Recently, I met a friend for coffee at Four Letter Word, a self-consciously trendy cafe in Chicago’s Logan Square. I ordered a cappuccino while J-pop metal (which I usually love) blared at an alarming decibel. We leaned on a standing table near a quivering, potted norfolk pine; my companion shouted the highlights of her trip to Ireland while I downed my $6 drink without so much as glancing at its foam art adornment. We promptly fled to another coffee shop — which played prescriptively gentle jazz — where we “soothed” our nerves over another round of caffeinated beverages.
I expect the occasional aural pummeling at a trendy restaurant, especially in this post-gourmet era of fine food with dressed-down vibes. In fact, the clamor almost suits a certain raucous restaurant genre featuring extra martinis that taste like caprese salads and new American cookery that gut-punches us with flavor and decadence via mouth-watering citric acid, umami-rich MSG, meat on meat and cheese on cream — like fancy fare for high people. But that doesn’t necessarily make it enjoyable.
Restaurants and cafes exist mainly to rejuvenate. We go out to consume something tasty we didn’t have to make while engaging in pleasurable, sometimes illuminating conversation. Some restaurants do provide a kind of theater, but there comes a point where dining out leaves the realm of enjoyable, entertaining accessory and enters that of mild punishment (that we paid for). Not to mention the hearing loss risks to staff pulling eight-hour shifts in a workplace that routinely exceeds decibels in the upper 80s — the equivalent of a power lawn mower.
I pondered this in August while dining at Warlord, one of the city’s hottest restaurants — where two friends and I ate thrillingly elemental dry-cured proteins cooked on an open hearth to a thumping soundtrack of dark synth and rock that rattled our very bones. We bellowed our approval of the oil-oozing, hearth-seared mackerel with pepper mash; a server screamed a wine recommendation that would highlight the magnetic funk of the angel hair with sweet crab in funky XO sauce for reasons I couldn’t hear. It was certainly memorable, but not all that fun.
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At one point, I spotted two people making out in a booth. Did the carnal food or high-octane drinks bring it out of them? I wondered. Or was it simply an overflow of exultation that they couldn’t audibly express?
A more raucous clientele?
Indeed, there’s a shared sentiment among several restaurant and bar owners I’ve interviewed since Covid that patrons have lost all sense of decorum when dining out — much in the way people seemingly prefer to conduct all calls on speakerphone and watch Bravo TV without headphones while on public transit nowadays.
“When restrictions loosened a bit, and we were able to resume service, there was and still remains somewhat of this feeling like people have been unleashed,” said Richard Boccato, owner of Dutch Kills cocktail bar in Long Island City (where the music plays at a reasonable volume), in a recent interview.
Perhaps restaurants are just meeting the public where we’re at, via sensory overload on our plates and in our ears; or else they’re trying to drown us out altogether.
Turns out, when it comes to restaurant noise, we’ve been here before. Restaurants purportedly started getting unbearably loud in the late 1990s, when Mario Batali, the disgraced former owner and chef of Babbo, decided to blast the adrenaline-pumping music he and kitchen staff listened to into the dining room. Momofuku’s David Chang and others followed suit until a New York restaurant’s success almost seemed to hinge on the din of its dining room, as "New York" magazine features writer Adam Platt noted in a 2013 Grubstreet piece.
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Complaints that New York restaurants had gotten too loud hit a fever pitch that summer, when "Eater" critic Robert Sietsema also penned a plea for restaurants to turn down the noise. Sietsema was known to wield one but two noise-level apps whenever he went to eat around that time. In 2017 a man named Greg Scott created an app called SoundPrint that’s essentially Yelp for noise levels.
Shifting restaurant design trends starting in the early 2000s are partly to blame here. Open kitchens increased overall ambient noise, as did modern décor, which tended toward high, exposed ceilings, bare wood and stone surfaces and a noticeable lack of soft, noise-absorbing accents like curtains, upholstery and carpet. Bar areas have swelled to accommodate more profitable drinking — which likewise comes with more, ahem, boisterous storytelling.
A bustling, noisy restaurant often feels better to some extent — like the space itself is alive. But I can’t help but think about the socially isolating part of this equation, too. Hard-of-hearing folks talk about retreating from conversations they can’t follow, particularly if they’re not comfortable sharing about their hearing loss. For those with a hidden disability or some measure of social anxiety due to the prolonged seclusion of the pandemic or other reasons, an unbearably loud environment might compound the already disquieting prospect of venturing out.
When I visited Detroit in September, a few friends and I popped into Ladder 4, a wine bar in a refurbished firehouse with soaring ceilings and a penchant for blaring music (which made this year’s "New York Times" 50 best restaurants list, by the way). Clearly the place to be, it was packed to the gills 30 minutes after opening, so we opted for lounge seating, which was spaced so far apart we had no hope of chatting at a reasonable volume.
After shouting fruitlessly into the cacophony for a few minutes, I retreated into my chair with my orange wine and wondered how soon was too soon to ask for the check. The space had commandeered our reunion and that’s not what I’d come out for.