Dine: The sound and the foodie

In restaurants, noise has become a design feature, something restaurateurs are capturing, enhancing and filtering. They use noise in dining rooms as often as reclaimed wood or industrial materials. Unlike those static elements, noise is fluid as it shapes the mood of a dining room, creating an environment that can be inviting for some, alienating for others, but certainly cannot be ignored.

It didn't used to be this way, when white tablecloths at fancy restaurants were givens and French technique shaped haute cuisine.

Now, noise reinforces the raucousness of youth, especially attractive to many in Pittsburgh, which, until recently, had been known as home to more elderly folks than young professionals.

"I like it because it shows that people are having a good time," said Allie Contreras, bartender at Bar Marco in the Strip. In a former firehouse, the restaurant is small, yet cavernous ceilings and hard surfaces ensure it's often loud.

"Here, noise is warmth. It feels like home," Ms. Contreras said while working.

In some cases, noise transforms romance from ritualized to sexualized. Skip the three-course dinner and the formality. There's nothing like noise to force close talking and a pseudo-whisper into another's ear.

Cultivating noise is a nod to trends from other cities, where restaurant-bars moved playlists from inside the kitchen to the dining room with encouragement from chefs such as Mario Batali. This occurred en masse around 2008, when a Batali soundtrack included Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" and R.E.M.'s "Drive."

Inside noise can indicate the health of the business. Outside a restaurant, it can be a sign of a growing city. The rhythms of jackhammers, cars and trains are sounds of a vibrant economy.

Yet deafeningly loud dining rooms also can be damaging, especially to a restaurant worker who endures noise pollution day after day. Repeated exposure to noise above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss, says the National Institutes of Health. A phone app that measures sound decibels indicates that a person with perfect hearing can have a conversation in a dining room that is over 85 decibels. Many restaurants are more cacophonous.

Sleek minimalist designs have ushered in especially loud dining rooms, such as Verde Mexican Kitchen & Cantina in Garfield last year.

"When we first opened Verde, it was cement floors and floor-to-ceiling windows," said restaurateur Jeff Catalina. "We didn't know it until after we opened that there would be too much reverb." Shortly after opening, Mr. Catalina worked with Moss Architects to mute it by lining the ceiling with acoustic foam. This diminished the reverb without affecting the volume.

"You still want an energetic, lively atmosphere," he said. "The din of conversation and music and the sounds of cocktail shakers are a good thing."

When he opened Tender Bar & Kitchen in Lawrenceville in May, he said he transferred lessons from Verde. Fabric on banquettes, wallpaper and plush furniture helped mute noise without stifling the energy of the place.

Mr. Catalina also applied what he'd learned about music. "At Verde in the beginning, we only played Latin music," he said. "This became tiresome for employees and customers so we opened it up."

Over at Tender, period jazz rotates on a playlist that includes Jimi Hendrix and Frankie Valli. "Over there, it's an American playlist," he said.

As a frequent diner, I am surprised at how often noise is a substitute for conversation, encouraging people to talk to their phones rather than being present at the table. At one bar I noticed not a single patron was able to talk aloud over the music. So instead they talked with their hands, touching or texting.

Noise also can heighten anxiety as it can make basic social situations stressful. At a communal table on a Sunday this spring, I was seated with a group of people I'd just met. Shouting over the din made for a less than ideal way to get to know new people, especially when only every fourth word is audible. Even warm noise of a happy Sunday supper made it difficult to connect.

Some say noise makes people feel more a part of a scene or a community. And conversely, quiet restaurants make some diners feel alone, a scenario that's becoming a rarity with smartphones and social media.

"I don't like when it's quiet here," said Ms. Contreras. "It makes me feel uncomfortable." When patrons are in the restaurant, she said, quiet makes her feel like she's not doing her job well.

She's not the only one. "Silence equals death" isn't just a political statement but speaks to the fear quiet can conjure among those not used to it.

As noisy restaurants proliferate, perhaps quiet dining will eventually become something to cherish rather than avoid. Quiet would be luxurious -- as decadent as black truffles, as coveted as foie gras.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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