We’ve all been there. You go out for a nice dinner where you plan to drop at least a hundred bucks, probably more. You’ve been looking forward to this for weeks. Maybe it’s a special occasion. And then this happens:

You’re seated near a large party where you’re forced to listen to their incessant chatter, including blather from some blowhard loudly recounting, in the bluest language, a recent run-in with his boss.

You’re seated by a speaker. A line cook has control of the music and has decided that you should dine to the latest from (insert annoying artist here), volume turned up high.

You’re enveloped in a general cacophony of loud voices, utensils hitting the hard floor, banging pots and pans, and music that doesn’t match the food, and you have to shout across the table to be heard, which only makes things worse.

Nationally, if polls are to be believed, diners think that restaurants are getting louder. Zagat’s 2018 dining survey found that noise bothers diners more than service, crowds, high prices and lack of parking. Consumer Reports, too, found that noise is the top complaint among restaurant patrons. And Oticon, a large-scale manufacturer of hearing aids, surveyed the top 5 rated restaurants in 10 metropolitan markets and released these results in April: Decibel readings taken at the restaurants between 7 and 8 p.m. on a Saturday night showed noise levels similar to the sound of a buzzing alarm clock or heavy traffic on a busy roadway.

Much of the increased volume can be blamed on trendy interior designs that are not eardrum-friendly. Open kitchens contribute to the clatter. Bars and lounges often have nothing separating them from the dining area. That industrial chic decor that’s so popular now comes with lots of metal, brick, stone and tile – hard surfaces that send sound vibrations ringing through the entire establishment. And all the stuff that used to help absorb sound – drapes, carpeting, tablecloths – have gone out of style.

No restaurant is immune to complaints about noise. Consider this recent Open Table takedown of Fore Street, one of Portland’s best-known restaurants – located in an old brick warehouse and known for its lively open kitchen and happy dining room chatter:

“Although I thought the food was good, I couldn’t get over the amount of noise coming from the open kitchen,” a customer visiting from Las Vegas wrote. “Wait staff stations were within earshot of our table, not to mention the loud level of general conversation coming from other customers. I think the acoustics could be better. At times it was distracting and took away from our conversation and enjoyment. Anytime you pay over $35.00 per plate, I think there needs to be more than a hash house ambience.”

Ouch.

It’s high season for dining in this restaurant town, so here’s a look at noise from several perspectives:

THE FED-UP DINER

Victor Trodella of Yarmouth is an architect, so he knows something about acoustics. And acoustics in restaurants have been getting worse over the past 10 years, he says.

Trodella, of Victor Trodella Architecture and Project Management, loves to dine out, whether he’s taking a date out for a nice meal or entertaining clients. But if he walks into a restaurant and it’s “so loud I can’t even hear myself think,” he’ll never return. Sometimes he’ll have a word with the owner on the way out, “and you get some flimflam response, and nobody pays attention.”

In short, Trodella doesn’t feel heard.

“There’s a lack of awareness on the part of the owners that (acoustics are) an important aspect of what they’re presenting,” he said. “They’re certainly paying attention to the menu, and they’re paying intense attention to getting local and sustainable products, and they pay a lot of attention to seating and hopefully customer service, but I don’t think they’re paying a whole lot of attention to their architecture.”

The trendy idea of opening a restaurant in an industrial space is “horrible,” Trodella says. It is “just like saying shipping containers make great houses. They don’t.”

And while Trodella understands why restaurants don’t like sound-absorbing carpet – it’s hard to keep clean – “they could have soft seating,” he said. “They could have fabric materials on the walls. They could have acoustic ceilings.”

Trodella says he would never take a date or a client to a place that’s so loud they couldn’t have a conversation. He can always find a quieter restaurant. What puzzles him is why a restaurateur wouldn’t care about losing the thousands of dollars he spends on dining out every year?

Victor Trodella of Yarmouth says he’ll go to Blue Spoon or Back Bay Grill for good food and acoustics.

The idea that restaurateurs want their businesses to look busy, filled with a young, hip, crowd is offensive to Trodella.

“Young and hip isn’t what this is supposed to be about,” he said. “This is supposed to be about serving good food to customers.”

And he bristles at the suggestion he avoid crowds by dining early or late: “I want to go eat when everyone else wants to go eat,” he said. “I’m not going to go in the middle of the afternoon.”

So where does Trodella spend his money – and spare his hearing? Back Bay Grill in Portland, he says, is “a wonderful place for acoustics – and food.” So is Portland’s Blue Spoon. And while his feelings are mixed about Lolita in Portland, since it has an open kitchen, he likes it for its “sense of intimacy.”

Once Trodella got all of this off his chest, he chuckled and said, “Thank you for caring.”

THE NIGHTCLUB SET vs. THE SEASONED SET

When our restaurant reviewer, Andrew Ross, dines out, he always makes a note of the noise level in a clever way. He describes the noise level at Drifters Wife in Portland, for example, as like having “a conversation over a neighbor’s fence.” BrgrBar in Portland reminds him of a “1980s arcade.”

And at Eventide Oyster Co., that wildly popular oyster bar on Middle Street in Portland, where the wait for a table in high season can be a couple of hours?

“Aircraft carrier.”

Chad Hammad looks on as his son, Suhail Hammad, 11, right, tries the breaded pollack Eventide, one of the noisiest restaurants in Portland. It’s small, popular, crowded and lively, especially in the summer.

Talk about noisy restaurants with people, and Eventide almost always comes up. Co-owner Mike Wiley totally gets that. Then he explains how noise can be a good thing. That the very qualities that keep some people away – the noise and rambunctious atmosphere – are exactly the things that many others love. There are simple, affordable solutions to some of the noise issues, he said, “but I think that for us, we’ve recognized that’s become the personality of Eventide, and if that’s not for everyone, we can’t be everything to everybody.”

Wiley said Eventide’s evolution into a place for a hip, younger – and louder – crowd was a happy accident. Wiley and his partners at Big Tree Hospitality thought they were opening a small oyster bar for Portland, but quickly came to realize they had a really busy restaurant on their hands. “Acoustic modulation was absolutely the last thing on our minds when we were building the place,” he said. The partners used the word “convivial” in their business plan to describe the sort of atmosphere they wanted for Eventide; they wanted it to be fun, and feel like it’s “the place to be,” but even they were unprepared for just how busy the restaurant would become, especially on summer weekends.

Wiley says they don’t get a lot of requests from Eventide customers to tone it down. They occasionally have to ask a party to take it down a notch, “but the fun and crazy spirit of the restaurant are what people sign up for,” he said. People go there in big groups, and it’s a popular date night spot. Wiley said the cooks and owners have joked for a long time that on Friday and Saturday nights, “it’s not Eventide Oyster Co., it’s Eventide Shellfish Nightclub.”

Contrast that with the relatively low-key Hugo’s right next door, owned by the same partners. On busy nights, with the right mix of people, Hugo’s can get “pretty loud,” Wiley says, but not nearly as loud as Eventide. It’s the place for meaningful conversations over a quiet, deluxe, multi-course dinner, and tends to attract “the slightly more seasoned set,” Wiley said. The dining room has leather-covered booths that softens sound, and the soffit that hangs over the big bar “gobbles up” sound, Wiley said. Still, Hugo’s actually gets more noise complaints than Eventide because Hugo’s diners expect less noise.

Wiley’s advice for those who’d like to enjoy the food at Eventide without investing in earplugs? “It is absolutely bananas all day long from July to October,” Wiley said. “Any day in January, come on down. You can have a private conversation. You can probably speak in stage whispers to somebody across the room.”

THE CAVERNOUS CHURCH

When Charles Alexander designed the 1856 Gothic revival Methodist Church on Portland’s Chestnut Street, the idea was to create a space that embraces sound, a place where even congregants seated in the last pew could hear what the minister had to say.

Fast-forward 150 years, and that church is being transformed into a restaurant. Its grand 19th-century acoustics are now a huge problem. The church’s high ceilings, stained glass windows, alcoves and other nooks and crannies made sound bounce around like a ping pong ball dropped from heaven. “When we came into it, the building was completely empty and very cavernous,” said Anne Verrill, owner of the church-turned-restaurant called Grace. Verrill and her partners addressed the acoustical issues in their two-year, $2 million renovation before opening the doors of Grace in 2009.

Verrill said they added paneling to the entire ceiling to improve both acoustics and insulation. All the original pews have upholstered bottoms, which help absorb sound; soft seating was installed in the lounge area, and dining chairs and barstools were covered in leather.

“We put in absorbent materials everywhere that we could do it,” Verrill said. The difference was “huge,” even though the restaurant installed an open kitchen on the altar and located a bar right next to it. Verrill thinks the triquetra, a symbol of the holy trinity, which hangs above the bar acts as a sound buffer.

Grace owners added paneling to the entire ceiling to improve both acoustics and insulation. All the original pews have upholstered bottoms, which help absorb sound.

“The kitchen is another beast,” she said, noting that when dishes are dropped, diners can definitely hear it. But when it came to locating the kitchen, there really was no other choice. “We could have built some sort of barrier, but it would have looked really strange,” she said. “We wanted the whole theater of it.”

Music speakers are stationed throughout the space, “but it’s funny how the sound carries, depending on where you’re sitting,” Verrill said. “So we’re constantly messing with the sound system trying to get it right for each person.”

People still complain occasionally, but it’s usually about one of the many large parties that Grace can easily accommodate.

“We’ll have a bachelorette party of 12 girls clinking glasses and cheering each other every 20 minutes, and that will start to grate on people sometimes,” she said. “But it’s also one of those things that, well, they’re celebrating, and you came to a place that’s going to have a lot of that, so a little bit of that has to be expected.”

Overall, Verrill thinks the acoustics in the former church are now “about right.”

“You walk in that space, and it’s so big that if there’s not some sort of noise and some sort of liveliness, it feels really empty,” she said.

TURN UP THE BRAZILIAN GIRLS

Dinner at 50 Local in Kennebunk may begin with soft jazz to accompany your appetizer. Later, Paul Simon might sing for your supper. As the restaurant gets busier – and louder – the tempo tends to go up. Maybe a piece from MC Solaar, the French rapper.

“We tend to play a lot of Brazilian Girls,” said Merrilee Paul, who owns the restaurant and oversees its playlists.

Paul compares choosing music in a restaurant and fiddling with the volume to managing the temperature: Some people want the thermostat turned up, some want it turned down. It tends to be older people who complain – she guesses age 70 and older – but everyone, of every age, has an opinion. She has one regular in his 40s who would be happy if she played nothing but Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Her own father wants her to play Etta James nonstop.

Paul’s philosophy is that the music in a restaurant should fit the food and general ambiance. “I’ve been to places where they’re playing music that’s really inappropriate and it doesn’t complement what they’re doing in the restaurant,” she said, “like pop music, pretty loud, when they’re serving $35 entrees.”

Paul says some diners come in and immediately ask for the music to be turned down. Or they ask for a quiet spot in the corner, away from the speakers and the bustle of the dining room.

She wonders to herself why they didn’t just stay home.

“The reason I go out is to feel the energy of a space and the other people,” Paul said. “It’s like a big dinner party.”

MILLENNIALS VS. BABY BOOMERS

It seems as if millennials and baby boomers are always being pitted against one another, and that extends to the fight over noisy restaurants.

Every restaurateur interviewed for this story said older people tend to complain more about noise than younger people. It’s the older generation’s opinion that is often discounted in this situation, but restaurants ignore older diners at their peril. A 2017 survey by the NPD Group found that boomers represent 26 percent of all restaurant visits, and millennials 25 percent, so both groups contribute about equally to the bottom line.

Last year the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association conducted a “noisy environments” poll in which they surveyed more than 1,000 people about their out-of-home leisure activities, including dining out. They found:

Participation in most activities decreases with age, except when it comes to going to restaurants. Ninety-four percent of respondents over 70 had been to a restaurant in the past year, compared with 89 percent of 30-39 year olds and 83 percent of 18-29 year olds.

Designing restaurants to be noisy was seen as a good idea by younger respondents and a bad idea by older respondents. Sixty-two percent of 30-39 years olds thought it was a good idea, compared with 32 percent of 60-69 year olds and 23 percent of 70 and older.

Older diners are more likely not to return to a restaurant because of noise.

As our “Fed-Up Diner” notes, the population of Maine skews older, “and people who come here as tourists to visit are not typically 20 – they’re more likely 60. There’s a lot of us, and we have money to spend. And we’re not going to be spending it in places where it’s not possible to be” because of the noise.

Q(UIET)-TIPS

Noise in restaurants is getting worse, but you don’t have to just sit back on your backless metal stool and take it.

Gail Richard, board member and past president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, advises that any sustained noise of 70 decibels or above can result in hearing loss. Richard said that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 million adults have noise-induced hearing loss, and in more than half of those cases it’s caused by noise exposure during recreational activities, including going to restaurants.

Richard said while many restaurant owners believe a little noise is good for business because it gives a place a young vibe and makes it seem busy, “there’s a difference between going to a concert or going to a sporting event where you expect it to be noisy versus going to a restaurant, and that’s what people aren’t understanding. There are some venues where you expect that noise, and there are others where it really takes away from the enjoyment of the experience.”

Here are Richard’s tips for navigating noise while noshing, with added commentary of our own:

Bring earplugs or those noise-canceling headphones that have become popular on airplanes to drown out crying babies.

Go to restaurants during off-peak periods. We’ve heard this one before, but tend to agree with our “Fed-up Diner” that it’s a less desirable option. First, you’re dining at 5 p.m. The next thing you know, you’re having a bath at 6:30 and by 8 you’re falling asleep in your recliner in front of the television while watching a 1986 episode of “Murder, She Wrote.”

Ask the manager to turn down the music, if it’s too loud, or request a table away from the speakers. Cross your fingers and pray you don’t get seated next to the bathrooms.

Download a free sound-level app and measure the decibel levels in your favorite restaurant yourself.

• Restaurateurs should consider adding dividers to absorb some of the noise in a dining room, or consider seating sound-sensitive diners separately. “You used to have the smoking section,” Richard said. “Maybe they need a quiet section.” This seems to work for a sound-proofed David’s Opus 10 within David’s Restaurant in Portland.

Instead of waiting for restaurants to become more responsive, Richard said, diners need to become more proactive. Talk to the manager about noise levels. “If it’s noisy and you just say (to yourself), ‘I’m not going to go back,’ ” Richard said. “The owner doesn’t know that you’re not coming back, and doesn’t know why.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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