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Turning down the volume

August 16, 2007 | 10:40 am

    I must get more letters complaining about the noise level at various restaurants than I get on any other subject. We all expect bistros and trattorias and burger joints to be boisterous and loud. Observe the crowd at any Italian restaurant -- enoteca, trattoria, osteria or ristorante. It’s not just the Dino singing “Amore” that ratchets up the decibels. Caught up in the spirit of la bella Italia, everybody is knocking back Sangiovese or Nebbiolo, talking up a storm and waving their hands, like, well, Italians. And as the exuberant folks at each table strain to make themselves heard over the crowd, the room gets louder and louder.
    Add in a pulsing rock music track, such as that at Pizzeria Mozza, and you may as well give up on any real conversation. The music is meant to give the room some energy. (It also deters diners from lingering.) Turn off the soundtrack for a few minutes though, and the room feels oddly hollow, and lonely. It needs the music. Maybe just not so loud.
    Silence is deadly. Or so most restaurateurs must think. It’s not as if most restaurant-goers would be put off their food without the constant assault of that wall of sound. The fancier places used to be exempt, except for the occasional pianist tinkling out standards, but no more. With the demise of the tablecloth, which used to help dampen the sound, and bare walls and windows everywhere, it can be just as hard to have a conversation at an expensive restaurant as anywhere else. Even hotel dining rooms, once morosely silent, are amped up now. Think Simon L.A. at the Sofitel or Whist at the Viceroy. Or, shudder, the restaurant at the W.
    Often I find myself, after dinner, standing outside a restaurant having the conversation I wanted to have with my friends inside if we'd only been able to hear each other. It's crazy.
    Funny thing, I can’t remember any meal in France or Italy where I ever felt the restaurant was too loud. (I do remember having lunch at a two-star restaurant where people were whispering. The atmosphere was so funereal, we asked  to eat outside on the terrace.) Part of the difference is that European restaurants tend to have a more traditional design.  Curtains, tablecloths, upholstered chairs, rugs, all help to absorb sound. Restaurants tend to be smaller too. And frankly, I think Americans are louder.
    Lately, when someone writes in asking for a recommendation for a quiet restaurant, I’m stymied. I can only offer the advice to go on a quieter weeknight, or else early or very late, banking that the dining room won’t be full up at either time.
    Any other ideas?
-- S. Irene Virbila