under the new post-pandemic regulations, she no longer has to mime her order to the waiter. With the current laws, UAE restaurants have taken to spacing tables at a two-metre distance, and partitions and screens have been affixed between seats to prevent cross-contamination, which now offer diners a sense of privacy and peace.
Or in Nindi Priya Dev Sharma’s case, it’s leeched her soirees of their vibrance.
Peace doesn’t even make the cut on her checklist when she’s craving a night out on town. So, the hushed decibels courtesy post-Covid-19 have put a damper on the 39-year-old head of business acquisition’s dining experience. She’s quite vocal about missing the thrum of conversation and revelry wash over her as she steps into an eatery: “[The noise] brings out the collective energy and soul of the place. To me, it signifies a sense of life. It makes my heart race.”
Now that masks cover our faces and tables have drifted apart discouraging intermingling of people, dining out seems more “rigid and controlled” to Sharma, and while she understands and champions the importance of social distancing, there’s no denying that this new normal has dented her dining experience.
Noise or sound?
Restaurant noise levels have long been a sizzling issue that has polarised diners, food critics, chefs and restaurateurs across the world.
Editorials and think pieces have been dedicated to debating how the evolution of restaurant architecture and interior design over the years have altered their acoustic atmosphere – from noise-muffling carpeted and cushioned cocoons dining rooms of yore to sleeker, shinier chrome and glass tables and exposed walls that amplify sound. Décor asides, open kitchens that display the cooking process in all its sizzling, clanging and chaotic glory contribute to the clamour.
It [restaurant noise] ruins the whole experience. In a post-COVID world where social distancing is a part of our behaviour, it makes you re-think if a noisy restaurant is worth your mental health. Dining out is an attempt to release stress after a hectic week or day at work.
The medical fallouts of being exposed to decibels of 70db (hearing loss, tinnitus, a splitting headache...) have been hashed over many a plate of hash browns by medical experts and gourmands.
Food columns have over the years introduced a restaurant’s acoustics into their reviews; The San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema are vocal proponents of turning down the volumes in restaurants and include a decibel measure in their reviews. On the other hand, New Yorker Times’ food critic Pete Wells celebrates the sounds as an auditory expression of life.
All the Gulf News readers who weighed in on the topic had no reservations taking sides.
What converts sound that’s music to your ears jarring noise to someone else’s has always been subjective. The adrenalin rush that Sharma describes as ‘heart racing’ was anxiety to a frustrated Gregory Scott who launched the app SoundPrint in 2018 to measure decibel levels in restaurants. As an individual suffering from hearing loss, the rising noise levels in restaurants made dining out an uncomfortable experience for him.
Franklin Thankachan empathises acutely. The 27-year-old marketing professional from India finds having to lean in over steaming plates to hear friends’ added auditory stress. “It ruins the whole experience. In a post-COVID world where social distancing is a part of our behaviour, it makes you re-think if a noisy restaurant is worth your mental health. Dining out is an attempt to release stress after a hectic week or day at work.”
“It ruins the whole experience. In a post-COVID world where social distancing is a part of our behaviour, it makes you re-think if a noisy restaurant is worth your mental health. Dining out is an attempt to release stress after a hectic week or day at work.”
Hearing people chattering, chairs shuffling, glasses clinking or the [bangs and thuds] from unfortunate accidents of a trainee staff dropping cutlery, all add to an organised chaos atmosphere that diners who are parents feel at ease in. I feel relieved then that my two-year-old using a metal spoon to stir air in a glass isn’t the main sound hampering anyone else’s dining experience
In the case of Farhina Jamaldin, a mum to two kids under the ages of six, the ambient clamour of eateries allows her family to blend in and feel welcome: “Hearing people chattering, chairs shuffling, glasses clinking or the [bangs and thuds] from unfortunate accidents of a trainee staff dropping cutlery, all add to an organised chaos atmosphere that diners who are parents feel at ease in.
“Hearing people chattering, chairs shuffling, glasses clinking or the [bangs and thuds] from unfortunate accidents of a trainee staff dropping cutlery, all add to an organised chaos atmosphere that diners who are parents feel at ease in.
“I feel relieved then that my two-year-old using a metal spoon to stir air in a glass isn’t the main sound hampering anyone else’s dining experience,” adds the 42-year-old Tanzanian national.
When Imaan Nazeer found noisy fellow diners and loud music ruining her experience, she walked out of restaurants without a second thought. “As it is, we’re caught up in our phones all the time, so the additional distraction of noise is definitely a downside to connecting with your dining companion. Or savouring the company of a good book with a meal,’ explains the 28-year-old Indian landscape architect.
She’s got a point. Researchers at University of California Berkeley and Berkeley's Starkey Hearing Research Centre found that people have trouble retaining what some has told them when there’s ambient discussions at 65 decibels.
In stark contrast to Imaan’s gourmet gripe, sound is Rana Moursy’s yardstick for a restaurant’s popularity. For the 29-year-old Egyptian national who’s an HR manager: “Noise and crowd in restaurant are an indication of that restaurant serving good food and having a good atmosphere. If the noise is a result of a celebration, such as a birthday, then even better!
“Getting to see people celebrating and being happy together excites me, and I sing along as well.”
Diners, lend us your ears
Restaurants on an average concur with Moursy. Noise is currency to the hospitality business where an electric buzz apart from finger-licking good grub lures in patrons. And it’s people who generate a large chunk of that noise. Deathly silence in a dining establishment is a resounding death knell.
“When it’s quiet, I get bored and I feel like I have to eat and leave,” laments Moursy.
Farhina Jamaldin shares an additional concern related to sparsely populated eateries: “If the restaurant isn’t busy, it makes me [wonder] about the actual freshness of the food.”
Imaan Nazeer, however, doesn’t set store by crowds: “Noise is probably not a marker of quality and popularity at all times. Sometimes, it’s affordability. A reasonable price-range tends to attract a larger crowd and hence more noise.”
Noise, scientific studies show, is a clever marketing hack that helps regulate a steady frequency of diners in restaurants packed to the rafters and increase table turnover.
An American study shows that simply turning up the volume of ambient music can drive up the flight or fight stress response of our body and subliminally get us to order unhealthy comfort foods to soothe the stress.
A study by US-based Fairfield University in the 1980s showed how loud music and a noisy ambience can encourage diners to eat quickly and leave. Another by the University of South Florida shows how simply turning up the volume of ambient music can drive up the flight or fight stress response of our body and subliminally get us to order unhealthy comfort foods to soothe the stress.
Dulceiyana John’s reaction to busy eateries straddles aspects of both studies: “I’d order a salad I can chow down on quickly and bolt, if the place is too busy.”
The hunt for hush
What decades of vehement exhortations from critics and diners who rally for some peace and quiet couldn’t do for restaurants was achieved by the pandemic. For months it felt as if a side of noise-cancelling headphones were served with meals. As the number of people dining in thinned out, the babble died too.
Some, like Imaan Nazeer have instinctively taken to this new normal. “I’m more inclined to eat out now because of the noise and crowd control. Earlier, dining out was a stressful experience for me because of the crowds and noise and used to prefer ordering in and eating at home.”
For Veena Jayaram, the appearance of face masks, social-distancing signboards and sanitisers sat snugly next to menus makes eating out ominous. “A restaurant could be packed, but there’s no laughter or carefreeness. People come, eat, pay and leave,” says the 27-year-old Dubai resident whose weekly catch-up dinners with extended family have become limited since COVID-19 struck.
Farhina Omar identifies with that sense of unease too. “Around early March, last year, I remember visiting a popular mall and the food court seemed more empty than usual, which seemed very strange and eerie.
“We went to a Pakistani restaurant called Nayab Handi in Jumeirah for their buffet recently and we were served by [masked and gloved] servers standing behind each bain-marie. This experience felt like we were lining up for lunch at a high school canteen [and was unsettling].”
Even Franklin Thankachan, who prefers avoiding the noise pollution contends that the silence in an eatery is both good and bad: “I enjoy a well-balanced place where there is some background music as opposed to awkward silence but it’s possible for me to have a conversation with someone else.”
It’s an insight that highlights the anchor of the dining out culture – people. Ironically, people are the double-edged swords who can become ear-splitting crowds that turn us deaf while we work our way through a surf ‘n’ turf. In moderation, they act as pleasant company, fulfilling one of our most human needs – to socialise and be communal. To be surrounded by other people while we eat, whether we interact with them or not.
So, while the jury’s still out on whether noise in a restaurant is good or bad, there’s no denying the fact that restaurants are public spaces people, both introverts and extroverts, definitely want to spend time in appreciating two of life’s greatest pleasures – good food and good company.
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