Many of these improvements came after customers complained and/or restaurant critics measured the eatery’s decibels on a sound meter and found them equivalent to dining next to a jackhammer or a subway train.
Obviously, some restaurants cater to a younger crowd who enjoy what the New York Times calls “sonic pandemonium,” but, as the newspaper notes, “at some places, at least places where the target audience is more than a few years out of college, owners are spending money so that a big night out is actually decipherable.”
Richard Vines, Bloomberg’s chief food critic, thinks restaurants should do even more, calling the noise problem a form of age discrimination to make restaurants unwelcome to diners of a certain age. “It’s time chefs stopped acoustic discrimination against older diners,” he recently wrote.
Not that this earsplitting assault is anything new. Dozens of stories have appeared for years in mainstream news outlets as well as in trade journals tackling the same issue. “Taking the Din Out of Dining,” a perennial favorite of headline writers, has been used as far back as 1946 in the Ottawa Evening Citizen. In the annual Zagat restaurant survey, noise (occasionally alternating with service) has been the No. 1 complaint for several years running.
So what can we do to improve the restaurant experience?
Choose the right restaurant
Before you even make a reservation, Google the name of the restaurant and “noise” to see if recent reviews mention the sound level. The Zagat guide also publishes a list of “Quiet Conversation” restaurants in many cities. (The link is to the Philadelphia list, but you can Google “Zagat quiet conversation” and the name of your city to get recommendations.)
In addition, carpeting on the floor, acoustic tiles on the ceiling, curtains on the windows and tablecloths are all good signs of a restaurant’s noise-dampening efforts. So are booths.
Choose the right table
Sit far from the entrance, the kitchen, the busing station and the bar.
Avoid banquettes. The tables are usually close together and it’s hard not to overhear conversations on either side of you.
Avoid sitting next to a party of four or six: The more people at the table, the louder the conversation. Plus, the louder people speak at one table, the louder the conversation at all the others as more and more diners strain to be heard. There’s even a scientific term for this: the Lombard effect.
Outdoor dining can be a good solution, but it depends on the location. Tables in front of a restaurant facing a busy street will be even noisier than indoor tables.
Some restaurants have patios or gardens in the back, but check first to see if that’s where the air conditioning unit for the building is situated. Trees and trellises help baffle sound. If you’ve ever eaten in an outdoor café in a Mediterranean country with a grape arbor overhead, you’ve probably experienced acoustic heaven, as far as dining is concerned.
Rooftop restaurants can be very noisy, especially if they’re near a highway. Those fabulous spaces in downtown Manhattan with terraces overlooking the Hudson River also overlook the loud West Side Highway.
Choose the right seat
Most people with hearing loss will do better if they sit in a corner with their back to the wall. But for some with directional microphones, it’s better to sit with your back to the noise. Try it both ways and see which works better for you.
Whether your back is to the wall or the room, it’s also important that the space is well lit. Don’t sit facing a window, because the light from the window will obscure the speaker’s face. Choose a round table if possible, so you can see all the speakers’ faces.
Look on the restaurant’s website to preview the menu. Ask the waiter to give you a written list of the specials. Bring along a pad and pen so your companions can jot down information for you.
Be honest and use technology
Tell your fellow diners, the host or hostess, the waiter and anyone else you encounter that you are hard of hearing. Ask them to speak one at a time and slowly. Ask that background music be turned down.
Don’t be shy about bringing and using your FM system, a handheld microphone, a smartphone app, your Roger Pen, Pocket Talker or any of the wireless microphone systems that can be used with hearing aids, implants or headsets. Learn how to use your hearing aids’ directional microphones.
Enjoy your dinner
Even with all these tips, some people with hearing loss still may not be able to hear well in a restaurant. Try not to get frustrated. Take your hearing aid off if it’s just too noisy. Enjoy the food, enjoy being with friends, duck out to the restroom for noise relief or even out of doors. Leave early if it’s all just too much for you.
These tips are based on an excerpt from my book Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends… and Hearing Aids, available at bookstores and libraries or by clicking on the link.