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Jan 24, 2010 10:27 AM

Unacceptable Noise Level

My husband and I ate dinner at this restaurant on a weeknight a few weeks ago and had a good meal--however, the restaurant was full and the noise level was just unacceptable. Diners are seated next to each other at long tables, somewhat narrow, tables. The people next to us had to speak very loudly to hear each other and so did we. My ears rang when I left. We won't go back.

3917 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610

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  1. There are very few restaurants that are unacceptably noisy at all hours of service. Go to Camino for brunch.

    1. I've been there twice when every seat was full, and it's not among the noisiest places--as you note, conversation is possible if you raise your voice. I've been to Cesar in Berkeley when it was so noisy that the only way to communicate was to shout in the ear of the person next to you. I've walked into Luka's and been unable to communicate with the host at all except by gestures.

      The Chron uses a decibel meter to rate restaurants. Camino is one of the 331 restaurants that gets four bells ("talking only with raised voices"). There are 91 rated with a bomb icon ("too noisy").

      17 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        In a restaurant where they micro-manage everything, down to what it's permissible to drink, I have to assume that the noise level is intentional. Clearly they are choosing what kind of customer they want, and it isn't me. Perhaps janewebster feels the same.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          I don't think the noise at Camino is any more intentional than the relatively uncomfortable chairs.

          The chef is very particular about sourcing and quality and won't serve anything he wouldn't eat or drink himself. I think he eventually found decaf and vodka that met his standards.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Well, yes. It's all about what the chef wants, and apparently he doesn't want his customers to be comfortable, or he doesn't care. If I ate out several times a week like you do it might not matter to me, but since I have to choose carefully, I choose not to patronize places that don't take their customers' comfort into account.

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              It's all about money. A noise-prone restaurant can appear vibrant even when it's half empty. Too much noise dampening and a half-empty restaurant appears dead, which is bad for business. And if the noise-prone restaurant gets too loud when it's full... Well, if the restaurant is full, the owner is probably happy. And it does sound like this place (which I have never been to) takes its customers' comfort into account by having uncomfortable chairs. Many busy restaurants with limited space use that technique to discourage customers from lingering too long after they've finished their meals, i.e., they don't want their customers to be too comfortable.

              1. re: nocharge

                As I said, they decided what kind of customer they wanted, and it isn't me, and apparently isn't the original poster, who said she wouldn't go back. If they don't want my business, there are plenty of other places that do; if they have enough customers without me, then we both get what we want.

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  I totally agree with Ruth here. It seems that restaurants must WANT to have that loudness. There must be some customers (maybe those who have nothing interesting to say to one another) who don't mind it or even like it. It's also possible that people feel intimidated if they don't like the loud noise, since it's all over the place these days.

                  The worst thing (and I can't remember if Camino does this or not since it's been a while since I was there) is the restaurant playing loud Rolling Stones music AND having bad acoustics so that talking has to become yelling when the place is full.

                  Nothing worse for digestion (or enjoyment) of food than a wall of noise AND music while eating.

                  I wonder what'd happen if a poll were taken in the places where the Chron awards a bell or a bomb....There MUST be some reason the restaurants do ceiling acoustical tiles, slate floors, plaster walls. I mean they're consciously creating loud noise.

                  I wish there were enough folks who were angry enough to stage a BIG boycott.

                  End of rant.

                  3917 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610

                  1. re: oakjoan

                    Some restaurants obviously want things loud, e.g. Luka's, Pizzaiolo, and Boot & Shoe, where they crank up the music. At Camino you can barely hear it unless the place is empty.

                    Other times the bad acoustics are an accident, e.g. Redd and Incanto, which remodeled to reduce noise.

                    1. re: oakjoan

                      Of course the noise level is a result of a number of deliberate decisions made in the design of the restaurant. Go with exposed brick walls, windows with no curtains, hardwood floors, no tablecloths, exposed beams, no acoustical tiling, an open kitchen, seats with no upholstery, tables close together and it's hardly an accident if it gets loud, especially if you throw in a DJ as well. While it's possible that the designer may have been clueless as to how loud it would actually get, there are ways to ameliorate noise if the restaurant owner really wants to. The Wall Street Journal recently had a detailed article on the topic using La Mar as an example. (Link may require a subscription.)

                      1. re: nocharge

                        I don't see how any professional designer or restaurateur could be "clueless" about the noise issue -- it's been too widely discussed for too long. As that article mentions, the SF Chronicle has been publishing noise ratings along with its reviews for several years now. It doesn't take rocket science to know what factors into making a restaurant noisy. Restaurateurs are just choosing -- for whatever reason -- to either ignore the noise issue or make it a low priority. Clearly the people like Batali and Puck interviewed in that article are more interested in achieving a certain atmosphere, customer comfort be damned.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          Well, I'm willing to believe that not all restaurants that are too loud are so intentionally, at least among the ones that are relatively new. Some places just didn't fully grasp the implications of their design decisions as evidenced by the fact that they later made an effort to correct the problem.

                          And, hey, there are a lot of people opening restaurants who are "clueless" in one respect or another. That's part of the reason the failure rate is so high. (My pet theory is that anyone contemplating opening a restaurant should be forced to read, no less than 10 times, the chapter "Owner's Syndrome and Other Medical Anomalies" in Tony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential before investing a dime.)

                        2. re: nocharge

                          Interesting bit about slower tempos and no vocals being less "energetic."

                          Noise can result of design decisions, but it's often unintentional, as noted in that article: "... restaurateurs often fail to consult with acoustical experts during the design process because of the cost, because the right look is paramount to them or because they believe that their customers actually enjoy the noise." Only the latter is a deliberate decision to make the place noisy.

                          As Redd's experience showed, that can be a false economy.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            The sound engineer in me must comment: the other night at Flour + Water, I noticed that the music was very loud, but we had no trouble hearing each other talk. What I couldn't hear were the vocals in the music, and I suspect that they adjusted the sound band power to leave low and high range frequencies but cut out the frequencies that overlap with the human voice. Our brains are very good at separating different frequency ranges, which is why we can pick out voices from a crowd, or single instruments in a symphony.

                            1. re: SteveG

                              Thank you, this sounds like it fits last nights situation. I was at Martins West, place was full for beer week and noisy. Yet we were amazed that we could speak in normal indoor voices and hear each other, and pick up the conversations around us too. The music was loud, it seemed like I could Feel the beat vibrating and I could recognize the melodies but not make out the vocals. I wondered how this could be possible.

                    2. re: nocharge

                      Camino's quiet when it's half-full, the dining room is huge, and the menu and style of service encourage customers to spend a couple of hours at the table.

                      I think when building out and furnishing the place they were focused on sustainability (recycled church pews and chairs, recycled wainscoting) and making it beautiful, which it is, and the noise level when the place is full was an unexpected side effect of some of their choices.

                      1. re: nocharge


                        well summarized! as with most things in life, follow the money...

                      2. re: Ruth Lafler

                        I choose places with chefs that prioritize the food they serve the customers before all else.

                        I find the booths at Aziza to be cramped and uncomfortable (especially for a tall person like me), but that doesn't stop me from wanting to eat there.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          Excellent reply, if one finds it a comfortable feeling to 'yell' to be able to carry on a conversation, well, that is not the kind of 'comfort' I would be willing to pay for.

                  2. The sad aspect of the noise issue is that many restaurants are actually designed intentionally to be noisy. There are some simple ways to "warm up" a room, but that's not considered chic. But perhaps as the boomers start needing hearing aids, we'll see an increasing # of venues that will take the often small steps needed to make a huge difference for having a conversation.

                    but then again, perhaps we'll all sit at the table and send twitters to each other...

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: escargot3

                      I think lounge-type places that want to attract a young, drinking crowd are the ones that usually try to maximize the din. Though most of the few places so noisy that I've walked out had deafening music, in which case design doesn't matter.

                      Incanto just closed for a week to redecorate slightly, and took advantage of that to install some acoustic panels.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Have you noticed a difference in the noise level at Incanto with the new panels? I never considered it too noisy anyway, so was surprised to see Mark Pastore emphasizing the noise reduction aspect in his letter.

                        1. re: farmersdaughter

                          I never thought Incanto was that bad, either, but I've rarely sat in the dining room at peak hours. The Chron gave it only three bells.

                          I think it seemed less noisy. I was sitting at the bar, which is quieter anyway.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Luckily, I've only eaten in the "Library" section, which is quiet. One of my very favorite restaurants is Dopo and I won't go there anymore due to the din. Last time we sat upstairs hoping it'd be a bit quieter. Dream on Theresa!

                            1. re: oakjoan

                              Dopo has an upstairs? We eat there all the time and I've never noticed that.

                          2. re: farmersdaughter

                            I thought they said they compensated for removing the curtains by installing hidden panels.

                            1. re: SteveG

                              They installed acoustic panels on the ceiling and where the curtains were, and hid them with huge photo enlargements on some sort of acoustically transparent fabric.

                        2. re: escargot3

                          I'm not in SF but in SWFL and just posted a little review of a new place that just opened here...the din and clatter was really a detraction from having a nice meal. Our work group went for lunch and we could not hear each other speak. And yes, these places seem to be planned this way: all glass, marble and tile...nothing to soften the all. None of the 7 of us will return and we had a wide age range 30-55 in our group. What an abomination, truly!

                        3. My husband and I used to love going to the Flea Street Cafe in (Menlo Park?), where the food was great, the tables close together, and the overheard conversations like something out of a west coast zeitgeist novel. Great entertainment value.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: pikawicca

                            I don't consider Flea Street to have tables that close together. Compared to, say, La Strada in downtown PA. Somehow, the conversations there do carry, though. I have found the same effect - but pleasantly so.

                          2. Just to put this in perspective, here's a summary of the Chron's decibel-meter ratings:

                            one bell (pleasantly quiet) - given to 69 restaurants
                            two bells (can talk easily) - 485
                            three bells (talking gets difficult) - 492
                            four bells (talking only with raised voices) - 331
                            bomb (too noisy) - 91

                            Other Berkeley-Oakland places with the same four-bell rating include A Cote, Adagia, B, Bellanico, Bucci's, Dona Tomas, Flora, Fonda, Garibaldi's, Kirala, Kirin, La Note, Lake Chalet, Le Cheval, Levende, Marzano, Mezze, Miss Pearl's, Ozumo, Pican, Pizzaiolo, Pyramid, Rudy's Can't Fail, Saul's, Sea Salt, Sidebar, Spenger's, Spettro, Tamarindo, Udupi, Yoshi's, and Zachary's. Adesso, Barlata, Cato's, Cesar, Corso, Luka's, Marzano on College, Shen Hua, and Wood Tavern get the bomb rating.

                            Those ratings pretty much match my personal experience. And I think a lot of the places with lower noise ratings would be just as noisy if they were popular enough to be full.

                            10 Replies
                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Funny because I've never noticed many of these places to be unreasonably loud at all--Kirala, Marzano (on Park), Pican, Seat Salt, Sidebar; even Corso and Wood Tavern. But then again we usually eat at 6:00-ish whenever possible, maybe earlier than folks with loud (and alcohol-augmented) voices.

                              Among those Robert listed, I've found Pizzaiolo and Adesso to be the most consistently loud to the point of unpleasantness--and I agree that that seems mostly a product of how crowded both places always are. (Well, I've never been to Adesso when they aren't doing the free appetizer spread.)

                              1. re: abstractpoet

                                At Pizzaiolo I've found a lot of the problem is not just crowds, it is how LOUD they play the music; they aren't always amenable to turning it down.

                                OTOH, I must have extremely good luck at Cesar Berkeley, or go at unusual times, because I don't find it to be too loud to have a pleasant conversation (most of my five or so visits there have been late afternoon/early evening, usually for a drink before dinner at Chez Panisse or CP Cafe next door).

                                1. re: susancinsf

                                  re susaninsf:

                                  YES! YES! Pizzaiolo is the worst! Loud Rolling Stones music over a general loud racket. So not only can't you hear the dinner conversation, you want to sing along to Blinded by Love and that interferes with your attention to your friends...of course you couldn't hear them anyway, so maybe singing along gives people something to do instead of talking.

                                  1. re: oakjoan

                                    I agree with you, but after reading these posts am somewhat re-thinking my recommendation to take your sister to LaCiccia for her birthday....I think you'd both love the food and the service, but it can get noisy, especially on weekends. The good news is that the noise is only because it is small and can get crowded, at least they don't crank up the music (Pretty sure they never have music).

                                    I really like the food at Pizzaiolo but like you I find their attitude about the music to be as annoying ....

                                    1. re: susancinsf

                                      Susan: We now have res. at Marzano, but I'm still open to other places. We're going to play the "Seniors" card and go at 5:30....would LaCiccia be quieter at that time?

                                      Does anybody have thoughts on Marzano for something other than pizza?

                                      1. re: oakjoan

                                        yes, LaCiccia would be quieter early, especially on a weeknight.

                                        1. re: oakjoan

                                          Sorry to butt into the conversation, but want to encourage you to go to the Park Blvd. Marzano, rather than the new College Ave. branch...we found the food to be better at the orignal locatiom; and even though both spaces are brick and hard surfaced, I think Park Blvd. is a little quieter. {I haven't been to La Ciccia yet, so can't compare].

                                          I haven't found a clinker yet on Marzano's menu--pizza, or anything else.

                                  2. re: abstractpoet

                                    Yeah, we usually eat after 9, so don't get most places at their peak.

                                    Berkeley Cesar is lovely when it's not busy.

                                    1. re: abstractpoet

                                      Time of day really matters. In all those cases, I agree with the ratings when considering the loudest time of day for that restaurant (say, 8pm, although Luka's and Cesar Shattuck are later). Eat late or early and it's 100% different - important to keep in mind when there's a "yes it is!" / "no it isn't!" style discussion.

                                    2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      There's something wrong with the new Garibaldi's. I was there for happy hour yesterday and sat at the communal table with two other couples. There were also two couples at the bar. The rest of the restaurant was closed. Still, it was so loud that we could barely have a conversation, or hear the waiter speak. It's a pretty space, but must be awful when it's full. I'm not sure what the problem is. Maybe noise bounces off the long wooden table.