Philadelphia's bustling restaurant scene has been generating plenty of buzz. In fact, on busy nights, it can be almost unbearable.
To the chagrin of diners nostalgic for the hushed, white-tablecloth dining rooms of decades past, the city's current generation of trendy eateries - with their polished-concrete floors, bare tables, and echoingly high ceilings - has been accompanied by a considerable din.
The acoustics are partially a function of interior design. But many restaurant owners also prefer to cultivate a cheerful racket.
"A lot of the restaurateurs seem to think that young people want it to be loud and noisy," said Lynn Godmilow, a Rittenhouse Square resident. "But it's not what anyone over 40 wants."
Godmilow was speaking at a meeting of Friends in the City, an "active older adults" group that is attempting to organize around this shared peeve.
Moderating the event was Dane Wells, a retiree who lives near Rittenhouse and dines out often, armed with a hearing aid and a decibel-reading app that he can, when necessary, brandish while complaining to a manager.
"We need to speak up," he told the 40 or so attendees, summarizing in a sentence both the problem and his proposed solution.
"Those of you that have smartphones, get that decibel meter. When you make a reservation, ask for a quiet table. This will start sending a message."
His decibel meter often creeps into the low 90s - a level somewhere between truck traffic and a jackhammer. (For context, 75 decibels or quieter is ideal; see accompanying noise sidebar.)
It's not just Wells getting grumpier as he ages: Those in the industry concede that restaurants have been getting noisier, sometimes by design.
"People have gravitated, over the last couple years, to spaces that have more exposed surfaces, harder surfaces, and generally have more energy - noise - than their predecessors," said Chris Sheffield, of SL Design in Kensington, a specialist in restaurant interiors. "It's all a part of taking the formality out of fine dining."
Although he often suggests acoustic treatments, "it's not as high on the list of priorities for many of our clients as it might have been a decade ago."
Wells and his wife, Joan, convened a panel of experts to discuss the issue: Penn Medicine audiologist Linda Ronis-Kass; Terry Tyson of the acoustics consultancy Acentech; and Sydney Stewart, an architect with Starr Restaurants.
Attendees wanted to know: What can restaurants do? Are they blasting music on purpose? And is it a tactic to profit from our hearing loss? (Studies have found that loud music incites customers to chew faster and drink more.)
Stewart had not heard of any such scheme. On the contrary, she said, managing acoustics is a focus for Starr: "I believe we do a very good job in our restaurants with acoustic quality. When we don't, we remediate."
That was the case at Parc, the Rittenhouse brasserie where noise measured 94 decibels at opening in 2008, according to Inquirer critic Craig LaBan. (He has been taking such readings for the last 15 years, and has logged a steady fortissimo in the city's dining rooms as interest in eating out has grown.)
Starr's team added acoustic trim in the bar and dining room at Parc. It reduced the reverberation, Stewart said, though few would describe the restaurant as quiet today.
Stewart said the company has brought in sound engineers to consult and hired scenic artists - for example, to paint a fiber ceiling to look like plaster. (Yet Jones, another Starr restaurant, was among the noisiest ever logged by The Inquirer, one of few to break the 100-decibel mark.)
Tyson, of Acentech, said he doesn't get as many calls from restaurants as he'd like.
"I've had the experience of trying to talk to the manager and say, There is a solution to this problem - if you'd recognize there was a problem," he said.
Sound waves, he explained, are like rubber balls, bouncing around until they are absorbed by soft materials or released out open windows. Carpets, curtains, and tablecloths all help; as those have gone out of style, replaced by sound-reflecting bare surfaces, the din has worsened.
Wells asked about another innovation he'd read about: systems that can deaden the noise in a room, then reintroduce artificial reverberation via speakers.
"It only costs a quarter of a million dollars," Tyson said.
Most local restaurateurs don't have that kind of money. They've taken varied approaches - some proactive, others reactive.
At Le Virtu in South Philadelphia, where the decibel-meter hit 91, it was a scramble. "We learned the hard way the discomfort our guests were experiencing," said co-owner Francis Cretola. He got a skilled staffer to install acoustic panels.
Later, at Brigantessa, he hoped wood floors would quell the din. They didn't. "As soon as we saved more money," he said, "we had the same employee install larger, denser panels."
At Russet, in a high-ceilinged Center City rowhouse, Andrew Wood replaced echoing terra-cotta floors with soft linoleum. But decibel readings exceeded 90, and Yelpers yelped. He put fiber panels on the ceiling to muffle the clangor.
Greg Vernick, whose eponymous Rittenhouse restaurant contained a 93-decibel din, said he's constantly looking for new ways to dampen the noise - without adding tablecloths. Before opening, he added sound-absorbing paint and pads under the chairs and tables. Later, when he registered the sheer volume he was up against, he installed acoustic panels in the upstairs dining room. "That made a big difference," he said. "It's still loud up here, but it doesn't echo as much." Some of the panels are laser-printed with travel photographs, so they look like stretched canvases instead of soundproofing.
Nearby, Pub & Kitchen and Fitler Dining Room both opened with acoustic treatments, co-owner Dan Clark said. At Fitler, acoustic panels are camouflaged by a coffered ceiling. But each still hit 93 decibels on LaBan's visits.
Clark acknowledged that linens and carpets would help. "But our restaurants aren't designed around that style," he said.
So, he deploys advanced-seating theory: "You never want to put two eight-tops next to each other, because the noise will take over the restaurant. Each group will keep talking louder to be heard."
That's what tends to happen at Zeppoli, the Collingswood Italian spot that was the only restaurant to be docked a bell in The Inquirer's ratings based on noise alone (it reached 102 decibels on LaBan's meter).
Since then, chef-owner Joey Baldino has spent well more than $1,000 on a consultant who advised putting acoustic padding under tables and chairs and a coat of sound-absorbant paint. He gave it a shot.
"Unfortunately, it really made little to no difference," he said. The floor is still tile, the tables are still bare wood, the space is still small, and the kitchen still open. "At this point, Zeppoli is what it is: It's a loud restaurant. Sicilians in nature are loud people. It's really like you're in Sicily when you come here."
Despite the compounding din, restaurateurs prefer a noisy space to a dead one.
Stephen Starr has said numerous times to LaBan's noise concerns in the past: A noisy restaurant is the sound of a successful restaurant.
At some Vetri restaurants - which range from boisterous Pizzeria Vetri (94 decibels) to intimate Vetri (80 decibels) - there are acoustic treatments. But energy is desirable, general manager Jeff Benjamin said. "Comfort of the guest is always a high priority," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean lower noise levels equal guest satisfaction."
At Starr restaurants, Stewart explained, managers try to keep music just above voice level.
"For us," she said, "it's very important that you don't hear the people at the table next to you."
But if you can't even hear the people at your own table, the best recourse is to contact a manager, she said, or go to social media.
Otherwise, Ronis-Kass, the audiologist, had a few ideas: Go outside and take a break from a loud room every 20 minutes or so. If you're hard of hearing (or wearing hearing aids), try to sit with your back to the din.
And if all else fails, she added, "everyone is capable of lip reading."
The Inquirer's restaurant critic, Craig LaBan, has been measuring noise at restaurants for more than 15 years. "The upshot is that almost every restaurant I write about is way too loud - by audiologist standards," he says. He logged the noise on an iPhone app that takes decibel readings, (which are measures of sound intensity rather than loudness). Where remediation was done, we checked back in to assess the impact.
More than 100 decibels
Jones, 700 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. Double-height ceilings, stone columns, background music, and crowds that can include martini-swilling adults and shrieking kids all helped Jones break the 100-decibel barrier. On a recent lunchtime revisit, though, it was a moderate 77 decibels despite being mostly full.
Zeppoli, 618 Collings Ave., Collingswood. Despite efforts to calm the noise, owner Joey Baldino concedes, "it's like a party in here." A handful of acoustic interventions are no match for large glass windows, tiled floors, and groups of boisterous diners. The noise levels reached 102 decibels on LaBan's visit. Even on a mostly empty weeknight, it measured 78 decibels.
More than 90 decibels
Pizzeria Vetri, 1939 Callowhill St., Philadelphia. Rating 94 decibels on a weekend night, this pizzeria is arguably Vetri's loudest restaurant (Amis, in Center City, was close at 93 decibels). Tiled walls, open kitchen, double-height ceilings, and big windows keep the noise ricocheting. A recent visit was at 83 decibels with windows open and a third of tables empty.
Parc, 227 S. 18th St., Philadelphia. This always-bustling Rittenhouse Square brasserie is known for its buzz, with its tiled floors, bare tables, zinc bar, and roaring crowds. It hit 94 decibels on LaBan's visit, though some acoustic remediation has been done since. During a recent happy hour, with windows open out onto the park, the reading was a more moderate 81 decibels.
Vernick Food and Drink, 2031 Walnut St., Philadelphia. Greg Vernick said remediating the acoustics in his restaurant, a bi-level space, has been a four-phase process that's still ongoing. Downstairs noise drifting upward, plus large groups of diners, brought the volume in the upstairs dining room to 93 decibels when LaBan stopped in. On a recent night, with windows open, it was a less-jarring 85 decibels.
The decibel scale, which measures the intensity of sounds, is logarithmic: An increase of 10 decibels means that a sound is 10 times more powerful, or twice as loud. Here are some points of comparison for various decibel readings - and what they mean for your hearing.
130dB - Jet takeoff or shotgun
120 - Thunderclap
110 - Rock concert
Risk of hearing loss with regular exposure of more than 1 minute
100 - Train or garbage truck
No more than 15 minutes unprotected exposure recommended
90 - Passing motorcycle
Prolonged exposure can cause gradual hearing loss
80 - Garbage disposal or city traffic
70 - Hairdryer or vacuum cleaner
Volumes of 75 decibels or less are considered safe
SOURCE: National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders Information Clearinghouse