Of Bells and Bubbles

The city of San Francisco, and the Bay Area in general, is known for its great range of eating options; from bargain bites to fancy dining, you can usually find something to satisfy almost any diner. In particular, San Francisco gets attention for the high number of cutting-edge restaurants it contains, and for the seriousness with which locals approach food and dining.

One effect of this phenomenon is the large amount of attention restaurant reviews get in local newspapers, especially in the San Francisco Chronicle. Every year, the Chronicle staff picks what it considers to be the Top 100 restaurants in the Bay Area, an effort spearheaded by critic and executive food and wine editor Michael Bauer. While I’ve been lucky enough to have visited some of the places that consistently make the list, there are always others I’m eager to try. But after reading a recent post on Bauer’s blog, Between Meals, I’m not so sure I’m missing anything.

In his post, titled Restaurants pump up the volume, Bauer discusses the growing trend of excessive noise at restaurants. He chalks it up to changes in architectural and interior design that incorporate “high ceilings, [and] hard surfaces,” and also to some diners’ preferences for a lively atmosphere. He also notes that since different people have different reactions to noise, for the past ten years the Chronicle has included a noise rating in their restaurant reviews. This system, which ranges from one bell (“pleasantly quiet” at under 65 decibels) to a bomb (“too noisy for normal conversation” at 80 decibels and above), is meant to help diners decide where to go for that special meal.

The problem is that—as Bauer himself points out—a huge percentage of well-reviewed restaurants fall at the noisier end of the spectrum. In fact, out of the Top 100 restaurants chosen by the Chronicle, 43 score a four bells rating (“can only talk in raised voices”) or above! Bauer also acknowledges that he doesn’t factor in this noisiness when determining how many stars to give a certain restaurant, whether when considering its food (understandable) or its ambience (not so understandable). Nothing about a restaurant’s ambiance affects me more than the sound level; it’s very hard for me to concentrate in loud environments, and it’s almost impossible for me to enjoy anything in that state.

To be fair, it’s the nature of popular restaurants to be crowded (and therefore somewhat noisy), but what bothers me is that some people see this as a positive thing. Chaos and hubbub are taken to mean that a place is really buzzing and trendy, and there is no reason not to add one’s own spirited conversation to the mix. Obviously, I feel differently. As I mentioned in an earlier post I think people should be responsible for how their second-hand noise affects other people, and telling those who prefer quiet to go somewhere else is unfair. Of course, dining at an expensive restaurant is a privilege, and not a right, but if these restaurants serve particularly excellent food, as the rave reviews would attest, quieter diners should have just as much access to it as those who are more boisterous.

I don’t absolve proprietors of their part in the problem either; many things can be done to tone down the noise level that aren’t always done. However, I think the greater issue is the growing noisiness of society in general; how we are more and more enveloped by noise when in the public space (at least in my urban experience). From excessively loud cell phone conversations to blaring music to nonstop traffic sounds, it’s no wonder many people now insulate themselves through the constant use of music players such as iPods. However, I don’t necessarily see this as a positive trend; it seems to reinforce the illusion that we can create our own bubble, and can ignore those around us. This is just the other side of the coin; those who are excessively loud seem to feel they are in a bubble as well.

Another article from the San Francisco Chronicle last week points this out beautifully. In it, columnist C.W. Nevius responds to the recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to continue its ban on cell phone use on airplanes. Making a point about how annoying it is to be subject to another’s cell phone whims, Nevius tells the story of a man who was forced to listen in on a loud phone conversation taking place a few steps away from him in a coffee shop. After the two men made eye contact, the caller approached the first man and stated: “I’m engaging in a private conversation here. Could you move down a couple of tables so you aren’t listening in?” For all my aversion to noise, that kind of comment really makes me want to scream.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

5 Responses to “Of Bells and Bubbles”

  1. Cloud said:

    Dining at ANY private establishment is a privilege. While I do not enjoy excessive noise and hate having to raise my voice, I cannot simply place blame on those who have a loud establishment. Nobody has a right to enjoy the great food of a great restaurant at whatever noise level they want. If a restaurant serves excellent seafood, attested to by rave reviews, should people that don’t eat seafood have a right to enjoy the kitchen’s culinary work with respect to a different kind of dish? No. What any restaurant serves and how they serve it is their choice.

    On the other hand, I applaud the fact that you’re here vouching for our preferences.

  2. Cat said:

    I agree with you Spectatrix. Although I can be oblivious at times to the noise I’m contributing to a particular venue, I have no qualms about chastising others for being the same.

    Also, I’d love it if reviews made a mention of the temperature in each restaurant. I hate eating when I’m shivering.

  3. Sari said:

    I agree that people are becoming more noisy in general. Though, I must say I don’t know if it’s more about people being in a “bubble” and not realizing their actions affect others, but rather not thinking societal norms and rules of etiquitte apply to them. When did “it’s my right” become the excuse for a good portion of inconsiderate behavior? I had no idea bad manners was an inalienable right.

    Although, I feel that sometimes excessive noise can be the fault of the restaurant. When the music is up too loud or the music is exceptionally fast (like techno or trance) patrons are more likely to raise their voices over the din to talk with their dinner companions. On the other hand, restaurants with the music at a low volume (or no music at all) tend to have fewer people talking loudly. Sometimes subtle cues on appropriate noise level (quieter servers, low-volume music, etc) can keep noise at bay.

  4. spectatrix said:


    You make a very good point, but I might argue that these restaurants are not exactly private establishments. They do invite the public in, and don’t have overt restrictions on who can or cannot be there (unlike a private club, for example). And if they did have such restrictions, I don’t think it would go down very well. Just as there has been greater attention paid to making restaurants smoke-free and family-friendly (in some cases), perhaps if restaurateurs were informed about how noise affects some of their customers, they might make changes. I think it is in their best interests to keep potential patrons happy.


    I agree that loud music can be a huge part of the problem. I think it’s a great point that restaurants are sometimes setting the expectations through their choices about what is an acceptable background noise level.

  5. Chocolatesa said:

    That story about the guy talking on the phone makes me want to scream too!!!