INDIANAPOLIS — Was the fried chicken at The Eagle as good as I thought, or did the restaurant’s noise level make me think it tasted better than it did?
Buzzy restaurants like Indy's hugely popular The Eagle are a thing. Buzzy means loud, sometimes good loud as in the happy Americana music that played while I ate my chicken, and sometimes bad loud, as in the night when even millennials moaned that the restaurant’s din inundated their conversations.
The Eagle is far from alone in eschewing the white-tablecloth feel, listless atmosphere and expensive touches of interiors past. Restaurants such as Bluebeard, Tinker Street and Delicia draw patrons as well as noise complaints.
Over the past decade, restaurants have become noisier, and trends indicate the volume may keep rising. All that racket impacts more than dinnertime conversation.
“A growing body of laboratory-based research now demonstrates that loud background noise can affect the ability to taste food.”
That was Charles Spence’s conclusion in Noise and Its Impact on the Perception of Food and Drink. It’s a research review the Oxford University experimental psychology professor published in a 2014 issue of the scientific journal Flavour.
Spence studies the relationship between sound and the sense of taste. It’s not easy.
Our sense of taste is complex, impacted by sight, smell, memories, music, the last thing on our tongues before the next thing we put in our mouths. Still, research indicates that loud noise may diminish salty and sweet flavors, Spence told me. On the other hand, it intensifies umami, the so-called “fifth taste” characterizing ultra-savory foods such as bacon, mushrooms and parmesan cheese.
Loud music hinders our ability to perceive how much alcohol is in a cocktail, thereby changing how we think drinks taste. We drink more when the music is loud and fast. We chew faster. Noise appears to mess with our sense of smell, too.
“It is likely partly distraction, that by attending to what we hear, we have less attention for what we taste, smell,” Spence explained. “We may no longer be able to hear the crunch, the crackle, the crispy, the carbonated that constitute a significant part of our eating and drinking pleasure. However, beyond the general distraction effect, there may be a masking effect, meaning that we simply find it harder to taste even if we are trying our hardest.”
Why are restaurants doing this to us?
Complaints about noisy restaurants started rising about a decade ago as fine dining’s tablecloths, carpeting and soft music succumbed to stripped-down, urban industrial atmospheres where blaring tunes and bar dining are usually de rigueur.
Restaurant watchers say New York City’s adored Babbo set the pace. At this Mario Batali eatery, the famous pappardelle bolognese is served to a hard rock soundtrack like the one chefs prefer in the kitchen.
The recession played a role, as well. Food prices climbed, people dined out less often. Consumers sought bargains. The combination forced restaurateurs to cut costs, including décor.
“With that trend evolution, spaces were designed that look great, but noise became a real issue,” interior designer Stephen C. Allen of Indy’s Phanomen/design said.
Noise was the No. 1 grumble among consumers questioned in Zagat’s 2014 Dining Trends Survey. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said noise was more annoying than service, prices or crowds. Noise inched down to No. 2 in subsequent years by just a couple of percentage points.
Diners gripe so often that restaurant critics, including Robert Sietsema of The Washington Post, rate noise in their reviews. Yelp and Open Table reviewers also consider noise.
Free noise-measuring apps are available for download. Using one and a professional device, acoustical consultant Gavin Haverstick of Carmel and I recorded up to 85 decibels at The Eagle between 6 and 7 p.m. one weekday. That’s comparable to the sound of a lawn mower or city traffic.
Noise bounces around The Eagle’s hard floor, tin ceiling and glass accents, Haverstick explained. As the crowd grows, so do conversation volumes. “And it just snowballs from there,” Haverstick said.
I’m not picking on The Eagle. I love the place, as do many people. Plenty of other Indianapolis restaurants that diners cite as too noisy are among the city’s busiest: Bakersfield, Delicia, Kuma’s Corner, Tinker Street, Giordano’s, Plow & Anchor, Bluebeard, some Café Patachou and Napolese locations, new Open Society in SoBro and new Salt on Mass.
As one diner told me on Facebook when I asked about loud restaurants, “Too noisy is a list that would have no end.”
Diners think restaurateurs dial up the volume to keep folks drinking and quickly move customers along. But restaurant design trends indicate what is clear from the most popular restaurants: We want excitement, a lively bar, open kitchens and communal tables.
“What we found is people react very positively to high-energy situations like that,” The Eagle co-owner Joe Lanni said.
Acoustic experts who help The Eagle measure noise discovered that “no matter what the volume of the music is, the people and the laughing … the lively interaction, is actually a higher noise volume than the music itself,” Lanni’s business partner Alex Blust added.
Serial restaurant-goer Kevin Koonce of Brownsburg is leery of peaceful restaurants. “Normally, a place that is really quiet and you can easily carry on a conversation with the entire 10-top means that it’s a place you won’t enjoy for long. That’s because if it’s really quiet, it will be really closed soon because nobody is going there.”
Don't worry. They're listening
Owners trying to attract millennials is another reason restaurants are louder. The group that the U.S. Census Bureau defines as being born between 1977 and 1992 has surpassed baby boomers as America’s largest living generation. Generation Z, so-called “post-millennials” age 13-23, are rising. Millennials dine to socialize, and market research shows they want hip spots for hanging with friends. Think Fletcher Place’s Milktooth, Indy’s restaurant of the moment, with its hardwood communal table, concrete floor, glass garage doors and a rousing cooking show in a wide-open, diner-style kitchen.
But Chicago-based food service research and consulting firm Technomic found that 66 percent of consumers, despite their ages, see greater value when a restaurant has appropriate noise levels.
Restaurants in Indianapolis are listening.
“It’s definitely something we think about as far as the overall atmosphere,” Lanni said. “At both of our concepts, Bakersfield and The Eagle, it’s intentionally more lively and a little louder than a normal place would be, although we generally try to make sure it’s not so loud that it interferes with spirited conversation.”
Noise-absorbing ceiling materials crown both concepts. Managers on the hour check music volumes by ear and by talking to one another and adjust as needed. Guests should be able to hear a song’s lyrics and talk across the table without yelling, Lanni said. Patios provide quieter escapes.
At Broad Ripple's Public Greens, owned by Indy restaurant group Patachou Inc., new ceiling panels improve sound system quality and reduce echoing. Similar changes are happening at the group's other properties.
“Music is tremendously important in any restaurant, but the finer the system, the better the control over creating atmosphere vs. blasting noise,” Patachou Inc. President Martha Hoover said.