London’s restaurants are considered among the best in Europe if not the world, but they are also among the noisiest. Only San Francisco’s are louder. More than half of the capital’s restaurants and bars are too noisy to let diners actually talk to each other. Decibel levels can be so high that you might as well be eating your dinner next to a bin lorry.
Sound data was collected at random in 1,350 popular London eateries for a survey. In more than half the cases decibel levels were above 76 dBA, defined as safe for hearing but difficult for conversation. Anything above 80 dBA is considered dangerous for the human ear. Among the worst-offending restaurants were Shak-Fuyu in and Duck and rice in Soho, Lobos Meat and Tapas in London Bridge, Rosa’s Thai Café in Spitalfields and Morito in Hackney. All had decibel levels of 90dBA or above, enough to wreck your hearing as well your evening. During peak times, 50 per cent of London restaurants exceeded the dangerous noise level of 80 dBA, and 80 per cent hit the point at which talking becomes a struggle.
The figures were released by SoundPrint, a global app that lets users look for restaurants, cafés and bars by sound levels on a database generated from recordings and sound measurements submitted by other users. The app was invented by Gregory Scott, a young New Yorker who has hearing loss. As a single man in New York, he often found it impossible to hear what the women he was dating were actually saying. He began recording the noise levels in places so that he could adjust his hearing aid and then began sharing his list of Quiet Corners with people who were suffering similarly. This led to the idea of a crowd-sourced database. ‘Forty or fifty years ago restaurants were a place for conversation, they had soft furnishing, carpets and curtains which meant that even in a packed dining room you could talk with ease over a meal,’ said Scott. ‘But things have changed in the last 30 years. Some restaurants are now like a nightclub or bar.’ Many factors have contributed to rising noise levels, from the fashion for stripped back hard surfaces and open-plan kitchens, to rising rents meaning that many restaurants pack tables into tight spaces. Others are in former industrial buildings with poor acoustics.’
Scott said: ‘Simple things like having an espresso machine on the bar or music playing can raise the sound levels significantly.’ Music does not have to be particularly loud to generate overall unsafe sound levels, he added. Because of the Lombard effect, where noise breeds noise, even limited background music can lead to shouting as guests raise their voice over one another to be heard. Teri Devine at the hearing charity the RNID (formerly Action on Hearing Loss), said: ‘Loud background music and environmental noise are the key factors making it impossible for people with hearing loss to have a conversation. Restaurants can consider using softer materials to absorb sound, such as carpet, tablecloths and curtains, inserting partitions into open plan spaces, and creating quiet areas. For many people, a combination of excessive noise, challenging acoustic environments, dim lighting, and lack of deaf awareness among staff ruins what should be a relaxing and enjoyable experience.’
The app categorises sound levels as quiet, moderate, loud and very loud. It classifies 70 dBA as safe for hearing and great for conversation, 71 to 75 dBA as safe for hearing and conducive to conversation, 76 to 80 dBA as probably safe for hearing but difficult for conversation and 81 dBA as not safe for hearing. The Health and Safety Executive states that employers must provide hearing protection to staff regularly exposed to noise of 85 dBA and higher. Very few of them do.