An appetite for noise

Restaurants ponder increasing requests for ‘ear-friendly’ dining

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Susan France

If you search online sources for Boulder/Denver restaurants, you’ll find eateries labeled as “paleo-friendly,” “kid-friendly, “vegetarian-friendly,” “dog-friendly,” “Earth-friendly” and the ever-popular “beer-friendly.” No matter how hard you look you’ll locate none touted as “ear-friendly.”   

That absence of quiet eateries is surprising since surveys by Zagat and Consumer Reports note that excessive noise is the No. 1 complaint of diners year after year. Diners rated noise as a more critical factor to dining bliss than food or service.

Not that long ago most Boulder restaurants had a smoking section, but it was only separated by air. You and your children could be eating your meals when a Marlboro cloud wafted over you. Imagine: You could not eat there without inhaling second-hand smoke.

There are those who suggest that second-hand noise may be as damaging as second-hand smoke. The thing is: You don’t need smoke to dine, but you do need some sound to make a restaurant feel alive.

“Quiet” is not “cool,” and can be the kiss of death if there is no buzz no life in the room. You don’t want it so quiet your voice echoes in the room. You need that cloud of background sound so you feel like your conversation can’t be overheard.

If you find a restaurant that reviewers deem “quiet” they are almost always “expensive” restaurants fancy padded places that focus on special occasions.

It’s not just cranky old folks complaining about those loud young people. Restaurants actually are fundamentally louder than they were 25 years ago. Open kitchens, background music,and problematic acoustics in small, old spaces with hard floors and brick walls have contributed to the sound impact. Restaurateurs spend a lot of time, money and energy trying to get it to a just-right Goldilocks noise level that will never please everyone.

I know that most people choose fun, even if they can’t hear each other. It’s like going to a party. Restaurants are also loud because, frankly, people get noisier as a meal progresses. Before I knew it had a name, I observed the Lombard Effect in action as a dining critic. As background noise increases, people talk louder and louder until it is so cacophonous that nobody can hear. They stop talking and the room returns to normal volume, but not for long. The problem is usually that celebratory table for six in the corner that is downing a lot of wine. Americans tend to be loud in restaurants anyway, at least according to foreign-born diners I talked with.

The truth is that younger people generally have better ears and tolerance for noise. It doesn’t last. Baby Boomers like me are reaping the rewards of their lifestyle choices in the 1970s. For instance, I blame some of my hearing loss on one ear-bleeding Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert at the Montreal Forum. That’s why I now like less sound in my dining soundscape.

No matter how stupendous the food and drink may be at a particular destination, if I have to experience aural assault to taste and sip, then I decline. Loud, thumping EDM at the front door is like a flashing neon sign warning: This place is not for you. I go out to eat to talk, not to end up hoarse from shouting.

There are some quiet dining solutions that are often recommended. You can eat on off days or at off hours when the dining room is quiet. Oh swell.

The Seattle-based Lend an Ear group has come up with an alternative approach by creating a certification program for “ear-friendly” restaurants. It evaluates restaurants for their commitment to using noise-reducing design features, a willingness to turn down music on request, and availability of quiet rooms… or at least a quieter table.

I wonder what would happen if restaurants started kindly offering Quiet Hours in addition to their Happy Hours? Perhaps a Quiet Night once a month where everything is identical, just quieter? Would all the folks who complain to me about too-loud restaurants come out and dine?   

For tomato lovers only

Boulder’s OAK at fourteenth hosts its second annual tomato dinner Aug. 16. The six-course tomato-centric menu showcases famous tomatoes from New Jersey and Longmont’s Red Wagon Farm. The latter even grows a tomato named after chef Steve Redzikowski: the “Steverino.” Details: oakatfourteenth.com.

Attention tomato gardeners and lovers: The annual Taste of Tomato Aug. 25 at Boulder’s Growing Gardens features dozens of varieties of Lycopersicon Esculentum in four types cherry, beefsteak, paste and slicing/salad competing to be named Best of Show. Taste them all and vote. Tomato entry rules: harlequinsgardens.com.

Local food news

The Colorado Mycological Society’s 41st annual Mushroom Fair Aug. 12 at Denver Botanic Gardens is a fungi nerd’s paradise with freshly collected wild mushrooms on display and folks who can tell you whether the mushrooms you bring in are good for soup or for a psychedelic experience. Details: cmsweb.org. … Plan ahead: Palisade Peach Festival, Aug. 17-18, palisadepeachfest.com; San Luis Valley Potato Festival, Sept. 8, Monte Vista, pagosachamber.com; and, the Chile & Frijoles Festival, Sept. 21-23, Pueblo, pueblochamber.org

Taste of the week

I got my first Rocky Ford cantaloupe of the season and cut into it with low expectations. You’re never quite sure if melons are ripe. You can try pressing the ends and seeing if it has a sweet melon-y perfume. I chose my cantaloupe using the scales of (cantaloupe) justice approach. I stood there in the produce aisle with one cantaloupe in each hand moving them up and down to find the melon that is the heaviest relative to its size. I’m not sure what the other shoppers thought as they watched but it worked. This Rocky Ford melon was exquisite and perfectly ripe with a beautiful aroma. From the first bite to the last it was a mouthful of juice and sweetness. This, friends, is why we eat local produce in season.

Words to chew on

“Watermelon it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.” Opera legend Enrico Caruso. (The annual Watermelon Day featuring free watermelon for everyone is Aug. 18 in Rocky Ford. arkvalleyfair.com)

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU. Listen to podcasts at: news.kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles.