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The atmosphere of a restaurant can be as essential to its success as the food it serves. Inappropriate décor or deafening noise levels can sour a guest’s dining experience, regardless of how tasty their meal may be. So restaurateurs often consult with everyone from sound engineers to historians to get the ambiance just right. We explore the serious considerations that go into restaurant design.
- Jessica Sidman Food Editor, Young & Hungry columnist Washington City Paper
- Geoff Turner Sound engineer, AcoustiSonics LLC
- Griz Dwight Architect and owner, Grizform Design Architects
- Danny Bortnick Executive Chef, Firefly Restaurant
How Loud Is D.C.? Measuring City Sounds With A Decibel Meter
Local restaurants, bars and even libraries rely on noise to create an auditory experience. But how loud are each of these places, and how do they compare to one another? We traveled around Washington, D.C., with a sound level meter to see just how noisy the city really is.
First, a lesson in decibels. Loudness is measured in decibels, and most scientists agree hearing loss can occur when you have prolonged exposure – 8 hours or longer every day — to a noise source over 90 decibals (dBA). This is why you see airport grounds crews wearing industrial headphones on the tarmac.
To the human ear, volume appears to double every 10 decibels. So jumping from 30 dB to 40 dB sounds twice as loud, but moving from 30 dB to 70 dB sounds 16 times as loud. For reference, a whispered voice is measured at 30 dB, while normal conversation is 60 dB.
We used a Brüel & Kjær Type 2250 meter and measured in one-third octave bands, taking the A-weighted value of all sound frequencies. All measurements were recorded by Andrew Parise, acoustical consultant at architectural consulting firm Shen Milsom & Wilke, and John Arpino, assistant director of engineering research and development at George Washington University.
We ranked 12 common D.C. experiences from quiet to loud. The measurements were taken on a warm Sunday afternoon in November when the restaurants and streets were busy.
Eckles Library: 33 dBA
As expected, this registered the lowest on our sound meter. The carpeted floor and rows of books no doubt helped to pad noise. Quiet students didn’t hurt, either.
Listening to WAMU 88.5: 64 dBA
This was measured while driving a car with the windows up and the radio set at a volume where we could comfortably talk with other passengers.
Starbucks: 66 dBA
This location’s upstairs seating area tempered the racket of coffee grinders, espresso machines and about 25 people making and waiting for drinks. The high ceiling created volume and distance that reduced the overall noise level.
Circa: 67 dBA
At brunch time, the restaurant was three-quarters full inside and had music playing over a stereo, but we could still talk at a comfortable level. It’s an airy space with a high ceiling made of drop tiles and other materials that help absorb sound.
Gravelly Point, planes taking off: 72 dBA
Gravelly Point, planes landing: 75 dBA
Joggers and picnickers raised their voices or stopped talking altogether as planes flew over this Arlington, Va., park on the edge of Reagan National Airport’s runway. You might expect these sound levels to be even higher; however most of the noise from oncoming planes is low frequency and less sensitive to the weighting curve that we used.
Firefly: 76 dBA
It’s definitely loud in this low-ceilinged restaurant, and we had to yell at times to be heard. Wood is very bad at absorbing sound and very good at reflecting sound back into the room. Firefly had bare wood tables, hardwood floors and decorative wooden panels, all of which contributed to the din. To be fair, the restaurant was almost full and the door-sized front windows were closed — opening them would have quieted the room.
Dupont Circle underpass: 77 dBA
Street noise at this intersection ranks around the noise level of a vacuum cleaner.
Union Station: 77 dBA
Hard stones, like marble, don’t absorb sound well inside this cavernous landmark. The measurement was taken as an announcement came over the loudspeaker.
Metro bus departing: 78 dBA
A bus pulling away from the curb, along with regular traffic, might grab your attention, but you can continue your conversation just fine.
Cleveland Park Bar and Grill: 79 dBA
Sports fans packed this bar to watch more than a dozen televisions showing every Sunday game.
Riding Metro: 80 dBA
Underground tunnels, plus heavy metal tires on heavy metal rails, were a cocktail for reflected sound as we took the Red Line from Farragut North to Metro Center.
Approaching Metro train: 85 dBA
A Red Line train pulling into the Dupont Circle platform is as loud as average street traffic, according to the American Tinnitus Association.
Of course, we’re exposed to a number of everyday loud noise sources without suffering hearing loss. Hair dryers, snowmobiles, ambulances and fireworks exceed 85 dBA. Just as a landscape is what you see all around you, the soundscape is what you hear all around you. And D.C.’s soundscape is a blend of noise.
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting our community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo. The atmosphere of a restaurant can be as essential to a success as the food serves. The one diner's definite noise level is another's exciting buzz. And what feels lush and luxurious to one person might be stiff and forbidding to another. Then there are differences over design that even delicious food and perfect service can't fix.
MR. MARC FISHERRestaurant design is an expensive, complex are that today involves architects, artists, sound engineers and even historians to get the ambiance just right. And joining us to talk about restaurant design, Jessica Sidman is Food Editor at the Washington City Paper. She writes the Young & Hungry column. Danny Bortnick is Executive Chef at Firefly Restaurant in Dupont Circle.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd Geoff Turner is a former punk rocker who runs AcoustiSonics, which is an audio firm that consults with restaurants on noise, sound and even quiet. And, Jessica, let's start with you. You cover restaurants on the high end, the low end and everything in between. Obviously you write about the food and it's quality. But these other factors, design, noise, the buzz, how much of a role do they play in people's perceptions of the places where they eat?
MS. JESSICA SIDMANIt plays a huge role. I mean, when you go to a restaurant, it is about the total package. It's not just about the food, it's about the service, it's about the décor, it's about the sound. And if you can't hear the people across the table from you, that can ruin your experience.
FISHERAnd, do you regularly run into restaurants that are perfect, but for some fatal flaw in design or noise?
SIDMANYah, I mean, all the time. You know, I'm having a hard time thinking of an example off the top of my head that I've been to recently. But there are certainly times I've been out with my friends and maybe we even left a place because we wanted to have a conversation and couldn't. And, you know, the really great example, actually, is Bandolero, which is Mike Isabella's restaurant in Georgetown. And Tom Sietsema, who's the restaurant critic for the Washington Post wrote a, somewhat, scathing review of the restaurant, not because of the food but because it was so loud and he did not like the décor. In fact, he calls it a dining room so loud, it may wake the dead.
FISHERWell, if you've been woken from the dead or have wanted to be dead because of the noise, let us know, give us a call, 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us about your experiences in restaurants around town. Do you like the ones that have that energetic atmosphere or do you find that painfully noisy? What kind of experience are you looking for?
FISHERIs there something that bothers you about the design and atmosphere, even at your favorite restaurants? 1-800-433-8850. And Danny Bortnick, you have just redesigned your restaurant at Firefly in Dupont Circle. How much thought was given in that process to -- questions of noise, sound and the effect that they have on the dining experience?
MR. DANNY BORTNICKWell, I think you could probably throw Firefly of the past into that category of restaurants that were just too noisy. I mean, you know, on one end, it's good because it gives the buzz and the energy. But, I mean, I just know personally from visiting tables that it would be hard for me to hear the guests across the table.
MR. DANNY BORTNICKAnd it makes conversations a little awkward when you kind of got to ask people to repeat themselves and, you know, the servers sometimes would, you know, mix up orders because they thought they heard lamb and they heard salmon. So a lot of effort went into correcting some of those things since we took the opportunity to refresh Firefly. So a lot of the different elements that you might not sort of expect addressed the noise for us.
FISHERAnd in the original design, had the intent been to have it be a very noisy place or did that happen accidentally?
BORTNICKI don't think that was purposeful, I just think it's -- you know, Firefly has low ceilings and the ceiling is a concrete slab, the flooring, same thing, it's wood on concrete. It's a tight space. It's not a big restaurant, but we certainly, you know, pack it in full of people. So, you know, all of that contributes to a noisy restaurant. So I think it was more just a result of, kind of, the way the restaurant came together.
FISHERAnd, Geoff Turner, you work with restaurateurs to figure out what kind of sound level they want, what level of noise is optimal. When you think of a place like Firefly, I'm -- are there people who come to you and say we want it to be really noisy because that's the excitement, that's the buzz, that creates the energy that we need?
MR. GEOFF TURNERSo far nobody's come to me with that specific request to crank up the noise in the restaurant or bar or -- although I suppose there's ways you could do that. Most of the time, people are complaining or rather their patrons are complaining and, yeah, they've created this environment and space but it's somehow being diminished in its pleasure effect by noise problems. So they'll have me come in, take a listen, take some measurements and start making recommendations to change things. It's, you know, not evasively as possible at first.
FISHERAnd how did we get here because there was certainly a period when there were far fewer places that were deafening than there are today. So what has changed in the basics of restaurant design, as -- has it been -- is it a question of cost cutting where people have stripped away the carpeting and the linens and those kinds of stylistic touches that did -- by the way dampen the noise?
BORTNICKI think that, just general restaurant trends have changed a lot. You know, it used to be, you kind of went to a restaurant to get away, have a quiet evening away, a meal with your companion. And it's not what people are looking for now a days. You know, now people don’t necessarily prefer the white table clothes, the formal service. People want to go out, be entertained, have fun, break from the norm and, you know, completely separate from, maybe, what their office or home life might be like.
BORTNICKAnd I think, you know, it's a lot of, kind of, what you just listed, whether it's carpet or table clothes. And just in general stylistically, restaurants, you know, the trend now is for more casual, higher energy, you know, food that's more approachable. And I think, all these things kind of roll up into restaurants just being a more bustling style of place.
FISHERSo, Danny, what specifically did you do at Firefly to dampen the noise?
BORTNICKWell, we did a few things. First of all, we have a wall along one side of the restaurant that was covered in a, like, a noise baffling thing covered in a vinyl. It kind of looks like a leather wrapped wall. And then our designer, Griz Dwight, found this special paint that's on the ceiling called Acoustipaint that actually, I guess, I don’t understand the science of it, but it absorbs or deflects the noise in a way that kind of deadens it. And then we put up a few very large wood, like, tree slab panels in between the bar area and the dining room which kind of helps to separate the noise from the two areas.
FISHERAnd, Geoff Turner, we -- one of our producers, Monica Arpino, actually went out with two sound engineers and measured sound on some common D.C. noises, everything from riding the Metro Train to being in a sports bar to dining at Firefly, going to Starbucks, sitting here at WAMU or going to the library at G. W. University.
TURNERYeah. I saw that.
FISHERAnd it's on our website if you'd like to take a look at it, it's at kojoshow.org. And Firefly came in right in the middle. And right at the top, as you would imagine, would be riding a train, being in a sports bar, being on a Metro bus and down at the bottom, of course, the very quiet hushed places such as the library and the radio station, but also Starbucks and Circa Restaurant. What is there -- what's kind of the optimal or tolerable level? Is there -- do you --when you think about engineering the sound in a restaurant, do you want it to have more of that busy feel of a -- of Union Station or a street scene or do you want it to feel more like a library?
TURNERRight. I think it depends on the age of your clientele to some extent. I was sort of scratching my head recently trying to think of an experience, dining experience that I had had that struck me as having a quiet atmosphere and one that seemed to be suited to, you know, the cost of the meal and things like that and experience. And I was actually thinking of restaurant Nora (sp?) was the last place, I hadn't been there for ages and I have to go try this place again. And while I was in there, I was like, boy it's really quiet in here. And, you know, I looked around and...
FISHERHappy quiet or sort of annoying quiet?
TURNERNo. Very happy quiet, like very appropriate level of quiet. They have some quilts on the wall that they'd put up and there's some kind of carpeting on the ground. So there are few things there that would give them an edge. But I actually gave them a call and it -- was asking them if that was an intentional design thing that they had done and one of the primaries in the business was like, well, you know, we didn't really think about it that much, although it seems to work. But a lot of it too is that our clients are not in their 20s, for the most part. And it's also not like a gastro pub there.
TURNERIt's not an environment -- you 're asking, maybe, what's change with trends in D.C., and what I see a lot are restaurants that are inside of a bar or a big long bar, you know, 45 foot long, enormous bar that's surrounded by people trying to eat and that the two of those things, at least in my mind, somewhat conflict. You know, because a bar is supposed to be an active place where you go and you forget all your problems and talk to your bartender and listen to music and gab and have a few drinks. And if someone's right over your shoulder having a meal, that immediately strikes me as being a possible problem.
FISHERClash of values.
FISHERLet's hear from Karen in Washington. And, Karen, it's your turn.
KARENHi, I'm glad you mentioned that about the bar. First of all, huge fan of Firefly, was there for their opening. My daughter and I are regulars. So I can't wait to come back in and see the new design. But the restaurant I wanted to mention, that I had an issue with, was Lost Society. And it speaks to the very issue you're talking about.
KARENAt that price point for a high end steak house, it's basically a night club and literally there are people's butts against your table and you're paying, like, you know, $50 plus bucks for, you know, plus, you know, $15 cocktails, trying to have a nice -- what they wanted, I guess, was a nice meal, but it's a night club and it was just -- the two were fighting each other so much. I could just not even enjoy the food. And I just wanted to hear your thoughts on that and kind of where that trend is going and do you see it sticking? Or I'd just like to hear your thoughts on it.
FISHEROkay. Jessica Sidman, this is a trend we're seeing more and more of, these sort of combination night club-high end restaurants. Is there an essential conflict there like Geoff was talking?
SIDMANYou know, I mean, I guess it depends on the clientele. I think, you know, there must be a little bit of a demand for that. I think sometimes restaurants add on that, not even a night club but the bar element, because that's where their money comes from. You know, restaurants really make their money in that -- liquor sales. And I actually want to turn this one over to Geoff because I believe he's worked with Lost Society.
TURNERI actually haven't worked with them.
SIDMANOh, no, you haven't, okay.
TURNERNo, no. I have plans to meet with them down the line at some point.
SIDMANOkay. Got it.
TURNERBut I just haven't, not this month...
SIDMANSo maybe they're taking into account.
FISHERWell, do either of you -- do any of you run into restaurateurs who hear all the complaints from diners about noise and say, you know what this is what I want, that I, you know, I really do want the high noise level because it creates the atmosphere that I want.
SIDMANI think, that restaurateurs want customers and if it's a problem for them getting customers, then I think they're going to take steps to address it. But...
FISHERBut as Danny said earlier or Geoff said, it's a question of age as well. And so there's a demographic question here of who is your intended audience and what...
FISHER...is the right atmosphere for them. I mean, Danny, as you thought about remaking Firefly, you must've had a specific audience in mind.
BORTNICKWell, you know, you can't be everything for everyone. And that's where I think, you know, there's extreme value and that Tom Sietsema started including decibel readings in his reviews and that way, you know, somebody like our caller can avoid maybe going to a place that is not quite for them. You know, you can't quite try to fit all demographics into your restaurant. For us it was -- you know, we weren't trying to change our demographics so much as respond to our guests' complaints.
BORTNICKWe knew taking the noise level down wasn't going to completely diminish the noise or the energy. So it was just trying to make it so that, you know, conversation was a little more tolerable.
FISHERLet's hear now from Lisa in Reston. Lisa, you're on the air.
LISAYeah, hi. I know that not just in the restaurant world, but in all retail and even any kind of public environment, it's almost intentional to have as many different layers of noise in the experience as possible. I can't believe it's accidental when you see it over and over and over again. Everything from discount stores to outlet -- high-end outlet stores and outlet malls to train stations, there's always that level of some sort of canned music going on in the background. And then a whole lot of other stuff that you can't quite pinpoint what it is.
LISABut it's a lot of noise that you -- you filter it out I'm sure but it's there if you really concentrate on it. And that's why you notice when you walk in a restaurant that's really quiet it's so different than what we deal with 24/7. I wonder how we got to that point but I sure appreciate it when you go in somewhere that is intentionally meant to be calm and quiet for something that you want to take in a calm and quiet way.
FISHERGeoff Turner, in the world of design obviously there -- sound is a crucial component. But, I mean, is Lisa right that retailers want a certain level of noise to create a mood or -- I know the researchers at Musak years ago had a series of products that they offered of increasing intensities of sound and music that were -- and their theory, what they sold to stores, was the more intense and the faster the beat, the more people would shop and buy things that they maybe didn't intend to buy.
TURNERYeah, I mean, that makes sense in the context of an indoor shopping mall for you to start getting into, you know, a pattern of kind of bopping from store to store. There's always some kind of music playing, especially if it's a shop catering to younger people, you know, or hip people. So, you know, I haven't really done any super deep thinking about how that's injected into the shopping experience per say.
TURNERI mean, I certainly have done some work in convention halls, you know, during a big conference or a big convention. Actually the one that comes to mind was a large video game convention I went to in Los Angeles, which was maybe the loudest place I'd ever been, because you essentially had maybe 1,000 different stands blasting the soundtrack to their video game, which could be like guns going off, pumping techno music. And it was literally one of the craziest acoustic environments I've ever been in. It was like thousands of sources of very aggressive sound just pinning you to the wall. I think I lasted about half an hour in that...
BORTNICKIt sounds awful.
TURNERIt was really, really intense and weird and people love going to those things, you know.
FISHERWhen we come back after a short break we'll be joined by a restaurant designer who's designed some of the top restaurants in town and with very different designs for different kinds of sound environments. That's after a short break on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher. We'll be back in a moment.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo. And we are talking about restaurant design with Jessica Sidman, food editor of the Washington City Paper where she writes the Young & Hungry column. Danny Bortnick is executive chef at Firefly restaurant in DuPont Circle. Geoff Turner is a audio engineer who runs AcoustiSonics which consults with restaurants on noise. And we're joined now by Griz Dwight who's the owner of Grizform Design Architects which has worked with a number of prominent restaurants in the Washington area.
FISHERAnd Griz, you designed some restaurants that I've experienced to be really loud and some that I experienced to be not loud at all. And so obviously choices are being made along the way about the kind of atmosphere that you want. How intentional do you find restaurateurs to be about what sort of noise level they want and what is the motivation behind that?
MR. GRIZ DWIGHTWe make a lot of decisions as we're designing to -- because of that. Sometimes we're looking for more of a quiet place. Softer materials connote a different thing when you're walking in. Maybe more of a harder surface place works well for different concepts. So we really tailor our designs to the concept. I think one restaurant that we've done recently, Estadio, we had some options for soundproofing, but they weren't really working design wise so we took them out. And I think that concept works well with a louder one. Working with Danny at Firefly we really wanted to bring in the soundproofing to address their problems.
FISHERAnd this is something that a lot of listeners are really -- some of them are up in arms about it, some of them are just curious about it, is this question of intentionality. And Rudy Tweets, "One of my biggest gripes about modern restaurant bar designs is the loudness factor which makes it tough to enjoy and socialize. I once discussed the loudness trend with restaurateurs and they tended to like the faster table turnaround due to discomfort."
FISHERAnd then John responded on Twitter saying, "Correct, they want you to eat and drink, but not linger once the spending is over." So clearly that perception is out there. Is there any truth to it?
DWIGHTWe've never made a restaurant loud on purpose. There is sometimes that we choose chairs based on this chair might be a little too comfortable or a little -- not comfortable enough depending on talking about the turn. So that is something we think about.
FISHERDanny Bortnick, are there places that hype the noise a little bit to sort of get people moving faster?
BORTNICKI mean, it saddens me to hear people Tweet that because, I mean, our intention as restaurateurs is to create a place where guests are happy and, you know, they enjoy themselves. And, you know, sure while turning tables faster perhaps, you know, can produce more money in that evening, it doesn't get them back per say, you know. So the goal is to make people enjoy themselves and walk out of there and want to come back.
FISHERLet's take a call now from -- here's Javier in Alexandria. Javier, it's your turn.
JAVIERHi. How are you all? Great discussion. You know, I guess in this age of, like, post hiring chefs, you know, there's lots of young and hungry people that want to go out and try new things. But I think more than the noise or any of that issue I think that service is what really makes or breaks the experience. And I guess my question is or, you know, what I'm concerned about is, like, I mean, how much of an impact or, you know, how important is it to the restaurateurs to get their staff to get better customer service.
JAVIERBecause I think that they probably set a lot of the tone. For instance if, you know, your server's loud and kind of, you know, boisterous, you know, you feel that casualness, you know, come out. But if there's just a little bit of -- I'm not saying snobbery but if -- you know, if they set the tone and the vibe for the experience, does that have an effect on what you guys make in terms of training your staff?
BORTNICKYou know, to me there's three parts in a restaurant that separate a great restaurant from an okay restaurant, and that's service, atmosphere and food. And, you know, on the service side it's got to fit the atmosphere and the food. And so you need servers to, you know, play that part and make sure that, you know, if it's a quiet restaurant that, you know, it's probably more reserved style of service. And if it's a loud energetic place you probably want people to kind of show their personality a little more. So it's got to fit. I'm not saying there's one right style of service but it needs to match the foot and the atmosphere.
FISHERGriz Dwight, there -- obviously -- we talked earlier in the hour about the ways in which materials and design have changed over the years, less carpeting, less in the way of linens and those sort of touchstones of high-end restaurants. Is that change occurring because of cost cutting or simply changing tastes? What's happening there?
DWIGHTI think it's a little bit of everything. I think that there certainly is a cost associated with linens that restaurants can save by not having linens. But I also think that there's some maintenance issue that if you carpet a restaurant that carpet wears out. It's -- you'd hear of the same complaints with a dirty filth carpet as you would with the noise. So we tackle it from a lot of different angles.
DWIGHTWe have some restaurants that its same design is loud one night and quiet the next. So it all -- a lot of it depends on the people that are there.
FISHERHow does that happen?
DWIGHTYou know, we call it the one-guy phenomenon, that you get one guy in a corner and he starts yelling and he's...
FISHER...and everybody has to talk over him.
DWIGHTExactly, exactly. And things raise to this crescendo. And if you could just step in and say everybody start over, quiet down I think we'd end up with a quiet restaurant again.
FISHERYou need a special private booth for that guy.
FISHERJessica Sidman, are there places in town that you recommend people just stay away from because they're just too noisy. They're just not a pleasant place.
SIDMANYou know, I'm not going to call out any restaurants because I think it...
FISHERAh, come on.
SIDMAN...you know, it depends on the crowd, it depends on the night. You can go early and maybe it's quiet. You go five hours later and it's just crazy. I will say, you know, one other issue, it's not just about the diner. It can affect the restaurant even before they're opened in their liquor license process. Because when you apply for a liquor license your neighbors have the ability to protest it. And one of their big concerns is noise. And if they feel that the restaurant is going to be too loud, they can hold up that liquor license and almost essentially prevent the restaurant from opening. Because, like I was saying, you know, you need those liquor sales.
FISHERGeoff, I know you were involved in a case in Mount Pleasant where the neighborhood response to noise coming out of the restaurant was actually at the core of a very tough licensing issue, right?
TURNERThat's right. I mean, that was just really where, you know, that aspect of my business AcoustiSonics really started was sort of addressing and identifying neighborhood noise issues. You know, it's just examining, you know, to what extent they were coming from one restaurant versus another, just essentially trying to sift through the facts. And, you know, a lot of it does play out in some pretty contentious battles over liquor licenses. And, you know, to the restaurant's credit a lot of my clients from that period were actually well ready to dedicate resources towards fixing the problems.
TURNERWith the Mount Pleasant case several restaurants up there had been tied to a voluntary agreement from, you know, a decade previous that essentially said no music ever in this establishment shall be permitted. And a lot of these people signed the voluntary agreements based on pressure that they felt form the neighborhood at that time from some representative groups. Now as time has changed in that neighborhood and they've moved on and the situation has changed, there was a new movement called Hear Mount Pleasant, who wanted to essentially lift the conditions -- or change the conditions of the voluntary agreements to include music.
TURNERSo what I was able to do is go in and do actual on-sight testing in the restaurants. I was able to visit the local residents and be in their houses during business hours and really identify whether there was truly a problem, where the problem was coming from, just identify the problem.
FISHERAnd was that really a question of noise level or was it a question of different people perceiving the same amount of noise to be bothersome or not bothersome?
TURNERWell, noise is weird that way. A very small amount of noise can drive somebody crazy and I think it's actually legitimate. I'm a very, very light sleeper. If there's anything like music or any sort of repetitious sound going on it can keep me up at night. You know, that being said I also am a musician and played in bands. And I've always loved and I think is -- the most -- one of the most important things is to be able to have a local culture of music and arts and places to go. And the idea of having a no-music policy to me is akin to a very horrible society.
TURNERSo, yeah -- no, essentially the regulations that are on the books in D.C. are not particularly helpful in these cases. It's more of a problem of, you know, sort of identifying how acute the situation is and trying to fix the problem with acoustics.
FISHERAnd that regulatory scheme may be on the verge of changing. Jessica, I know you've written about Council Member Jim Graham and his attempt to regulate restaurant noise and perhaps even require soundproofing. Where does that stand?
SIDMANYou know, we were actually talking about this earlier and I haven't kept track of exactly where it is. But as far as I know nothing's actually come of those proposals as of yet.
FISHERAnd -- but you also wrote about a similar situation at Hank's restaurant in -- Hank's Oyster Bar in DuPont Circle. How did that -- how was that resolved?
SIDMANRight. And that also had to do with noise. They expanded their outdoor patio and a group of neighbors were, you know, concerned about issues like noise coming from that outdoor patio. And for -- they had -- it's kind of a complicated issue. The voluntary agreement had been, you know, cancelled and then, you know, they wanted to bring the voluntary agreement back. But Hank's did ultimately get its patio back so tough luck for those neighbors.
FISHERLet's hear from Philip in Silver Spring. You're on the air.
PHILIPHey, how's it going? I used to work in the business and sometimes -- I'm just wondering what your opinions are about that possibly one manager on duty puts the wrong type of music on. You know, sometimes music has a certain feel for the food and the ambiance, but case in point, I had somebody who was (unintelligible) '80s, like, new wave, like just, you know, like Eagle type stuff. I mean, just didn't fit the -- you know, the atmosphere. And it was a constant battle for me. So I'm just wondering you restaurateurs and people in the business, how do you feel about that?
FISHERDanny, how intentional are you about what music is played at the restaurant? Is that -- in your sense is that part of the design?
BORTNICKHonestly, I obsess over it and I think it's a huge part of the restaurant, especially in the times of day where the sound of people doesn't take over the restaurant. And, you know, even, you know, during Holiday times I obsess that I don't want Holiday music in the restaurant because I feel like people go everywhere and they hear Christmas music. And it's -- you know, you go to restaurants to escape.
BORTNICKAnd, you know, so for us we have a very specific set of music that plays. It's not controlled by one manager. And, you know, that's definitely something I would recommend. And our company has gone so far as to this year we're hiring a consultant to go to each property and consult on the music selections because it's that important.
FISHERSo it's not something that you personally choose.
BORTNICKWell, I chose the Firefly music because I felt like I was more in touch with our guests and what fit the demographic and what we were going for there.
FISHEROkay. And Griz, is that part -- when a restaurant comes to you and says we want to design a new place, is music and the match between the music and the look an importantpart of what you do?
DWIGHTYou know, absolutely. I think the sound system can be designed in a lot of different ways. And we find that putting a lot of speakers spread evenly around the restaurant can result in a lower level of music. If you put one speaker in each corner that speaker needs to be loud to be heard in the center. So we do tailor that. Geoff could probably address that as well, but the type of music does play in.
TURNERGenerally when I'm designing a sound system for a restaurant, you know, sort of a distribution system to go around to all the various speakers and different zones in different area I try to put the volume knob -- and this especially comes into play when there's like a higher DJ playing, you know, or if there's sort of a DJ event going simultaneous, I essentially try to put the volume knob as close as possible to the manager at all times Just because volume levels can start going up and up and up and up. And that's where you really get, you know...
FISHERBecomes like a nuclear one-ups-man-ship, right?
TURNERIt becomes -- exactly, yeah. And, you know, I've even gone as far as part of a management plan that I recommend to restaurants I consider to be a service, you know, as much like noise abatement or, you know, designing interiors. Acoustics is to try to create sort of a management plan that I -- you know, I can give it to somebody that will place, you know, noise decibel meters into the hands of the managers that are on duty. That way they can really see -- because you don't notice. Your ears become immune to noise.
TURNERSo even as an iPhone app available that is a noise, you know, sound pressure level decibel meter, and they should just check it out. And they should always have an eye on it during the evening and that way -- because managers are basically in control. They set the tone pace of what's going on.
FISHERThat's interesting because...
TURNERThey're kind of the police, you know, and especially if you've got somebody from outside the restaurant who's the DJ who's been contracted. You say, well, these are the limitations that we as management and owners and developers have decided, if you cross over this then you don't come back, you know. Because you might have neighbor complaints or patrons might complain. And it really works. I've been able to get managers and staff to get very focused in on these little db meters. They start gigging out on it and it's immeasurably helpful.
FISHERIt's interesting because I've seen conflicts where a patron says to the waiter, you know, it's really loud in here. And, you know, the waiter turns around and says, no, it's not. It's, you know, it's what you're used to.
TURNERIt's an idea that I had when I was worried about the noise complaint problem, is, you know, that way a restaurant can actually say, no this is how loud it was at our property line.
FISHERRight. Here's Joseph in Washington who is a colleague of yours, an audio engineer. Joseph?
JOSEPHHi. So I had a couple of things to talk about. First off, I wanted to address acoustic noise floor, something that seems to come up a lot in bars, and as bar staff and restaurant staff are stuck in these environments all day long, they tend to get ear fatigue, and on top of that, you couple in the acoustic noise of people shuffling plates around and glassware and clinking silverware, and you create a very large baseline of noise in a space, and then couple that with the fact that a restaurant staff is sitting in this noise all day long, and the music that's playing out of the sound system starts to sound quieter to them.
JOSEPHAnd it's something that is happening by just fatiguing your ears, and then they just naturally walk up and turn the volume back up, and then people are trying to talk over all of this volume and you just create this huge loud room completely inadvertently and it turns into this fight between people trying to take and restaurant staff or event staff even, in the case of special events like what I do, just fighting over how loud a room should be. And that's something I think a lot of people don't take into account.
FISHERAnd Griz Dwight, you recently worked on Bar Pilar where I guess you had kind of a before and after experience; is that right? Or is that Geoff? That was Geoff who did that, right.
FISHERAnd so were you dealing with those kinds of issues?
TURNERYeah. I mean, basically because I guess a lot of it has to do with the cost of square footage real estate in D.C., you know, a lot of places are developing new parts of their restaurant as a separate dining area. In Bar Pilar they opened up their second floor which had previously been unused, as additional space, and they wanted to have more of a dining and targeted experience that was more for diners as opposed to their first floor which also has a great big long bar and more of a sound system going on.
TURNERSo they developed this space up there and within the first week or two it apparent to them that they had a big noise problem, that diners were complaining and that there -- I went up there, and I was even amazed at how loud and reverberant just the reflections coming off the wall, which are very quick and close reflections were just very intense and just amplified sounds of cutlery, voices, everything became a real mess up there.
TURNERSo I basically came in with some very, you know, basic solutions. The kind of solutions that I learned when I working in designing recording studios and making recordings and engineering.
FISHERAnd the result is a happier experience, or...
TURNERIt worked out great. I actually spoke again with their owner, John Snellgrove, this morning and told him I was going to be on the show, and I was like, how is everything going, you know, in the aftermath of putting up acoustic panels, not dissimilar to some of the panels that are surrounding us in the studio right now, some really basic stuff, very basic materials, not so expensive. And he was overjoyed.
TURNERWe managed to cut down, you know, not only the volume level, but also the reverb time in the room is also a factor that I sort of focus as much on as the overall volume. It's actually just the length of the decay of reverb in the room, which can be a big contributor to a noisy mess.
FISHERWhen we come back after a short break, we'll look at some of the other aspects of design that contribute to the quality of a restaurant experience. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi, and we'll be back after a short break.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking about restaurant design with Jessica Sidman of the Washington City Paper; Danny Bortnick, executive chef at Firefly in DuPont Circle; Geoff Turner, owner of AcoustiSonics, a sound engineering company; and Griz Dwight, the owner of Grizform Design Architects which has designed restaurants such as Fiola, Cava, Redwood, PS7 and Black Salt.
FISHERAnd so you have designed restaurants that are kind of at various points along the price scale. How much of that -- how much of how expensive and how high-end a restaurant experience it is should be immediately evident from the look of the place?
DWIGHTWell, I think customers are looking for value in their dining. So I think if you are having a pricey meal, the space needs to look pricey. If you're having -- you don't want to go out and spend a hundred dollars a person sitting at picnic tables for instance. So we do tailor that. I think that higher-end restaurants tend to spend a little bit more on their design than lower end restaurants.
FISHERAnd here's Chris in Kensington who has a question along those lines. Chris, you're on the air.
CHRISYes. I was wondering if the owner of a restaurant has incorporated whether the atmosphere or chooses the atmosphere to help or induce people to buy more, buy more wine, drink more, eat more, et cetera, and whether -- how much atmosphere plays into that.
CHRISI will be happy to take my answer off the air.
DWIGHTWell, certainly. I think if we're designing a wine restaurant, I think showing the wine bottles and showing the wine display is something that we definitely do to try and push the wine. If we're...
FISHERIt's very prominent at Redwood for example.
DWIGHTExactly. Exactly. We -- in Estadio we're trying to push charcuterie. It's part of the concept part of the experience. So we put the charcuterie station front and center so people see that, and I think that they probably sell more because of that.
FISHERAnd in some of your designs there is -- and around the country we're seeing this trend toward a more raw or unfinished looking style. Is that just a trend? Is there anything functional about that, does it contribute to this noise question that we talked about earlier?
DWIGHTYou know, I think it is just a trend. It is a little bit functional in the budget sense that if you have -- if you're going in a space and there's exposed brick, you don't have to do anything, you don't have to spend any money on the brick wall. You can spend your money elsewhere. So I think that we're seeing a lot of that now. I think we're going to start to see a little bit less of it as people try to do the next new thing.
FISHERHere's Heather in Reston. Heather, you're on the air.
HEATHERHi. So I had a comment about the main issue that I have with the atmosphere in restaurants, which is not noise, it's temperature. Most restaurants that I've been to are way, way too cold, especially during the summer and early autumn. I end up having to bring warm sweaters or even jackets around with me wherever I go, even when it's 95 or a hundred degrees out. The air conditioning will be pumped up so high that I'll be sitting there shivering the entire time I'm eating, which makes the experience far less pleasant than it should be.
FISHERJessica, is this something that you hear about or experience a lot, complaints about temperature?
SIDMANWell, yeah. I mean, and I don't think it's just restaurants. I've certainly worked in office buildings where they kind of overcompensate for hot or cold temperatures outside. But I think it's just another example of how, you know, a restaurant is not just about the food and the service, which I think are, you know, maybe the top two things that restaurateurs would first think about. There are so many different elements that go into the experience, and you really have to think about all of them.
FISHERAnd Danny, I would imagine this is one of those classic cases where the perceptions of the people who work there and the perceptions of the customers can be very different.
BORTNICKYeah. I was just going to say, you know, it's like with the -- when we talked about the music before and the control that the managers have, and they become sort of numb to the music and don't notice the noise picking up. It's the same thing with lighting or with temperature and, you know, we try to have kind of strict guidelines of when we turn the music down, or when we adjust the lights, and same thing with the air.
BORTNICKBut, you know, if you're wearing a suit and you're kind of hustling around the restaurant, you probably don't notice the same, so you do kind of have to take cues from guests. There's not just sort of one setting you can put on the, you know, on the thermometer to make sure you have it quite right. Everybody's different anyways, you know. Sometimes it helps if the guests kind of mention, you know, before they're sat if they tend to feel cold, and you can seat them away from the air vents, you know.
BORTNICKMost restaurants aren't really -- they don't take that time when they design the HVAC system to make sure that the vents are spread out maybe the way we've talked about music. So, you know, it doesn't always work to our advantage.
FISHERSo what happens when someone complains that it's too hot or too cold? Do you actually change the temperature, or do you just tell them you're going to go, or do you just, you know, give them a glass of wine, or what?
BORTNICKYou know, it’s kind of like the whole, you know, the wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the oil. So if somebody complains we'll adjust, and if somebody complains the other way, we adjust it.
FISHERThe other way. You can't win.
BORTNICKAnd you just keep trying to respond. You can't win, no. You just keep changing.
FISHERHow -- is this a big -- yes, Heather?
HEATHERIt's definitely especially difficult when it's 90 to a hundred degrees out and you go into a restaurant and it's 30 or 40 degrees colder in the restaurant, because that's a shock to the body.
FISHERThat's the classic office problem, and I think there's also probably a gender divide on that one. At least that's often the case in offices. Is this something that comes up in restaurant design, Griz?
DWIGHTYou know, I think there's different materials that we can use in design to give the perception of warmth or cold. I think sort of white walls and glass tends to read as a colder material, and the space will feel cold even if it's the same temperature as a space that's filled with brick and wood.
FISHERWe have an email from -- a tweet from Beth who says, "One trend I've noticed in design is open kitchens. I kind of hate them." Is that a common -- do you hear much about that either way, one way or...
DWIGHTYou know, definitely. I think that there's a little bit of a tie-in to the celebrity chef. It's hard to turn on the TV these days without seeing a chef show somewhere, and so I think a lot of chefs want to be seen, and a lot of customers want some sort of culinary credibility, we look at it -- we see it as. And so they see their chef cooking, the food seems fresh, it's not coming from the freezer, it's not coming from the fryer. So there is that give and take. A lot of people -- sometimes people want to go out for a show, and it's -- the chefs put on a show.
FISHERDanny, what's -- as a chef, what's your view of it?
BORTNICKFunctionally, I'm not the biggest fan. I kind of like being able to be behind closed doors and perhaps the language in the kitchen is not policed as much.
FISHERYeah. You know, I would imagine you don't want to be on stage while you're doing work that you really have to pay attention to.
BORTNICKAnd I've worked in open kitchens. I worked at (word?) and the kitchen is right in the middle of the dining room and it's tough. It's tough because, you know, the guy who's calling out the tickets can't quite say them loud enough, and your head's under a hood, and it's loud.
FISHERAnd you can't -- you can't tell him where to go if he messes it up, right?
BORTNICKWell, you lose your job if you tell the chef where to go.
FISHEROkay. Let's hear from Charles in Rockville. You're on the air.
CHARLESYes. Good afternoon. I had a question that pertains to the audio aspect in the restaurant world. A few weeks ago I visited a restaurant in Philadelphia, and I had a chance to speak with the manager, and he was telling me that he used a special software, he wasn't sure what type -- his restaurant had just opened, and he didn't know whether he was going to cater to a crowd that favored a loud atmosphere or a calmer crowd.
CHARLESSo he had a special software that he used where it registered the ambient noise in the background. And if the noise -- if it hit a certain decibel level, it would let him know whether or not to raise the music and to increase the climate. And if the level went low, it would let him know whether or not to take it down. And my question is, do you think it's a good idea to use software, or put your restaurant in the hands of software, or what are your thoughts on that? Do you think that's a trend that's going to take off, or do other restaurants use that?
FISHEROkay. Geoff Turner, you spoke earlier about those hand-held devices. This seems like a more automated way of doing the same thing.
TURNERI mean, I like the idea of the machines taking control. Maybe they could also start like cooking and like changing the flavoring or even changing the sort of like cultural slant of the food. Now, I mean, my favorite device like that is actually -- it looks like a big -- like a large stoplight. It has a red that comes on when you're too loud, yellow when you're in the middle, and green if you're okay. So yeah.
TURNERI don't know if software is something I've ever really recommended as far as that. Software that I would use in a restaurant is more on the other end which would limit the sound if it did increase too high automatically, going back to the management question. If you've got a busy manager on duty, it might be nice to have a piece of software involved that would at least keep the music from ever going past a certain level or at least let you know.
FISHERJessica, are there any places around town that you've seen lately where the design is so spectacular it just makes you want to be there, and it almost doesn't matter how good the food is?
SIDMANWell, you know, I just ate this weekend at Farmers Fishers Bakers in the Washington Harbor, and it is just beautiful, and that's a place, you know, you're looking out at the Potomac, and, you know, maybe you go there for the view. It's too soon to comment on the food. You know, so far their food's pretty good, but...
SIDMAN...it's a place, you know, that you might go to just because it's a nice place.
FISHERThat's generally -- that has chronically been true of Washington Harbor restaurants going back to the days of Sequoia and others, that, you know, the setting is spectacular, the designs have been interesting over the years, and it's been a place that very few people have gone to for the quality of the food. But Griz, are there places around town that -- other than the ones that you've designed, that you've seen lately that have opened that have been particularly impressive or that speak to some new way of designing restaurants?
DWIGHTYou know, I think D.C. is hitting a restaurant resurgence right now that I think for a long time we were looked at as second or third fiddle to New York, Chicago, L.A. And I think a lot of restaurants are coming to town. We've got a lot going on, a lot of cool places opening.
FISHERAnything that -- anyplace you've been lately that you would want to particularly point to?
DWIGHTWell, you know, I agree with Jessica. The Farmers, Fishers, and Bakers is fantastic. We also opened up one called Woodward Table downtown that has a really nice, warm feel. So I would suggest going there, and the food there is fantastic.
FISHERWhere is that?
DWIGHTIt's on the corner of 15th and H Street.
FISHEROkay. That's right near my office. I'll check it out. And Danny Bortnick, executive chef at Firefly, we talked a lot about noise and other aspects of design, but in the end, I would think, as a chef, you would want people to come because of the food. Is there a danger that in this foodie culture that we live in that people lose sight of the -- sort of the centerpiece?
BORTNICKYou know, I like to think that at the end of the day if you had to pick one aspect, that food is the one that wins out just because there's great restaurants that are, you know, highly regarding that have horrible design or, you know, the service is nonexistent, but the food's great, you know. Even places that are quick service, you know, I think of El Pollo Rico in Virginia, and, you know, that's a place that they don't care about service or design.
BORTNICKNot that there's anything wrong with it there, but, you know, it's just about you go there for the Peruvian rotisserie chicken, and that's why you go, and I think that, you know, at the end of the day if you didn't have that but you had just phenomenal service but the food wasn't great, I find it hard to believe that you'd keep going back.
FISHERIt's, you know, like a place like CF Folks, where, you know, you go there to be treated poorly and to be uncomfortable, but the food is great.
FISHERExactly. Terrific. Well, Danny Bortnick is executive chef at Firefly. Geoff Turner is a sound engineer and owner of AcoustiSonics, a sound engineering firm. Jessica Sidman is the Washington City Paper's food editor and author of "The Young and Hungry" column, and Griz Dwight is owner of Grizform Design Architects which specializes in restaurant design here in the Washington area.
FISHER"The Kojo Nnamdi" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Tayla Burney with help with Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks so much for listening.
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