Taking noise off the menu

Does visiting a restaurant with loud music leave a bitter taste in your mouth? Oxford University experimental psychologist, Charles Spence, could have an explanation for that. His research has revealed strong links between noise and taste, meaning dining out is not just about the food.

Noise can have a positive impact on our dining experience. Certain sounds enhance tastes. For example, classical music may add to the perceived quality of wine and food. Loud background noise can suppress sweet and salty tastes. High pitched notes bring out the perceived sweetness of food, while base notes affect bitter flavours.

An online survey of 1,200 people revealed 91% would not return to a noisy restaurant. Renowned US author and food critic, Thomas McNamee, points out that changes in our hormone levels can be triggered by high levels of background noise. He wrote that noise raises levels of adrenaline, norepinhephrine, and worse, even cortisols, which can create the sensation of anxiety and even fear.

A lot of unwanted noise can overwhelm the senses and become a distraction. It might mean you’re less able to taste your food or hear your fellow diners. An additional issue can be misheard orders, resulting in the wrong food being served. Under these conditions, diners could decide not to return to the restaurant.

Intrusive background noise is becoming a major problem in restaurants, cafes and pubs. Charity, Action for Hearing (AfH), reports that of the website review writers it surveyed, half mentioned high noise levels while dining out. An earlier report found that 79% of those surveyed had left a restaurant early, perhaps foregoing dessert, resulting in a loss of revenue for the restaurant, all due to excess noise.

AfH chief executive, Paul Breckell, said: “These results demonstrate the business case for restaurants putting some real consideration into their acoustics. There are over 11 million people in the UK that have some degree of hearing loss and they are beginning to spend money elsewhere. Everyone loves going out for a meal but with an increasing variety of takeaway options and the intrusive background noise levels exacerbated by fashionable hard surfaces, it’s no wonder customers are opting to stay in. It’s entirely reasonable for customers to expect to hear companions sat opposite them.”

The trend for using hard building materials in restaurant design can add to the problem. To reduce the effect, Charles Spence recommends restaurants make simple changes such as adding absorbing materials: cushions, table cloths and drapery. To really get to grips with controlling sound, acoustic ceilings and wall panels are far more effective and can blend in easily with the interior design.

A smooth, monolithic, white, class A sound absorbent ceiling has been installed to control reverberation at Dublin landmark, Bewley’s Grafton Street, while integrating with the building’s period features

A smooth, monolithic, white, class A sound absorbent ceiling has been installed to control reverberation at Dublin landmark, Bewley’s Grafton Street, while integrating with the building’s period features

A good example of how an acoustic ceiling has transformed the atmosphere in an eating establishment for the better, is the €12million restoration of the iconic Dublin landmark Bewley’s Grafton Street. The interior of Bewley’s features mahogany panelling, stained-glass windows and mosaic floors that could generate distracting background noise, particularly when the café is busy. A smooth, monolithic, white, class A sound absorbent ceiling is now installed to control reverberation and seamlessly integrate with the building’s period features.

Irwin Carr consulting senior consultant acoustician, Malachy McAlister, advised on improvements to the acoustics at Bewley’s. He is impressed with how effectively the monolithic ceiling reduced the level of reverberation. “We were able to determine the additional absorption provided by the new ceiling by undertaking acoustic tests before and after its installation. Our measurements show the acoustic ceiling reduced the reverberation time from 1.1 seconds to 0.7 seconds, a 35% reduction in sound reverberation.”

Bewley’s Grafton Street assistant general manager, Andrew Griffin, noticed a big improvement straight away. “Before the new ceiling, the noise levels could get very high, making it difficult to hear what customers are saying. Now the feel of the café has changed; it is much calmer and more relaxed.”

Ceiling islands are another excellent solution for creating a comfortable acoustic environment and enhancing a restaurant’s interior. The Mikkeller bar in Taipei, Taiwan, has a bright, simple and minimalistic Scandinavian style. Frameless acoustic ceiling islands have a smooth, super white surface which provides high light reflection and make a visually-appealing addition to the bar’s design. Ceiling islands offer versatility as they work equally well in either modern interiors or historic buildings and can be installed as a retrofit if needed.

If increasing the acoustic performance of the ceiling is not a viable option, or additional sound control is required after ceiling improvements have been made, installing acoustic wall panels is a highly effective way of reducing the impact of noise. Available in a wide range of sizes and colours, they can create striking wall designs either on their own or as part of an overall interior style.

Consulting with an acoustician or a reputable manufacturer of sound absorbent ceilings and wall systems at the beginning of the project will ensure your restaurant interior offers a comfortable and enjoyable dining experience for customers who will want to recommend and return to.