By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
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On a Saturday evening at Green Papaya, glasses clink together and occasionally shatter. Doors creak open, allowing the sharp banter of pots and pans to spill from the kitchen. Voices blend into a consistent buzz, pierced by a bit of laughter here and there. Forks scrape, waiters call out, and music wafts above the din.
Another Saturday night out in Dallas, another assault on the eardrums.
Noise levels at restaurants cause more dissatisfaction among patrons than cost, service, cleanliness or even the size of portions, at least according to a National Restaurant Association survey. A publisher of restaurant guidebooks, Zagat, found that noise ranked second only to poor service in a list of problems cited by diners. "I don't usually enjoy loud places," says Dallas resident Tracy Schnyder. "I don't like screaming or being screamed at." Unfortunately for Schnyder and others like her, food service competes with sound systems, live music, open kitchens and the cacophony of noise building from every table in an establishment.
A bevy of research reports suggest some rather alarming consequences of noise pollution. According to the World Health Organization, for example, prolonged exposure to loud sounds potentially causes all kinds of health problems, ranging from hypertension to the heartbreak of psoriasis. Well, maybe not psoriasis. The constant pounding of modern life may also affect reading performance, problem-solving ability, attentiveness and memory. It may also affect memory. Oh, and attentiveness.
"You have to be hip now to be successful," says Mike Luther, regional manager for Sambuca. For many restaurants, including quiet, romantic spots, a combination of good food and music spells success. "It helps, because until you start to get full, you can pretty much hear everybody's conversation," explains Kala Gregor, co-owner of Hofstetter's, "and some people don't want to be heard.
Both loudness and length of exposure contribute to hearing problems, whether permanent or temporary. A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study conducted in 1998 found that humans could stand decibel levels of 110 dB for a minute and a half before sustaining some form of hearing damage, usually temporary. Babies scream at 110 dB. Drop the kid off with a baby sitter and head out to a techno club for a night of dancing, and your ears fight off another burst of 110 dB. Artillery fire--should you happen to get caught in a surprise barrage--pounds out an earsplitting 150 dB from 500 feet away.
Audiology experts claim loud restaurants register decibel levels averaging 85 dB--comparable to heavy traffic, ringing phones, vacuum cleaners or pop-up toasters. Professor Robert Sweetow, director of the audiology clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, claims that the noisiest restaurants may be damaging the hearing of waiters and others working full shifts during dinnertime rush, based on NIOSH standards setting a risk of hearing loss at 85 dB. In a study released last May, Sweetow and assistant Lisa Tate measured decibel levels ranging between 85.5 dB and 109 dB at five Bay Area establishments. When averaged over an eight-hour period, exposure ranged from 50.5 dB to 90 dB.
Many factors contribute to restaurant noise levels, including hard surfaces, high ceilings, open kitchens and large crowds. "This location is difficult," admits Luther of Sambuca, staring at his Addison restaurant. He fully understands the dynamics of sound. "There is a lot of concrete, open space, not enough buffers," he says, evaluating the interior. "But you can still enjoy a conversation."
Even Sweetow agrees that high noise levels pose little risk for restaurant patrons. "A diner is not at risk for permanent hearing loss," he says, "but people have a right to know what kind of environment they're walking into." Yet when Sweetow published his findings, he employed alarming language when discussing the threat to restaurant employees. "Sound levels of many routine activities have been measured at levels that could cause temporary or even permanent threshold shift, as well as tinnitus."
Roughly 30 million Americans are exposed daily to excessive occupational noise levels, and 120 million people worldwide suffer hearing difficulties, according to the World Health Organization, but an adult ear easily tolerates intermittent bursts up to 140 dB, and consistent exposure to average noise levels of 70 dB harms few people. Furthermore, the WHO states that an occupational exposure limit of 85 dB over an eight-hour day should protect most workers from permanent damage--something not mentioned in Sweetow's report.
Indeed, his "mini-study" assumes continuous average restaurant noise levels ranging from 50.5 dB (in a quiet bistro) to 90.1 dB (a restaurant/bar) over an eight-hour dinner rush, even though he acknowledges that the rush period typically lasts from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. That's roughly four hours.
From all of this, Sweetow concludes "that we can add yet another group of individuals, restaurant employees, to the list of workers who need hearing conservation programs."
Meanwhile, the beat goes on. Or, as Luther says, "we like to set a mood."