Food for thought as restaurant noise levels reach new heights

Unsafe noise levels are a growing concern in Australia's top restaurants. In tests for Fairfax Media, sound engineers recorded levels higher than WorkCover's safe limit of 85 decibels.

"Noise has escalated with the rise in the trend for minimalist [decor in] restaurants and we're concerned that restaurant owners aren't taking the problem seriously," hospitality union United Voice national secretary Louise Tarrant said.

Sound engineers Daniel Castro and Jorge Reverter recorded 95 decibels at some top restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne for Good Food.

"Bare glass, bare walls, bare Tables," said Mr Castro, of Wood & Grieve Engineers. "This is a perfect recipe for a noisy restaurant. All those reflective surfaces and nothing to absorb the sound."

Excessive noise is a growing problem worldwide because financial downturns mean that restaurants are designed for maximising profit, not comfort.

"Absorbing sound costs money. It's one of the things that gets cut in tough times," Fairfax food writer Richard Cornish said.

Senior product manager with Knauf, a manufacturer of sound absorbing plasterboard, Stephanie Olsen, said: "Modern design in restaurants has a focus on minimalism and it's becoming more and more of a problem as people struggle to make themselves heard."

The classical dining room has curtains, carpets, wallpaper and table linen. ''All those materials absorb sound but they are all expensive to install and maintain.''

Noise does not just kill hearing, though. Research shows that noisy backgrounds can hamper the ability to taste sweet and salty foods, which may be why aeroplane food tastes bland. The muffled roar of jet engines is similar to white noise.

At Cafe Nice in Sydney, and Chin Chin in Melbourne, the sound engineers' readings were about 95 decibels - almost as noisy as standing next to a power drill. ''I like a certain noise level in my restaurants. It helps create atmosphere,'' Cafe Nice's Barry McDonald said. ''A quiet restaurant tends to be quite solemn and … does not necessarily equate to a good dining experience.''

"You can't have fun without noise," Chin Chin's Chris Lucas said. "We set out to replicate the buzz of a Thai street market. I don't like four empty walls with no buzz."