Shhhh! How to Control Restaurant Noise Levels

When it comes to restaurant noise levels, bad acoustics can stick out like a sore thumb and leave patrons feeling disappointed with their dining experience. Restaurateurs often look to designers and acoustic experts to help them achieve the specific sound levels they're looking for—whether it's pin-drop quiet fine dining or a lively bar.

Karen Herold of Studio K Creative, a restaurant design firm based in Chicago, and Michael Brown of Newson Brown Acoustics, an acoustics consulting firm based out of Santa Monica, shared some of their tips in regard to the element of sound in a restaurant.

Defining Ambiance and Budget

Herold and Brown agree that the first step to planning the sound in a restaurant is to define what you hope to achieve. Do you want your restaurant to feel like it's the perfect spot to have intimate conversations or do you want it to have more of an upbeat, hip feel? The second consideration is budget. "Most people don't realize that sound can be a really expensive part," says Herold.

Once you decide on these two initial factors, Brown says there are usually two major acoustical considerations in play. The first, he says, is appropriately controlling the buildup of noise in the dining space due to customers' conversations. Then, you'll have to appropriately limit noise transfer from the kitchen and the back of the house to the dining area.

Controlling Noise in the Dining Room

For the dining space, both Herold and Brown agree that, if possible, the ceiling is the best place to apply acoustic materials. "The more hollow the ceiling, the more sound will just travel back to you," says Herold. There are many materials that can be applied to the ceiling, ranging from black foam that attaches to concrete or steel, to an acoustically sound fabric that looks like drywall. Brown says you should look for materials that have a high noise reduction coefficient (NRC) and also meet other goals of the project, such as hygiene and aesthetics. "The NRC of a material is usually very low (less than 0.1) for glass and polished concrete, and therefore, such materials do little to diminish the potential for noise buildup in a space," says Brown. "Selection of a ceiling finish material with a 0.7 NRC rating or above is often sufficient to minimize the potential for complaints." Luckily, some buildings do the work for you by featuring slanted walls or high ceilings that dissipate noise on their own.

There are other ways to control restaurant noise levels beyond the ceiling. Herold worked on the design of Maple & Ash in Chicago where they used white cloth tablecloths that made a tremendous difference in the noise levels. Some restaurants also add acoustical material under the tables, and Herold recommends considering the sound level and type of music you'll play as you plan to control noise in your establishment.

Controlling Noise from the Kitchen

When it comes to kitchen noise, Brown was faced with a particular challenge with the restaurant Patina. Because it's adjacent to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, noise from the kitchen couldn't be disruptive to the symphony. "The major challenge was control of 'structure-borne' noise," he says. "Tests we conducted in the restaurant shell prior to build-out demonstrated that any significant impact or vibration transmitted into the kitchen structure would result in audible noise in the Concert Hall." To rectify the issue, the team separated chopping surfaces and machinery where it was practical, and used a combination of resilient materials and air spaces. "This was not simple, given Health Department requirements to keep surfaces smooth and hygienic," says Brown.

Herold and Brown agree that sound is a huge undertaking and often involves pulling in specialists to make sure that restaurant noise doesn't become a deterrent to business. "Ambient sound creates energy," says Herold. "It's important to know this as a restaurant operator." To help you control restaurant noise levels in your restaurant, consider their advice and how you can start implementing some of their tips today.