Reader: I'm looking for a quiet restaurant, but all the places you visit seem to be too loud, based on your decibel readings. Do quiet restaurants even exist?
Craig LaBan: SORRY? WHAT WAS THAT??
You've just asked one of the most frequent questions I get from readers — and one I've increasingly had difficulty answering. That's in large part a result of both restaurant design trends and changes in sound-measuring technology, and they are the primary reasons I've decided to do away with the decibel readings — for now — and pay closer attention to what restaurant noise means in more direct terms for the dining experience.
Let me explain. The short answer to your question is no. There really are very few quiet restaurants in Philly that either (1) are not half-empty, or (2) measure up to the decibel standards we established in 2002 when I met with an audiologist who recommended a proper device for measuring sound (a clunky Radio Shack special) and launched many years of sound measuring in restaurants.
In fact, that earliest recommended target number for a "quiet restaurant" — 70 decibels — instantly proved to be an unattainable audiologist's library dream, so we bumped up that baseline to a somewhat more reasonable 75 decibels. Even that, however, became an almost impossible number to hit as Philly's restaurant scene energetically took off, and was fueled by cozy BYOBs with little budget for soundproofing, boisterous-by-nature gastropubs, and increasingly casual venues that deliberately stripped away the tablecloths and carpet as a design statement to channel the zeitgeist of leaving fine dining behind. (Hard surfaces, by the way, also are cheaper to maintain.)
As my own ears adjusted to the new normal, I began to consider any place that hovered around 80 decibels to be manageable for conversation. Then my trusty old sound meter died (along with the local Radio Shack to replace it). Of course, there are plenty of phone apps out there now that measure sound, and I've used several of them for years, with mixed success. I've found them to be incredibly inconsistent, with wide variation between readings on different apps, even when cross-referenced at the same meal. So which numbers should I rely on? Ultimately, I've come to believe that those situational readings are less valuable at this point than simply relying on my own senses and experience to tell you whether conversation at a restaurant is a breeze or a chore.
And I will. In recent weeks, I've praised places that spent the money to invest in artfully hidden but effective sound-proofing from the start, like Spice Finch, or went to the trouble of adding expensive but meaningful upgrades to an existing space, like Friday Saturday Sunday, whose once un-talkable second-floor dining room is now manageable for conversation over a special meal. I wouldn't call it "quiet," per se, but it's not so noisy, either, that it gets in the way of the pleasure of dinner. My recent dining guide focus on classic restaurants was a fine reminder that older restaurants still value cushy ambiance. Places like La Famiglia, the Saloon, Bibou, Townsend, and Mustard Greens remain, on the whole, quiet survivors.
Of course, there are still plenty of noise-bomb newcomers whose lack of consideration for diner comfort will be loudly chastised in their reviews. As we continue to mature as a restaurant scene, it only makes sense that we start to value that aspect of more sophisticated design, as well. I'll be sure to shout about it when the occasion arises — just to make sure I'm heard.