Waiter! I can't hear myself speak

Jason Atherton, whose Social Restaurant Group is circling the globe, once told me he was inspired by the Stanton Social in New York. The chef said he loved the conviviality, the hospitality, the buzz.

Ah yes, the buzz. I visited New York and made my way to that inspirational Lower East Side restaurant, with its ground-floor dining room and a bar up a flight of stairs. 

What Atherton, 43, experienced as a buzz was, for me, a ringing in the ears. It was loud - so loud that I had no interest in staying, even for a drink.

Then I found that other New York restaurants and bars were noisy too. Babbo, DBGB, Employees Only, Fatty Crab: All were too loud for me and I realised this was the soundtrack to getting old. Music and conversation bouncing off walls held no appeal.

It helps to know I am not alone.

"Bad acoustics are a deal breaker," says Mick Hucknall, 55, a singer and songwriter who achieved international fame with his band Simply Red. "If I can't hear my friends speak, I'll avoid going back." See? There's no holding back the years.

Actor Stanley Tucci, 54, known for movies such as The Hunger Games (2012-2014) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006), also finds some venues too loud.

"It's a very delicate balance," he says. "I do like to have music sometimes, but I don't like loud music. I don't get it. I find it distracting. I want to hear the people around me."

It's a thin line between noisy and buzzy. Part of it is down to 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," explains Ms Priscilla Lau of University of California-Berkeley in a 2008 phonology lab report. 

In other words, diners speak loudly in loud restaurants and then the people at neighbouring tables turn up the volume of their own speech in order to be heard.

One of the main reasons restaurants are becoming louder in the first place is that once-fashionable soft furnishings are being abandoned in favour of sleek, modern designs. To put that more simply, carpets and tablecloths are going out of fashion.

"Industrial designs with concrete finishes and hard surfaces mean noise is propelled around the room," says Mr Jeremy Luscombe of Resonics, a company that helps restaurants reduce noise levels with acoustic panels for walls and ceilings. 

Open kitchens are another factor. "Kitchens can be quite noisy places, closed off from the dining room," Mr Luscombe says.

"Restaurants now try to integrate the kitchen, which can lead to a lot of noise spillover."

Restaurateurs are aware that noise can be an irritant for some diners.

"Acoustics are always of paramount importance in a restaurant," says Mr Jeremy King, who owns several of London's most fashionable restaurants with his business partner, Chris Corbin.

"They determine the balance between the attractive buzz of a desirable ambience and the clattering cacophony of sound that soon alienates anyone over 30. It is one of the first considerations we make when designing a restaurant."

This isn't only a matter of aural aesthetics. Loud restaurants are an unwelcoming environment for people who can't hear so well, which often means the elderly, according to Ms Laura Matthews, senior researcher and policy officer for the British charity Action on Hearing Loss. 

"Noise interferes in communication," she says. "A lot of people, when they get older, find it more difficult to distinguish speech from background noise, so it can become really difficult in restaurants and cafes. We are planning a campaign to raise awareness of this issue."

Other forms of age discrimination are illegal. It's time chefs stopped acoustic discrimination against older diners. Turn down the volume.


•Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2015, with the headline 'Waiter! I can't hear myself speak'. Subscribe