Katherine Bouton

What I Hear

Dining Out

The first thing people ask me is if I know of a quiet restaurant.

Posted Feb 19, 2013

Saturday was our anniversary, our 33rd. Thirty-three years of marriage to someone with hearing loss is an accomplishment. Kudos to my husband's patience.

We went to a downtown Manhattan restaurant, Lebanese, casual, trendy -- and noisy.

Luckily over those 33 years I've learned to read my husband's speech pretty accurately because the restaurant was typically loud. Between 85 and 90 dBs in fact. (I checked out the DB reader on my IPhone.)

The restaurant was a great space -- a long rectangular room, 40 to 50 foot ceilings. The walls and ceilings were panels of wood and glass, the floor was wood, as were the tables (no tablecloths). All that wood helped keep the sound level "moderate," as Yelp put it. Or at least more moderate than it would have been in a restaurant with chic metal tables and chairs, a tile floor and a pressed-tin ceiling. The bar was separate from the dining room, and the kitchen was not open, helping keep the noise level down. But there was clatter, and music.

Studies have shown that loud, fast music speeds up chewing (and turns tables faster). It also encourages more drinking. A 2008 French study found that turning up the music in a bar resulted in patrons finishing an eight-ounce beer in 11.5 minutes, as opposed to 14.5 minutes at normal sound levels. Restaurants like noise. But not all diners do. The second most frequent complaint about restaurants, according to Zagat, is noise. (The first is bad service.)

When I tell people I’ve written a book about hearing loss and noise, the first thing they say (after telling me that they or their spouse or their mother or friend or cousin also suffers hearing loss) is how noisy restaurants are. They ask for recommendations for places where they might hear each other speak. Or which table in a specific restaurant is going to be most conducive to conversation.

I don't know of many restaurants that are conducive to conversation. But there are ways to make sure you're maximizing your ability to hear. Sit in a corner, or with your best ear facing a wall. Even better is to sit in a booth, or with your back to a heavy curtain. If you wear a hearing aid or implant in the ear facing the restaurant, turn it down, so that your good ear is doing most of the work.

Never eat in a restaurant with live music. Brunch with a trio playing jazz is guaranteed to leave you with a headache.

Look for a restaurant with lower ceilings, or ask if there's an upstairs or side room. Even if the main space is large and loud, there are often smaller areas with lower ceilings and carpeted floors. What chic diners call Siberia. You do miss some of the ambiance but the food is the same.

If it's warm enough and there's a garden or outdoor space, you'll probably hear better outdoors. In Manhattan those spaces often face the street. That's not much help because the traffic noise will make it as noisy outside as it is inside. If you're in a back garden, make sure there's not a ventilator blasting over your head. Or just go to Rome -- where there are quiet outdoor restaraunts in cul de sacs at every turn.

I love to eat in a good restaurant, despite the noise, but generally only if I'm with a single other person. I can't keep up with a conversation that involves three or four others. At our anniversary dinner, we were surrounded by cheerful, loud Saturday night diners. But we were at a small table, facing each other. There was a wood partition just to my right. I turned down my cochlear implant, in my left ear.

I was able to hear my husband, the food was delicious, the service great. And like almost every other couple, we were out in little more than an hour. (Larger parties tend to stay longer.) We didn't feel rushed, but the excitement and clatter and background music all contributed to a quick turnover of tables. Good for the restaurant, and we had no complaints. The food was superb.

There are of course alternatives to this kind of restaurant. Look for low, textured ceilings, carpeted floors, banquettes or booths, tablecloths, absence of music, a bar that is not part of the dining room. Ask the waiter for a corner table, not too near a large party or the reception desk or the kitchen or anyplace where there's apt to be activity. Weeknights tend to be quieter than weekends. Small restaurants quieter than big ones. Expensive restaurants tend to be either much louder or much quieter than more moderate priced places, depending on the ambiance.

Meanwhile, those who work in noisy restaurants are getting a sustained and potentially dangerous dose of noise exposure.

Update: Shake Shack is looped. Jerry Bergman sent me the following information: 

All of Katherine's tips on dining out are right on. I would just add that audiologists say one's ability to hear speech is a factor of distance and noise. The louder the environment and the farther you are from the source, the harder it is to make out what is being said.

We've just learned that Shake Shack has installed hearing loops - a godsend for those of us with t-coils in our hearing devices - in their Upper East Side and Battery Park restaurants, in addition to their first loop at the order counter of their Upper West Side branch. If Shake Shack can accommodate the hearing impaired, why not other restaurants in New York City? 

More Posts