Exposed wall and roof, concrete floor, hard timber furnishing and thumping music – a modern restaurant can be a noisy place.
Sleek minimalism at contemporary restaurants has put paid to noise-deadening carpets, drapes, plush upholstery and tablecloths.
And according to a man known as the “Taste Professor”, the hard surfaces are leading to noisier restaurants – and worse-tasting food.
“Restaurants with hard surfaces will be reverberating noise, whether that be plates, cutlery, conversations or kitchen noise,” says Russell Keast, an associate professor of food and sensory science at Deakin University.
Laboratory testing by Professor Keast found elevated noise levels reduced our ability to detect saltiness and sweetness while enhancing bitterness, resulting in a less enjoyable culinary experience.
A Facebook poll of almost 1000 readers of The Age’s Good Food section conducted this week showed 85 per cent of respondents believed restaurant noise levels were too high.
Tony Eldred – who has advised many top restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney for three decades – says increased noise worsens the communal experience of dining.
“People go to restaurants for social reasons – they want to chat to people. They don’t go there just for the food,” he says.
An analysis by Good Food in 2013 found noise levels at some Melbourne restaurants were as high as 95 decibels.
The state’s workplace watchdog, WorkSafe Victoria, classifies any noise level higher than 85 decibels as unsafe.
Mr Eldred says the trend towards minimalist fit-outs began in the 1990s, and has ramped up in the past decade as restaurants seek cost-savings in an industry with falling profit margins.
“Almost all innovations in restaurants come for economic reasons, not artistic ones,” says Mr Eldred.
“If you acquire a building with exposed concrete walls and don’t have to touch them, and then don’t have to put a suspended ceiling in, you can save an awful lot of money.”
Restaurant interiors can cost million of dollars, according to Mr Eldred, and a shift towards larger dining rooms was also deterring restaurateurs from taking on the high cost of luxe fit-outs.
Christian McCabe, co-owner of Melbourne restaurant Lesa, agrees that renovation costs prevented restaurateurs from investing heavily in acoustics.
Mr McCabe jokes that working at his previous restaurant, the acclaimed Town Mouse in Carlton, almost sent him deaf.
“This time around at Lesa,” he says, “we had the money left to do it.”
At Lesa, the music is played from many speakers across the room to avoid a build-up of noise in particular areas.
The ceiling and floor are sound-proofed, and leather upholstery soaks up noise to help create what Mr McCabe called the “collective energy” conducive to meaningful conversation among diners.
“No one likes a quiet dining room, so we wanted it to be loud enough to create intimacy while still being possible to talk to one another.”
10 of Melbourne’s best quieter restaurants
- Bottega, 74 Bourke Street, Melbourne Soft lighting, single sittings and muted conversation in an elegant Italian trattoria up the high-end of town.
- Navi, 83B Gamon Street, Yarraville Intimate westside gem combining the semi-industrial with the elegantly soothing.
- Etta, 60 Lygon Street, Brunswick East Neighbourhood gem that’s more relaxed than raucous.
- Ides, 92 Smith Street, Collingwood Creative cuisine in a shadowy, chic dining room that makes it easy to forget the world outside.
- Lesa, level 1, 122 Russell Street, Melbourne A dark-timbered room perfect for lingering in over a long wine-driven dinner.
- Donovans, 40 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda Dreamy bay views and chilled vibes at an iconic St Kilda restaurant.
- Matteo’s, 533 Brunswick Street Melbourne, Fitzroy North Starched linen and deferential service in an old Melbourne favourite.
- Grossi Florentino, 80 Bourke Street, Melbourne A grand place for special occasion dinners or quiet lunches.
- Minamishima, 4 Lord Street, Richmond Quiet Japanese perfection in the back streets of Richmond.
- Noir, 175 Swan Street , Richmond Modern French done with warmth and panache in a charming timbered dining room.