When Chow opened in Vancouver last spring, the roar was almost deafening.
"We wanted the restaurant to have a lively feeling, a busy East Coast din," co-owner Mike Thomson says of the modern, industrial room with its polished cement floor, stark walls and flat, drywall ceiling. "Our architect warned us that we might have some sound problems, but we had no idea."
The acoustics were so bad, Mr. Thomson recalls walking into the empty restaurant, clapping his hands and hearing the echo ring three or four times.
"Can you imagine how loud it got when you had 50 people in there?" he asks.
Within a few months, Mr. Thomson had compiled a long list of would-be patrons who told him they loved the food but hated the noise - and didn't plan to return until he turned down the volume.
After poor service, noise has become the second most common complaint of restaurant goers in the United States, according to Zagat Survey's 2008 edition of America's Top Restaurants. In the most recent Zagat survey for Vancouver, noise ranked as the third most irritating aspect of dining out (after bad service and lacklustre food); in Montreal and Toronto, it placed fourth.
And as the racket continues to grow, diners are finally speaking up - over the clatter of silverware and booming background music - to voice their disapproval.
"It's become much worse over the last decade," says Marion Kane, a veteran food writer and broadcaster who believes some restaurateurs deliberately create a noisy environment.
"There is a mistaken belief - especially among young people - that if you're shouting and it's loud, you're having a good time."
Ms. Kane recalls a recent dinner where the babble was so intense, she started eating manically. "I was so nervous and wound up, I kept eating the food off my friend's plate. On the way home, I had to ask her stop the car so I could throw up."
At last year's Vancouver Magazine restaurant awards, the jury for the design award withheld the gold prize, in part because they saw, or heard, "so many pretty rooms bedevilled by sound problems."
Charlene Rooke, one of the jury members and editor-in-chief of Western Living magazine, says intolerance to noise is not just a generational issue.
"I'm not an old fogy - I'm not even 40," she says. "But if I'm eating in a fine-dining restaurant and paying X amount of dollars for dinner, I want to be able to hear the person across the table. I shouldn't have to yell."
So how loud is too loud?
The ideal sound level for normal conversation is 55 to 65 decibels. When the ambient noise rises to about 70 decibels, you have to raise your voice to be heard. At 75 decibels, conversation is difficult. Above 85 decibels, prolonged exposure - more than eight hours - can permanently damage your hearing.
While restaurant noise levels aren't a threat to hearing loss, "they are certainly an issue for communication. Many, if not most, restaurants have noise levels that are too high for comfortable conversation," says Christine Harrison, an occupational audiologist with the Workers Compensation Board of British Columbia.
Complicating the issue, most of the noise in restaurants comes from echo and reverberation, which isn't easy to measure. The quality of noise can also make a difference.
"If you go to a restaurant with carpets and soft chairs, the noise might be high, but it's deadened," says John Vrtacic, a sound engineer in the music industry who has worked with Metallica. "You may read 75 decibels on a noise meter, but it's not psychologically annoying. If you're in a restaurant with tiles on the floor and a lot of clinking, the frequencies are higher, and the noise is more annoying."
Add background music to the mix and the cacophony can be ear-shattering. Unfortunately, many restaurateurs aren't listening.
"I've been in restaurants where I've complained about the music and been told by the owners, 'Yes, that's what our patrons want,' " Ms. Harrison says. "I know the owners are looking at me, thinking, 'You're not the customer we want. Really, the cool people don't mind.' "
Quiet restaurants have become an endangered species, says Ms. Rooke, who believes high-end dining is being redefined.
"I lived in Montreal for five years, where every restaurant, even the fine-dining restaurants, turns into a nightclub after a certain hour," Ms. Rooke explains.
"I would often walk away from a restaurant thinking 'Did I just pay $200 to eat there?' "Vancouver restaurateur Emad Yacoub makes no apologies for turning up the volume in his restaurants as the night progresses.
"We're trying to create full-energy restaurants," he says of Glowbal Grill, a trendy restaurant in Yaletown, and Sanafir, an Arabian-themed tapas lounge, which registered a peak of 97 decibels in our sound survey (louder than most sawmills).
"If you just want to go out for dinner, there are hundreds of other places that can offer you that."
Ten years ago, San Francisco Chronicle became the first daily newspaper to routinely include noise ratings in its restaurant reviews. The "bomb" rating indicates restaurants that measure decibels of 80 or more.
"I'm beginning to think we need to add a double-bomb designation," says Michael Bauer, the newspaper's food editor and lead restaurant critic. He tabs modern architecture as the main culprit.
"We all like concrete floors and high ceilings and plain wood tables with nothing to soften the noise. Acoustic materials can be very expensive. When people are opening restaurants, it's usually the first thing that gets cut in the budget."
Dan Donovan, business manager for Jamie Kennedy Kitchens in Toronto, says it's extremely difficult for restaurateurs to strike a comfortable balance between high style and low volume.
"It's the customers who are creating the contradiction. They want fine dining and a quiet room, but if you show them a carpeted restaurant with drapery and padded chairs, they'll immediately think it's old-fashioned and not very good. It's a bit of a setup for failure."
His experience with Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner doesn't give him much hope.
"The restaurant is very high-style. It's all glass and stone and flat surfaces that are highly reflective of sound."
Nine months after opening and many complaints later, the restaurant ceiling was refitted with an acoustic panel to lower the sound levels.
"It wasn't entirely successful," Mr. Donovan sighs. "It was very expensive and a bit demoralizing because it didn't really address the problem, which is inherent in the design."
Still, a few tweaks can sometimes make a substantially difference. After fielding a chorus of complaints at Chow, Mr. Thomson called in a specialist.
"Chow had a very straightforward acoustical problem that we run into a lot," says Rod Robertson of RSR Design, a company that installs acoustic materials, mainly for home theatres. "Wherever you have that very attractive drywall, with lots of glass and concrete floors, the sound bounces all over. The noise has nowhere to go."
Mr. Robertson installed a fabric-covered mineral-wood panel along the full length of one dining room wall, in the drop ceiling and behind some large oil paintings. The job cost about $5,000.
The result: a restaurant with a lively feel and very comfortable decibel levels that register in the 65-75 range, even when nearly full - which it has been ever since.
"I called all the people who complained and told them we remedied the situation," Mr. Thomson says.
"They came back and they love it."
Background music can enhance a dining experience or destroy the whole night. It's not the only the cause of noise pollution, but it is the one element that a restaurant can respond to immediately. If the volume is so loud that you find yourself lip reading across the table or ripping out your hair, it's time to complain.
Go directly to the maitre d' or general manager and politely ask if they can turn down the volume.
Do not rely on a server, bartender to busboy to make this request for you.
Avoid negative comments about the type of music being played. You might come across as a fuddy-duddy or insult the person who selected it.
If the general manager is not willing to adjust the volume (or you don't notice a difference), ask to be moved to a quieter table.
If the music is still annoying, do not feel obliged to stay. Request the bill and tell the manager exactly why you are leaving.
Accept that some restaurants will always be excessively loud. Even after Babbo lost a star from the New York Times for precisely this reason, Mario Batali is still blasting his customers with his beloved Led Zeppelin.
1 = Pleasantly quiet
2 = Can talk easily
3 = Talking normally gets difficult
4 = Can talk only in raised voices
5 = Too noisy for normal conversation
VANCOUVER: MEASURED BY ALEXANDRA GILL
SALT TASTING ROOM,
45 BLOOD ALLEY
MAX DECIBELS: 84.5
Type: Charcuterie restaurant and wine bar
Room: 60 seats, 70% occupied
Decibels: 70.2 to 84.5
Acoustics: A long, narrow room with exposed brick, concrete floors, drywall ceilings, a zinc bar, wooden tables, metal chairs and no soft surfaces to absorb noise.
Notable annoyances: The shrill of a whole room shouting.
Over all: Decibel readings don't tell the whole story. The levels in this room were comparatively low, but the acoustics were high-pitched and annoying. We could hardly hear each other across the table. After 30 minutes, we felt headaches coming on.
SANAFIR, 1026 GRANVILLE ST.
MAX DECIBELS: 97.6
Room: 130 seats, 100% occupied
Decibels: 76.5 to 97.6
Acoustics: Extremely high ceilings, deep leather booths, silk drapery and concave columns behind the bar seem to diffuse the clamour bouncing off the polished concrete floor, plain wood tables and stucco walls.
Notable annoyances: Clatter from the open kitchen at the back of the dining room.
Over all: Surprisingly civilized, considering that the decibel levels were off the chart. The Arabian dance music was cranked high, and we had to raise our voices, but the soft surfaces diffused the harsh noise.
WEST, 2881 GRANVILLE ST.
MAX DECIBELS: 81.3
Type: Fine dining
Room: 70 seats; 90% occupied
Decibels: 70.4 to 81.3
Acoustics: A metal sculpture hanging from the ceiling, marble floor and tall glass windows generate an energetic buzz that is comfortably absorbed by heavily padded tables covered in cloth and a foam-stuffed leather panel on the dining room wall.
Notable annoyances: Coffee grinder behind the bar.
Over all: A pleasant room where customers can easily talk to their companions without worrying about their conversation being overheard. We could barely hear a peep from the other tables (which are widely spaced apart).
TORONTO MEASURED BY ALEXANDRA SHIMO
AVENUE BAR AND LOUNGE,
21 AVENUE RD.
MAX DECIBELS: 95.6
Room: 185 seats, 75% occupied
Decibels: 75.1 to 95.6
Acoustics: Plush leather armchairs, carpeting and double-glazed windows in the dining room; marble floors, spare decor and glass liquor cabinets in the bar.
Notable annoyances: The booming electronic music.
Over all: The seated area was perfectly comfortable, but the bar was a totally different experience. The din of people's chatter was almost deafening. A gentleman tried to strike up a conversation, but we couldn't hear a word he was saying. We gave up and resorted to smiling and nodding.
LE SÉLECT BISTRO,
432 WELLINGTON ST. W.
MAX DECIBELS: 91.2
Room: 140 seats, 100% occupied
Decibels: 73.5 to 91.2
Design: Steel doors, ceramic-tile walls, pewter bar in the café; oak floors, mahogany panelling and tables in the restaurant.
Notable annoyances: The seating.
Over all: The café was so loud and full of hard, metallic surfaces that we had to shout to be heard. The dining area provided some relief, thanks to a $50,000 acoustic ceiling that the owner had installed to reduce the echo. But the room is still very noisy because the tables are shoved so close together. We were bombarded by conversations from four different directions.
BISTRO & BAKERY THUET,
609 KING ST. W.
MAX DECIBELS: 83.3
Type: Fine dining
Room: 140 seats; 90% occupied
Decibels: 70.1 to 83.3
Design: Wooden pillars break up the high-ceilinged, wide-open room, which is softened with padded suede benches, wood floors and tablecloths.
Notable annoyances: Cocktail shakers and kitchen clatter.
Over all: The restaurant was buzzing, and there was a lineup at the door, but we could still hear the jazz in the background. Soft surfaces help cut the din, and the tables are spaced widely apart.
MONTREAL MEASURED BY HEATHER SOKOLOFF
L'EXPRESS, 3927 RUE ST-DENIS
MAX DECIBELS: 87.7
Room: 76 seats, 100% occupied
Decibels: 72.7 to 87.7
Acoustics: Mirrored walls, high ceilings, metal bar, floor-to-ceiling front window and crowded tables.
Notable annoyances: Clanging glasses and the constant bang of the refrigerator door.
Over all: We had trouble talking across the table and could barely hear the music in the background. L'Express is a very loud restaurant with no soft surfaces to absorb the noise. The owner says that is exactly the way he wants it.
HOLDER, 407 MCGILL ST.
MAX DECIBELS: 91.1
Room: 150 seats, 85% occupied
Decibels: 77 to 91.1
Acoustics: Wooden floors, tables and chairs, metal bar, large mirrors and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Notable annoyances: Loud music with speakers all over the restaurant.
Over all: Late at night, the coveted tables near the bar were the loudest and we had to strain to speak over the animated patrons, laughter, clanking glasses and salsa beats. Big groups sat farther away from the bar where the music is quieter.
CAVALLI, 2040 PEEL ST.
MAX DECIBELS: 82.1
Type: Fine dining
Room: 150 seats, 20% occupied
Decibels: 70.3 to 82.1
Acoustics: Wall-to-wall carpet, upholstered chairs, wood panelling and an insulated ceiling minimize noise and echo.
Notable annoyances: Blender behind the bar.
Over all: The music was mellow and soothing. We almost wanted to melt into our plush seats. The room is comfortable and well-insulated, but we did wonder how the decibel levels would grow later in the night when the lights go down and the music is turned up.
HOW WE DID IT
The Globe and Mail visited restaurants between 7 and 11 p.m. over two Friday evenings. Using a sound-level meter, we measured the minimum and maximum decibel levels in three five-minute blocks over the course of the visit.
(THRESHOLD OF PAIN: 130-140 DECIBELS)
Airplane takeoff = 140 decibels
Jackhammer = 110
Subway platform = 95
Lawnmower = 90
Traffic noise = 80
Grocery store = 65
Normal conversation = 60
Residential area - night = 42