Restaurants can be loud—very loud. In Victoria and NSW, 85 dBA is the end of the WorkCover safe limit at which workers can complete an eight-hour day without wearing ear protection. Compare this to loud, noisy restaurants where customers and staff are regularly exposed to levels above this limit.
Noise has increased as minimalist restaurants become more popular with bare glass, bare walls and bare tables with reflective surfaces and nothing to absorb the sound. Sound-muffling carpets (and tablecloths) have been taken up in favour of exposed-wood tables and brittle floors whilst sound systems have been cranked up.
In 2011, Safe Work Australia received a submission from Restaurant and Catering Australia that said because “average noise levels in restaurants range between 50 and 90 decibels”, the acceptable standard for noise levels in the workplace should be lifted from 85 decibels to 100 decibels”. This level of noise could be equated to standing close to a power drill!1
In an article in The Age2, Louise Tarrant (the national secretary of hospitality union United Voice) pointed out that noise is an important problem for both the dining public and her members. She said that noise has escalated with the rise in the trend for minimalist restaurants and that the union were concerned that restaurant owners weren’t taking the problem seriously because they even want to increase the allowable noise levels. "I don't think it would be a great look for the wait-staff and patrons to have to wear protective ear wear in a restaurant," Tarrant said.
One of the common hearing complaints audiologists hear from their patients is that of difficulty hearing in noisy restaurants. It seems that, along with movies, television shows and the world in general, restaurants have become noisier than ever. People with normal hearing also complain about noisy restaurants. Noise is the second most common complaint of restaurant goers (second only to poor service).
Interestingly enough, this is not a new problem. Ten years ago, so many diners complained about how loud restaurants had become that The Chronicle in San Francisco began incorporating noise ratings into their restaurant reviews.
The bottom line is that acoustics and noise, both within the restaurant and within the environment, should not be overlooked in restaurant design. Acoustics in a restaurant is influenced by several variables including spacial arrangement, shape of the walls and ceiling, materials used and the construction methods. It makes sense to seek the advice of a professional building acoustic specialist early in the design process. Experienced acoustic consultants can identify potential concerns, make necessary calculations, and provide options of how to mitigate noise.
Not addressing this issue could affect the health and safety of restaurant employees and patrons; discourage return customers; cause violations in code, and potentially cost the restaurant owner thousands of dollars to correct with a retrofit.