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A New Approach to Restaurant Acoustics Feels a Lot Like Home

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What is the perfect sound environment for a restaurant? The perfect din?

“You want to be able to have a pleasant dinner, where no one is shouting, but at the same time you want to feel like you’re in a social environment,” says Meyer Sound acoustic engineer Pierre Germain. “It should sound like there’s stuff happening around you, but you’re not bombarded by it.”

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We bet this bar gets loud.
We bet this bar gets loud. Photo by Frédéric de Villamil

Restaurants have increasingly failed to hit that mark since the 90s, according to critics on both coasts. This is in part because it’s generally difficult—restaurants are large spaces that, each night, play host to a variety of people and their respective voices (and their annoying laughs)—and in part because they don’t want to. “Mario Batali had the genius idea of taking the kind of music that he and his kitchen-slave compatriots listened to while rolling their pastas and stirring their offal-rich ragùs (Zeppelin, The Who, the Pixies, and so on) and blasting it over the heads of the startled patrons in the staid dining room at Babbo,” wrote New York Magazine’s Adam Platt in 2013.

Now, a handful of Bay Area restaurants are beginning to address that noise, thanks to Meyer’s Constellation system.

The very expensive, very complicated system includes myriad microphones, advanced signal processing, and small self-powered loudspeakers that “listen” to the noise in a restaurant, think on it for a minute, tweak it, and send it back out in a more palatable format. Along with specially-designed acoustic panels Meyer is calling Libra, Constellation creates the perfect buzz. Perfect, that is, according to the restaurant’s general manager, who, with the swipe of an iPad, can modify Constellation’s presets in reaction to the restaurant’s occupancy. This ain’t no iPod USB'ed to a speaker.

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“It’s mostly about absorption,” says Germain, who was the lead on the sound design for the restaurant Bellota, which opened yesterday in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. “We give you the impression that you’re having a private dinner party while still feeling like you’re in a busy place.”

So the perfect sonic environment is akin to a gathering at home—once the guests have arrived, you’re over the initial small-talk hump, and things are positively humming. “If you’re eating at home, you don’t need to shout across the table to hear people,” says Germain. “It’s furnished and you have carpeting… There’s enough absorption so it doesn’t become cacophonous. The issue with restaurants, where there are hard surfaces—especially with the industrial look and open kitchens many restaurateurs are into these days—is that the noise builds up really quickly.”

Former Phish manager John Paluska’s Comal, celebrated Mexico City chef-owner Gabriela Cámara’s first U.S. restaurant Cala, and Oliveto in Oakland all use the Constellation system, but Bellota was a particular challenge because of its size.

“We built a restaurant from scratch in a giant concrete box,” says Absinthe Group’s Director of Bars Jonny Raglin, who oversaw Bellota’s design. It’s 5,400 square feet, seats 170 people at one time, and it’s located in an old industrial building. “While we didn’t want to open an undone-looking restaurant, we didn’t want to finish every surface, either, in order to maintain some of the history of the space.” Constellation helps Raglin achieve a space that’s “peppered with sound.”

Raglin is also looking for balance. Bellota is so large that he has quartered the space, almost, to create different pockets—and pockets of sound. There’s a main dining room, a private dining area, a bar, and a live performance space.

“In a home, you have different rooms that are dedicated to different kinds of entertainment, especially in a traditional 20th-century home, where you have the den” says Raglin. “Whenever you welcome people into your house, does everyone go straight to the den? No no no, that’s further down the line, for retiring. Most of the time, everyone gathers in the kitchen because it’s a time when it’s okay to ramp up the noise. You’ve been in relative silence and you want to be in that place where the lights are brighter and it gets fairly loud. As the evening progresses, everyone moves toward a dining room, a living room maybe, and eventually, if you have one, a den or something like that. For us, that would be as close as it would be to mirroring a home environment.”

It makes sense that Constellation was developed and is thriving in a city whose most distinguished restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, has always paid special attention to noise. “Bauer has traditionally been the most die-hard about critiquing sound in restaurants,” says Raglin. “He represents the noise level in drawings of bells that turn into bombs if it gets too loud. That can effect his star rating as well—noise affects his overall rating for restaurants.”

Without proper care paid to noise levels, a 170-seat restaurant such as Bellota might hit about 90 dBs, according to Eater restaurant critic Robert Sietsema, who has carried a decibel meter with him since his Village Voice days. The perfect hum of a dinner party, by comparison, might register around 65 or 70 dBs. “My otolaryngologist says there will be a class-action lawsuit from deaf restaurant employees in the future,” Sietsema says. Not if Constellation has anything to do with it.

Tags: sound, dinner parties