Why are restaurants so damn loud?

We break down what’s behind all the noise and what can be done about it
Bocado is one of the worst noise offenders

Photograph by Christina Wedge

Dining rooms today seem louder than ever, boasting all the acoustics of a shipping container. We turned to local designers for an explanation and determined that the problem is multifaceted, rooted in design trends, dining preferences, and economic conditions. “This is a recent issue,” says Bill Johnson of the Johnson Studio. One reason: Building a restaurant has become more expensive. Johnson estimates that design costs per square foot have gone up by 10 percent in the last five years. Blame it on a construction boom that started in 2013, jacking up the cost of materials and skilled labor. And when costs go up, cushy, sound-absorbent amenities like upholstered chairs can get dropped from the budget. “We go through that [cutting process]. It sucks,” says Vivian Bencich of Square Feet Studio. Even the costs of building an open kitchen, ever in demand these days, can pull from the design budget. Though it contributes little in the way of sound, the extra heat coming out of the kitchen can affect the cooling and heating budget, says Bencich. Here, we break down what’s behind all the noise—and what can be done about it.

Meet the Experts
Smith Hanes
Smith Hanes

Smith Hanes Studio
Established 2006
Projects JCT Kitchen, the Optimist, Watershed on Peachtree, Le Fat

Vivian Bencich
Vivian Bencich

Square Feet Studio
Established 2001
Projects The General Muir, Kimball House, the Cockentrice, Staplehouse

Bill Johnson
Bill Johnson

The Johnson Studio
Established 1988
Projects Seeger’s, Bluepointe, the Hyatt’s Polaris, Atlas

noiseNoise violations
1 Perfectly square rooms
Sound waves can travel by sliding (vibrating, technically) along walls and by bouncing off of them. Four flat surfaces will keep sound circling the space ad nauseam, while parallel walls allow waves to ricochet back and forth like a game of acoustic ping-pong.

2 Casual is cooler
Tablecloths—along with drapes, upholstered chairs, and carpet—have mostly gone the way of smoking sections. Our experts agreed that restaurateurs are shying away from these fine-dining relics, which can weigh down budgets, are hard to clean, and clash with today’s industrial vibe. But guess what they do offer? Sound absorbency.

3 The loft look
An adaptive reuse trend, which Hanes calls “historic regionalism,” has restaurateurs eying old buildings, especially warehouses. These naturally have lots of steel frames, glass, and other hard surfaces that send sound waves reflecting around the room. High ceilings, too, create opportunities for reverberation and echo, says Johnson.

4 Blending the bar with the dining room
Dining at the bar—something that rarely happened 20 years ago, according to Johnson—has become commonplace, and many restaurants have, in turn, integrated the bar area with the dining room. Just one problem: With alcohol comes more people and more noise. “It’s a building effect,” Johnson says.

Atlas's noise levels are just right
Atlas’s noise levels are just right

Silent fixes
1 Architectural undulations
Columns or curved walls can help stop sound waves in their tracks. “Odd shapes can be a real benefit for acoustic properties,” Johnson says. Even grout lines in a brick column can trap sound. Hanes suggests adding slivers of curtain panels in corners. If hung properly, the fabric will blend in with the space and further absorb any bouncing sound waves.

2 Ceiling treatment
Ceilings offer the biggest opportunity to create a surface that will absorb sound. That arched ceiling in Atlas that looks like hard plaster? It’s actually made of a springy acoustical plaster. “If you pushed it with your hand, you could make a dent in it,” Johnson says. Hanes often conceals sound-absorbent materials behind wood slat ceilings, which have small gaps (one-quarter to one inch) between the boards to let sound waves through.

Secret Solutions
Acoustic Panels
Often used in recording studios, panels can be dressed up to blend in with the decor, says Bencich. The key is to use materials—whether fabric, wood, or metal—that are perforated, so sound waves can penetrate the panel into an absorbent backing.

Just how loud are Atlanta restaurants?
We took decibel readings during peak business hours to find out. Note that an increase of 3 dB equates to a doubling in sound intensity.

(from acceptable to unbearable)

74 Bacchanalia
76 living room music
80 garbage disposal
80 Le Fat
81 Iberian Pig
84 a baby crying
84 Staplehouse
85 No. 246, Antico Pizza, Brezza Cucina
85 drilling machine
86 Parish
87 Bocado
88 food blender

Photography credits: Atlas: Patrick Heagney; Illustration: Jochen Schevink; Johnson: Damion Baizan; Bencich, Hanes: Andrew Thomas Lee

This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.