Dining over a din: Loud restaurants bring energy, gripes

Orlando SentinelOctober 12, 2013 

Chad Bell loved the steak tacos and margaritas at Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar in Orlando. The blaring Top 40 music? Not so much.

"It would be a great place if you were going to have drinks with friends," said Bell, 40, of Winter Springs. "For dinner or conversation, it just kind of ruined it."

Raising your voice at a restaurant is becoming as common as leaving a tip. It's a trend that some customers, generally older ones, find frustrating. Noise ranked No. 1 in a Zagat survey last month of diners' pet peeves, with 27 percent calling it their biggest complaint.

For some restaurants, though, loud music is part of the ambience -- and they aren't inclined to lower the volume. Some of the noise is fueled by trendy design: open kitchens, cement floors and high ceilings.

"Loud restaurants equate to successful restaurants," said Tom Galvin, a Winter Garden restaurant designer.

At Rocco's Tacos, manager Pete Vittas agrees. He described the boisterous atmosphere as "dynamic and energetic."

Vittas said guests haven't complained about the volume, although sometimes the "guy across the lake lets us know it might be a little too loud."

Both customers and neighbors have occasionally complained about the music at Orlando burger joint Graffiti Junktion at night, president Greg Peters said. Restaurant employees can turn down the speakers in different sections if someone complains, Peters said.

But "it's kind of our mojo," he said. "You go in there, it's got music playing, people are having a good time."

Graffiti Junktion cut down on live bands in its Thornton Park location a couple of years ago, Peters said. Now bands are scheduled just a couple of times a year and stop by 10 p.m.

At Prato in Winter Park, Fla., a bar takes up much of the dining room, and alternative rock in the background gets louder as the night goes on. The restaurant also recently added speakers outside.

The music "has to be at a level you can hear it to create that energy, to create a buzz," said Tim Noelke, Prato's general manager. "Definitely, we've elevated that music a little louder than some restaurants."

One recent night, the decibel level registered at 89.2, about the same as a motorcycle 25 feet away.

Noelke said some guests have complained and he will lower the volume in certain parts of his restaurant upon request. He's also installed soundproofing in Prato's high ceilings and put cushions on benches.

Emma Starling said she didn't mind the noise while enjoying date night with her husband, Walker.

"This is a young, cool place," said Starling, 34, of Orlando. "So you expect it to have louder music."

The Starlings have a 10-month-old son, so they see another benefit to lots of background noise: When the baby cries, he doesn't disturb other diners.

"We don't go to quiet places anymore," Walker Starling said.

Nearby, 62-year-old Richard Spell of Houston confessed he would have liked a little less commotion with his cuisine.

"I can understand the attraction to the, I hate to say, younger crowd. It makes it seem alive," said Spell, glancing around at his fellow diners, who appeared mostly between the ages of 25 and 45. "My choice would be a nice, quiet place these guys would hate."

Indeed, there often seems to be an age divide on the subject of noisy restaurants.

"Younger generations are looking at the noise as energy," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at restaurant research firm Technomic. "Older generations are looking at it as an annoyance."

In a NPD Group survey last year of diners 48 and older, almost half said they would visit full-service restaurants more if the eateries would turn down the volume a notch.

Even some younger customers, though, would like a little more peace and quiet.

"I'd rather have the decibel level lower," said 25-year-old Vivian Gornik of Tampa, dining with friends recently at BurgerFi in Orlando as '80s rock blared over the speakers.

Even so, the chain's director of operations, Josh Lorence, said he's not aware of complaints.

"Our customers seem to love our environment," he said.

Some restaurants have special attractions that are inherently noisy. Taverna Opa in Orlando is known for its sometimes-loud live entertainment, which includes belly dancers.

"The reason why you do come to the restaurant is the loudness of the restaurant and the entertainment and dancing and having fun," said Katerina Coumbaros, Taverna Opa's owner.

In general, Tristano said, diners shouldn't expect restaurants to quiet down. "I don't know that restaurants are deeply concerned over it," Tristano said. "Most of the restaurants are noisy because they're full, and full restaurants aren't concerned with the noise."

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