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The Cottage, a Café in Bothell.

Commercial, Third Places

Are Loud Restaurants Really Worth It?

There are certainly reasons why some chefs and restaurant owners prefer a loud space. And, some restaurant patrons enjoy it, too, at least for a little while. Here are a few reasons why loud restaurants exist and a few ways we could make them a little quieter, while still keeping a business profitable.

October 24, 2019

Lately, there has been a lot of press about the rising frustration with loud restaurants. Frankly, it has been incredibly satisfying to see. Why? Because you see, I hate loud restaurants. Like, really, truly, deeply, hate them.

Let’s digest this for a minute. Why are restaurants so loud?

There are a lot of reasons why restaurants are loud, and while I won’t single out any particular case, there are a few common reasons restaurants end up being loud:

  • Often, the desired aesthetic is composed of hard materials, like concrete or tile, and that means horrible acoustics.
  • A loud restaurant, even when it is not totally full, sounds busy. And a busy-sounding restaurant means that a patron can walk in and not get spooked by a half-empty place and turn around right out the door. Loud restaurants can be good for business.
  • A loud restaurant means that people don’t linger chatting, so tables turn over faster.

Many of the reasons above have to do with making money. You may think, “Screw those greedy restaurant owners,” but really, making a profit running a restaurant is no easy affair in any city, and the cost of doing business in Seattle is expensive. There’s no getting around it, so owners are doing all sorts of creative things to stay in business. I bet most of you would be shocked at how few places we love to eat at in Seattle actually make any profit at all. So, it is easy to give them a pass when they’re coming up with creative ways to make some money and keep those doors open.

But, is it really worth it for a restaurant to be that loud?

My fear, though, is that by focusing on a short term experience the longer-term prospects are hurting. I may go to a buzz-worthy loud restaurant once, or even twice, but after that, it becomes just too painful. Wouldn’t it be better to design an experience that creates a visual buzz even with limited patrons (so no one gets scared away if the place isn’t totally full), while allowing for quiet(er) conversations? A longer meal can also mean opportunities to increase what a patron is spending on their bar tab (almost universally the highest profit maker), mitigating the table turnover concern.

Interior photo of a neighborhood commercial shop and café.
Sound Mitigation

Ever notice that big mobile at Ada’s and how quiet the table area is even in such a voluminous space? You need things for sound to bounce around on so it doesn't come back and assault your ears.

Additionally, a well-designed material palette can absolutely include hard surfaces while balancing them with acoustic strategies that don’t allow sound to bounce around like a never-ending ping pong ball of eardrum misery. There are great drywall products that suck up sound, dark fabric treatments that can be visually hidden, and ways to layer the textures of hard surfaces to absorb sound.

But really, I just want to go out to dinner and not have to scream. So please, restaurant owners, I hope you realize there’s a better way. I’m happy to show you, for my own sanity, and I know I'm not alone.

Update: The Seattle Times put together a list of Seattle's quietest spots to try out during restaurant week, if you'd like to experience what it's like to enjoy a meal out while not screaming.

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