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Loud Restaurants, Loud Wines

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Interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle the other day concerning noise levels in restaurants. The newspaper began rating the decibel level in restaurants ten years ago. Now, they’ve found that eateries are noisier than ever, with decibels in many above 80 — approaching the level at which sustained exposure may result in hearing loss.

Such favorites as B44, Balboa Cafe, Slanted Door, Tadich Grill, Nopa and LuLu are literally ear-blasting, and the Chronicle asserts that all that noise may not be a mere coincidence. Restaurateurs seem to be deliberately encouraging din in order to create a sense of excitement and “keep diners from lingering too long.”

This got me thinking about today’s high-extract, superripe, super-oaky wines. (Stay with me on this one.) I don’t particularly like that style, but since so many wineries make them, they must be selling. That means that millions of Americans must like these over-the-top wines that shout rather than whisper, that pound their chests like some liquid King Kong, clambering all over the dinner table and trouncing everything underfoot.

Could there be a connection between this loud style of wine and the loudness that afflicts so many restaurants? Could it be that people nowadays are so numbed out that they need to have their experiences on steroids in order to feel anything?

Maybe it’s a sign of aging (I prefer to think of it as maturation), but I like subtlety and balance in my life. At restaurants, I want to chat with everyone at my table, instead of cupping my ear with my hand and incessantly saying, “What?” Just as I prefer conversation to cacophony, with my wines I prefer charm to muscularity, tastefulness to vulgarity, a wine that coos and seduces you, rather than clubs you across the skull and drags you off to its cave.

Now, go back to that Chronicle line, “keep diners from lingering too long.” The suggestion is that even younger people out for a night on the town will be forced to abandon a dinner earlier than they ordinarily would in a quiet restaurant. The assault on their eardrums is simply too much for them to want any more of it — or to be able to stand any more of it. This is similar to the problem with Godzilla wines — that first sip can be impressive, but then the wine palls, and you can’t finish a second glass, much less drain the bottle. Well, there you have a connection between loud restaurants and loud wines. Neither is user-friendly. Both dazzle early, then disappoint fast.

It’s also been my observation that diners who like loud restaurants are the same people who are glued to their Ipods and cell phones. They seem to prefer instant messaging or listening through their headphones to talking with the person next to them. Are they also the same consumers who like wines that scream instead of suggest and engage?

  1. It isn’t until we go into another culture that we truly find out how loud and hurried we are as Americans. I’ll never forget the first cultural experience we had in Puerto Rico years ago. We zipped though our meal, as we thought we were supposed to, then we sat and sat, sipped and sat, sipped and sat…All the while waiting for our check to arrive. Finally, my husband asked the waiter for the check, which was dutifully and cheerfully brought to us. Jose had to ask… “Why did we have to wait so long?” The answer… And remember that Puerto Rico has roots that date back to Christopher Columbus… “One must ask for the check. The table is yours for the night. To give a check to you before you indicate that you’re ready to leave would be to insult you…” Brutish, like a wine on steroids. To linger is to enjoy a soft and subtle experience… One that’s quality over quantity, and becomes memorable.

  2. Having worked in restaurant industry for years to pay my way through my graduate work, I am sympathetic to this trend. What started with intimate dining experiences complete with soft background music and hushed tones, has now turned into huge warehouse spaces with loud, heavy bass music and echoing clinks, clatters and laughter of patrons. To hear someone sitting right across from you takes your full attention to simply read their lips. And as you astutely pointed out Steven, I personally think this is a direct reflection on how our current digital culture fears silence and subtlety. To do nothing, other than focus on the moment is equivalent to torture, and sadly, I don’t see this trend dissipating anytime soon.

    Equally true, I can relate to Jo Diaz’ comment on how other culture’s approach their dining experience differently. Living in Barcelona over the past four years, I have found that your table is yours for the evening; however, I think this is in part because they don’t have a tipping culture, so there’s no need for heavy turnover. Additionally, a 3 hour meal is considered normal, as business and relationships are created over food.

    In relation to wine, Spaniards tend to love their emblematic region of Rioja, which has been prone to be heavy handed with their oak. Sure, this is changing, but although wine geeks may be screaming for finesse and authenticity in their wines, I don’t see this trend among your average wine lover. Instead, I still see a craving for bigger, better and bolder. But with anything in life the pendulum will eventually swing, as change is inevitable.

    Thanks for the great post!

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