Any regular reader of the Inside Scoop SF restaurant news blog of the San Francisco Chronicle knows that its food critic, Michael Bauer, spends a considerable amount of his time blogging about noise.
It’s entirely reader-driven, he says, and it’s why the Chronicle began including decibel level ratings in every restaurant review it prints.
In fact, he writes in a post from last year, despite these ratings, the noise levels continue to grow. “It’s one of the most frequent topics — and complaints — I get as a restaurant critic,” he wrote in 2013.
Two East Bay restaurants have tried to remedy the acoustics problem by installing sophisticated sound systems by the Berkeley-based Meyer Sound. It’s where Bob and Maggie Klein turned when redesigning Oliveto, a mainstay of Oakland’s dining scene for the past 28 years. The specialty firm has done sound locally for downtown Berkeley’s Comal, but is better known for its acoustic systems at such places as UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, Lincoln Center and Royal Albert Hall.
“If you have an option, why would you go out with someone you want to be with, and want to connect with, to a place where you can’t hear them?” Bob Klein wondered at a media dinner recently, held to demonstrate the new state-of-the-art sound system he just included in his first redesign in 18 years. “It diminishes the experience for everyone – even those with good hearing – when they are straining to hear each other.”
Oliveto’s renovation began with a passive acoustic treatment, in which the ceiling was replaced with more sound-absorbent tile. A wall of banquettes now has large photographs of olive trees, taken by Bay Area photographer Deborah O’Grady, which are actually Meyer Sound Libra acoustic image panels – for which they’ve just received a patent.
Klein was able to turn on and off the new sound system on an iPad, sitting at our table. It has nine settings, including one that makes the dining room sound like a stone cathedral, if they want to have musical events. It can be adjusted with settings for low, medium, high occupancy and very high occupancy.
“We basically used the same kind of technology at Oliveto that we’ve used in concert halls around the world,” said Pierre Germain, senior acoustic engineer for Meyer Sound. “If the restaurant is low occupancy, Bob can put the system on the low occupancy setting, which gives the feel of a more bustling restaurant so you don’t feel isolated at your table, and as it fills up, he can bring the noise level down. At the high occupancy setting, the sound system is operating at a very low level, maintaining a level of atmosphere or buzziness, all the while being able to hear the conversation at your table.”
Berkeley’s Comal was actually the first restaurant to work with Meyer Sound.
“We have a challenging acoustical space in its raw form,” said John Paluska, Comal’s owner, “in that it has the same characteristics that a lot of restaurants do, it looks cool with its hard concrete and large volume of space, but it would be a very different experience if we didn’t have the system that we do.”
Paluska said it was fortuitous timing that Meyer Sound was looking to get into doing sound systems for restaurants and used Comal as a sort of experimental lab so they could work out an arrangement that was beneficial to the both of them.
Paluska said Comal’s system is not noticeable to most patrons, “but that they feel it even if they don’t recognize it.” He added, “I go out to other places in the East Bay, and then come to Comal afterwards, and it’s never more of a jarring, obvious shift than when I’ve been elsewhere. Comal feels so different."
Many restaurants in the city turn to acoustic designer Wall Covering Designs, when they realize the noise level has gotten out of hand. The firm lists numerous Bay Area restaurants it has worked with, mostly as part of a redesign when its owners realize noise has become a problem.
But not everyone can afford such a sound system. Klein isn’t saying how much such sophisticated technology costs, and the Meyer Sound people are the first to admit the investment is “significant.”
Nonetheless, it’s an investment that more restauranteurs should be thinking about, Germain believes. “A lot of restaurants go for a very industrial look with reflective surfaces such as concrete and glass and the end result is a very loud restaurant that only young people will like,” said Germain. “We’re trying to raise the awareness for architects and developers to devote funds to this. People who have visited Comal and Oliveto have noticed, it’s definitely something architects are coming around to understanding.”
Robert Fink of Fink Architecture, says there are design elements he can implement himself in a restaurant’s design from the get-go.
Fink has helped design or remodel around 12 Bay Area restaurants, including El Dorado Kitchen in Sonoma and Yountville’s Redd Wood. “It’s almost always an issue in trying to find the most economical way to deal with it in an aesthetically pleasing way,” said Fink.
In general, he said there are two elements to consider: “You need something that absorbs the sound and you need to be aware of things that will reflect the sound to balance it around the room.”
But for those who can afford it, a sophisticated sound system could be the way to attract older diners to their restaurant. “We’re not changing the world,” said Paluska, but “we think it makes dining out a more pleasant experience for people.”