Almost as soon as Fred Neuville opened The Fat Hen, he realized he had a noise problem.
How the decibels were measured
This survey of sound levels shouldn't be mistaken for science. To obtain decibel readings, I did a quick sweep of restaurant dining rooms (as opposed to bar areas) between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. That's when restaurants are loudest, so if you're trying to avoid noise, by all means dine on a Tuesday.
All of the numbers were gathered over the course of two weeks in May, using Decibel Meter Pro, an iPhone app.
Since the numbers may have been skewed in some instances by especially boisterous parties or a guest lull, the results shouldn't be considered definitive. It's entirely possible that you've had a noisy meal at a restaurant with a relatively low decibel level (or vice versa.)
I confined my survey to restaurants on the peninsula, with the exception of California Dreaming west of the Ashley. That restaurant earned a spot on my list because it famously acquired a reputation for loudness soon after its 1984 opening. According to local rumor, the restaurant took out a full-page ad in The Post and Courier to apologize for the noise. Sadly, neither the crack research team at the Charleston County Public Library nor I was able to find it, so I'm chalking up the legend to wishful thinking. I'd love to be proven wrong, though: If you have a copy of the ad, please share it.
To keep the measuring project manageable, I only visited restaurants which are identified in online reviews as "noisy" or "quiet." I also made sure to visit every restaurant which Post and Courier readers have pegged as too loud, according to my e-mail archive. Finally, I swung through the Noisy Oyster, because I couldn't resist trying to establish whether the restaurant lives up to its name (it doesn't.)
In transforming the former St. Johns Island Cafe into a French bistro, Neuville in 2007 tore up the lineoleum to reveal attractive concrete floors, which amplified every wine-fueled laugh and boisterous conversation. Within two years, he was scrambling to find architectural antidotes, including dropped ceiling tiles. "I was under the impression that the tile was sound absorbent," he recalls. "I was under the wrong impression."
Instead of deflecting noise, the tiles trapped it, creating an overhead echo chamber.
Neuville has since stuck soundproofing pads under chairs, replaced tables and redone the floor, a series of projects that's brought his total expenditure on acoustics to more than $20,000. The servers reported they had an easier time hearing guests after the floor went down in 2013, but as recently as April, a customer griped on Yelp that the noise level was "unbearable."
This week, Neuville is waiting on delivery of art reproductions: He's hired a company to recreate The Fat Hen's decorative paintings of "le cochon" and "la vache" on sound absorbent panels.
"It is a journey, and this is the next step," Neuville says. "You want people to have a conversation without having to yell. It just takes some time."
Plenty of company
As Charleston eaters have discovered, Neuville isn't traveling alone. Restaurateurs citywide are grappling with how to mitigate an issue that tops many diners' lists of deal-breakers. "If had a dollar for every guest who said they loved the food at Lucca, but would never come back because of the noise level, I would be rich," says Ken Vedrinski, who finally licked the longstanding noise problem at his downtown restaurant.
Lucca is now on the quieter end of the local dining room sound spectrum. But The Post and Courier turned up more than a dozen popular restaurants where the volume stood at or above 75 decibels, the aural equivalent of an alarm clock or Times Square. The noise level at the loudest restaurant tested, The Ordinary, registered at 90, OSHA's permissible exposure limit for an eight-hour workday. (The Ordinary's publicist didn't return a message seeking comment.)
"The over-45 set, and the reality is these are the people who spend money, just can't hear," Vedrinski says.
By big-city standards, Charleston's restaurants are relatively serene: According to New York magazine, New York City dining rooms "regularly measure at 90 decibels" and frequently exceed it. But that's small comfort to local diners trying to use normal speaking voices, which is difficult to do whenever a room's volume climbs past the 60-decibel mark. (The decibel scale is logarithmic, so 60 decibels is half as loud as 70 decibels, which is now the national restaurant average.)
Restaurants everywhere are loud and getting louder. Responsibility for the phenomenon is usually pinned on conniving restaurant owners, who are clued in to studies showing customers drink more and chew faster when there's loud music playing. Celebrity chefs, who've lived up to their roles as society's "new rock stars" by blasting bass-heavy tunes, haven't escaped blame either.
"I like a loud restaurant. I just do," three-time James Beard Award nominee Ethan Stowell told a Seattle crowd in 2012, revealing he'll turn up the music if he thinks people are talking too quietly. "An individual customer might say, 'Oh, it's loud in here,' but a quiet restaurant is definitely not what you want."
Mostly, though, the problem doesn't lie with individuals. Decibel levels have leaped because of significant structural changes in restaurants, says David Thompson, the Charleston architect whose portfolio includes The Grocery, The Granary, Indaco, The Belmont, The Ordinary and Butcher & Bee. Thompson declined to address any of his projects specifically, but he firmly believes that food trends that aren't directly related to noise have inadvertently led to deafening dining rooms.
For example, the Food Network didn't set out to reshape the restaurant guest experience when it debuted in 1993. But by turning the mundane acts of chopping, stirring and sauteing into theater, the channel helped strengthen demand for open kitchens, perhaps the most insidious cause of elevated noise levels.
"You would never put your finger on it when you walk in," Thompson says. "But there's an incessant hum from the kitchen."
Riding the magic carpet
And it's not just the white noise that's bothersome: Staffers are apt to raise their voices to be heard over equipment, forcing customers to talk more loudly, too.
Vedrinski says he was initially stymied by how to overcome the whirr of the cooler at Lucca. "I brought in (local jazz musician) Quentin Baxter, because he has a good ear," he remembers. Baxter estimated any easy fix that didn't involve removing the open kitchen would only reduce the room's volume by 20 percent. "You're just wasting your money," he told Vedrinski.
In an earlier era, elaborate wall hangings might have muffled the kitchen clamor. But Thompson says artwork has fallen out of favor since open kitchens and other functional elements - think of the bare light bulbs, cocktail-aging barrels and shelves of jarred pickles that are Brooklyn's gift to restaurant design - provide plenty of visual stimulation for guests.
Also on the currently uncool list: carpet, tablecloths and curtains, all of which are sound-taming champions. "I don't know if I've worked on a restaurant in six years that had a tablecloth," Thompson says. While he bravely predicts a curtain resurgence, it's highly unlikely that restaurateurs will ever again roll out the carpet for guests. It's not just that exposed floors are stylish: For restaurateurs, the prospect of a carpet-cleaning bill is terrifying.
The last bastion of dining room carpet is the hotel restaurant, such as Circa 1886, the quietest restaurant in our local survey. A church mouse might worry about making a racket at Circa 1886, which is furnished with paisley-patterned carpet, white tablecloths and upholstered chairs.
"We strive to be quiet so our guests can have a quality experience," spokeswoman Linn Lesesne says. "I don't think it inhibits a good time. I know people have said they enjoy it."
One person who was put off by the hush was a New York Times contributor, who this month wrote about Charleston restaurants for the paper's travel section. "So many people complain about noise in restaurants these days, but here, there was no merry tinkling of ice, no laughter," she wrote, elaborating on the "near silence" she encountered on a recent visit.
Where's the bar?
Circa 1886 segregates ice tinkling and laughter from the main dining room by keeping its bar up front. That's a departure from the currently prevailing standard, in which the bar is situated smack in the middle of the restaurant. The cocktail revival is yet another culinary trend that can be measured in decibels.
"I remember being kind of ushered past the bar to the dining room," Thompson says of his childhood restaurant visits. "Now drinking is viewed as an integral part of the meal. The bar is a logical extension, but it has a cascading effect."
As Neuville puts it, "I find as people drink, the noise level goes up."
Diners now have to talk over the natural din of a bar - and since many of them are equally lubricated by stiff liquor drinks, which have become as societally acceptable as wine spritzers, they're typically up to the task.
According to Thompson, architects are aware of the consequences of planting a bar in a restaurant's center. They also know what's bound to happen when they yield to farm-to-table fashion by outfitting dining rooms in wood, or nod to historic buildings' pasts by leaving their brick walls uncovered, a tendency that's especially pronounced in Charleston. But they can't precisely predict a restaurant's sound level until every seat's taken.
"I always cringe a little bit on opening night," says Thompson, who dreads noise complaints. "You have to have a pretty thick skin."
When Vedrinski dreamed up Lucca, he imagined it would be as "loud and fun" as the trattorias he liked so much in Italy. "I figured my clientele would want that noise and buzz," he says. "But you don't ever know until you fill it up."
Customers began flocking to Lucca after its 2008 opening sparked glowing reviews. Many of them were familiar with Vedrinski from The Woodlands, a fancy restaurant with thick carpeting. According to Vedrinski, they struggled to square the notion of a tasting menu with a raucous room: One disappointed customer even offered to pay for a new ceiling.
"A lot of these people hated it," says Vedrinski. "I was the poster child for restaurant noise."
Not wanting to repeat the situation at Coda del Pesce, the restaurant he opened last year on the Isle of Palms, Vedrinski purchased costly sound-deadening tiles at the start. The tiles were so effective that he installed them at Lucca last December.
"They took away 40 percent of the noise," he says. "I have not had a noise complaint since they went in. It was one of the best $13,000 I've ever spent."
If Vedrinski hadn't been scarred by relentless online feedback comparing Lucca to an airport hangar, and attuned to the profoundly competitive nature of the city's restaurant scene, he probably wouldn't have taken such a proactive approach to Coda's soundscape. Acoustics are always discussed at the outset of the design process, yet rarely ever addressed.
"We think about it pretty early, because it's one of the chief complaints we get early," Thompson says. "But it's one of those things that's easy to let slip. When you're weighing whether to get light fixtures or super-secret sound panels that nobody sees, you're going to get the light fixtures."
"You're hard-pressed to find a restaurant that hasn't had to retrofit," he continues. "There is not a way to partially address these things. The challenge is trying to find an economical way to do it."
Thompson's firm has consulted with acoustical engineers who've explained it's impossible to control decibel levels outside of buildings designed around sound, such as orchestra halls and opera houses. Still, Thompson is confident restaurant owners can dial back noise if they make it a design priority.
"When you're talking with a client, talking about problems probably isn't the best," says Thompson, who's starting to present sound control as an opportunity. "We've got a whole new batch of work coming out, and I think we're going to have better luck."
And if that strategy doesn't pan out, there's always the curtain comeback to look forward to.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.