Why Are Restaurants So Loud? Turns Out There Are Several Reasons

Excessive noise is the top complaint of most diners. Does it bother you?

I consider going out to eat one of the most pleasurable life experiences that money can buy. Although I love trying new restaurants, there’s one aspect of dining out that is definitely bothers me, and that’s just how loud some restaurants can be.

Struggling to hear my dining companions can really put a damper on an otherwise great night out. When you combine loud music with the already overwhelming din of conversation and clattering dishes, that can be enough to drive me away, even if the cuisine and service are top-notch.

restaurant photo
Getty Images | Andrew Burton

If you’re like me and can’t stand loud restaurants, you’re not alone. In fact, surveys from Zagat and Consumer Reports have found excessive noise levels to be the top complaint of diners. So if it’s potentially driving customers away, why do restaurateurs not do something about noise levels?

Journalist Julia Belluz recently wondered the same thing and sought out an answer — eventually writing about it for Vox. She discovered several reasons for the loud atmosphere that seems to plague many popular restaurants in America.

What’s With The Noise?

One reason restaurants are noisy is because a certain amount of sound lends ambiance to the dining room. After all, restaurants are all about allowing customers to enjoy the finer things in life, as well as relaxing and celebrating. Nobody who runs a restaurant wants their place to feel like a library.

“When I go around town to hot restaurants, they are all pretty noisy, for a lot of reasons, I think,” Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema told Belluz for Vox. “But partly I blame it on restaurants, because you’re looking to create buzz or energy in dining rooms. No one wants to walk into a mausoleum.”

empty restaurant photo
Flickr | Dušan Šimonovič

Another possible culprit, at least as it pertains to restaurants in the United States, may be the fact that Americans are simply louder than people in other cultures.

“When Europeans imitate Americans, they shout,” Sietsema said. “We tend to be louder people — we’re louder talkers; we’re bigger with our expressions.”

Yet another issue that contributes to the noise level is the interior design of restaurants, where taking acoustics into account doesn’t seem to be a big priority.

“[Modern restaurants] are designed with looks rather than comfort in mind,” Jeremy Luscombe, of the acoustics treatment company Resonics, told New Statesman in 2016. “Acoustics is an afterthought. Architects often don’t take it into account when designing a space.”

As modern American restaurants have moved away from natural sound dampeners like carpeting and tablecloths, they’ve only gotten louder.


A more cynical point of view is that the excessive noise is actually being used as a device by restaurant owners to make more money, as it may prod diners to eat more quickly, enabling the restaurant to turn more tables.

The problem can also be compounding, due to a phenomenon known as the the Lombard effect.

“First described by Etienne Lombard in 1911, the Lombard effect is a phenomenon in which speakers alter their vocal production in noisy environments, such as loud parties or restaurants,” said Priscilla Lau of the University of California-Berkeley in a 2008 phonology lab report.

People are speaking louder to combat the noise, which only makes the problem worse.


How To Beat The Noise

If you don’t want to give up restaurant meals but hate coming home with a headache, there are some strategies you can use to lower the volume, so to speak.

First, you can try to dine at less popular times, which would obviously mean less customers and, naturally, less noise. You can also try to avoid tables where the noise level is too high. Another option is to download a decibel-reading app to give yourself an idea of how loud the places are that you frequent. For iPhone users, the NIOSH Sound Level Meter is a solid choice and for Android users, Sound Meter is a highly rated app.

I’ve also noticed that if the weather allows and you go to a restaurant that offers the option to dine outside, this can significantly reduce the volume.

Do loud restaurants bother you?