Restaurants exercise sound judgment

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2012 - 11:07 AM

Establishments are striving to have customers hear a buzz -- and one another.

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Can you hear me now? Restaurants are trying to strike the right balance of noise.

Photo: Hyoun-Suk Moon, The (Colorado Springs) Gazette

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When they opened the original Heidi's in south Minneapolis, Stewart and Heidi Woodman offered super food, a stellar beverage list and a swell ambience. The packed houses they deservedly drew, however, became too much of a good thing for one reason:

Noise. And not just noise, but a cacophonous clamor that was forcing tablemates to bellow at one another between bites of braised lamb shanks and sips of syrah.

The Woodmans loved the tin ceiling -- "You really don't want to throw panels up there; you want to show it off as much as possible," Stewart said -- and needed to retain the tight quarters between tables. Enlisting the help of a close friend who works as a sound expert, they doubled up on tablecloths and installed leather banquettes, "so that people wouldn't have to scream at each other."

In an era in which restaurateurs seek out old spaces and share buildings with condo dwellers or hotel guests, this kind of sound judgment is as important as sourcing food and hiring the right people.

"You can hear each other at the table, can barely hear the music in the background and not hear people at other tables, that's the ideal vibe," said Richard D'Amico, CEO of D'Amico & Partners and a longtime proprietor of both casual and formal restaurants.

D'Amico and other industry veterans acknowledge that it's important for a restaurant to have "buzz," an ambient din provided by music and other patrons.

But it's a short trip from "Are we still working on that?" to "Can you hear me now?" being a room's most-asked question, especially for boomer-age patrons susceptible to hearing problems in places with heavy background racket. "There is a fine line," Woodman said, "and there are places that are too loud and older friends are turned off. This is going to stay with us."

Pacing the music

Sometimes atmosphere (the figurative kind) is the enemy of sound balance. Hardwood floors, low ceilings and open kitchens might please the eyes but wreak havoc with the ears. But even places laden with fabric (chairs, carpet, curtains) face challenges not only with the space(s) -- different sized rooms, adjacent bar and dining areas -- but also with a clientele that can morph mightily during the course of an evening.

"Sound is a very sophisticated phenomenon, to where you bring in the best expertise. You have to manage it. So you look at everything from age bracket to proximity to kitchen," Crave Restaurants owner/CEO Kam Talebi said. "If you want sound to be an integral part of the experience, it's not as simple as buying speakers and turning on the music."

Music has been an obsession of D'Amico's throughout his three decades as one of the area's top restaurateurs.

"The most important thing is the quality of the sound system," he said. "I have learned to never ever, ever, buy speakers that have the bass built into them. All you hear is the boom, boom, boom. You need a separate bass system."

At Crave and Urban Eatery, Talebi said, "We have different time zones embedded in our music. Lunch and happy hour are different in both format and sound levels. Dinner and late-night are different."

Speaker location is also crucial, said Anoush Ansari, managing partner at Hemisphere Restaurant Partners (Mission, Flame, Tavern on France). To keep sound manageable, Hemisphere installed a new generation of ceiling panels and even sound-capturing pads beneath chairs. "We have learned a lot of lessons from acousticians," Ansari said.

Talebi also is a fan of recent innovations, including "noise spray" that is applied regularly to his restaurants' ceilings.

The goal: controlled energy

When the Woodmans were opening up what they call Heidi's 2.0 in Lyn-Lake, they spent an inordinate amount of time on acoustics. A smaller side dining room and the bar area ended up with a lot of curtains to absorb sound from the lower ceilings. In the middle of the large dining room, they plopped down a large white "tree" sculpture.

"The tree bounces sounds more randomly, rather than soaking it up," Stewart Woodman said. "The carpet dulls [sound], but you don't want to dull it up too much. You want to not feel like a morgue."

The final decision involved the open kitchen, "a hotly debated topic during the design phase. We ran a couple of experiments, and in the end decided to go three-quarters of the way up with the glass, and the ambient kitchen sounds certainly contribute to a fun buzz in the dining room."

That's the target, and when it is not achieved, customers complain. Ansari said his restaurant hosts try to find a perimeter table for them. "We have guests who we know sound bothers them, and we make that part of their guest profile."

D'Amico has a different approach. "What I've learned is that you're never going to make everybody happy. The best thing you can do is determine what kind of vibe you want in a restaurant and stick with it and train your staff to deal with the complaints."

  • THE NOISE BOX

    Factors that can create problems for restaurateurs trying to create the right acoustics:

    • Small distance between customers and tables.

    • Low ceilings.

    • Ceilings made of tin, teak or wallboard.

    • Uncarpeted floors.

    • Stereo speakers with bass drivers imbedded.

    • Completely open kitchens.

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