19 February 2010

THE DIN IN DINNER

Exterior of Avec, Chicago. Photo by author, February 2010.

Counter seating at Avec, Chicago. Photo by author, February 2010.

Exterior of Graham Elliot, Chicago. Photo by author, February 2010.

Detail of Graham Elliot dining room, Chicago. Photo by author, February 2010.

In "Pass the Salt...and a Megaphone" (Wall Street Journal, 3 February 2010), Katy McLaughlin noted a 2000s trend in fine-dining restaurants: increasing noise. According to McLaughlin, "Upscale restaurants have done away with carpeting, heavy curtains, tablecloths, and plush banquettes gradually over the decade, and then at a faster pace during the recession, saying such touches telegraph a fine-dining message out of sync with today's cost-conscious, informal diner. Those features, though, were also sound absorbing." The critic goes on to explain that, in addition to reducing sound buffers, restaurants have made sure to add louder noise makers. Everything from open kitchens to bars to energetic, sometimes downright deafening, music has upped the noise level in places with hard surfaces for floors, walls, and tables. Attempts to talk over the din just heighten the din.

The Chicago restaurant Graham Elliot (2008-), pictured above, could be a poster child for McLaughlin's article. Basically, it is a loft. It is all exposed brick walls and ceiling ducts. These elements are complemented throughout by hard tables and floors. When I visited, on 13 February, the soundtrack of 1980s pop was loud enough to be heard over a packed and talkative crowd. The epitome of restaurants on the new-and-notable list, deservedly so for its top-notch and creative cuisine, Graham Elliot is also a sonic tinderbox.

To McLaughlin's observations about noise, I would add one more. The concurrent trends at culinarily ambitious restaurants toward communal tables and/or counter seating are subsets and exacerbators of the tendency toward loudness. Restaurants such as Avec (2003-), pictured above, and The Publican (2008-) in Chicago, the Momofuku restaurants (2006-) in New York, and The Bazaar by Jose Andres (2008-) in Los Angeles not only feature hard floors, walls, and tables; and, in most cases, also lively music. They compound these features by seating arrangements that encourage conviviality among strangers and friends alike.

In her article, McLaughlin resuscitates a truism in restaurant design: that noise level in restaurants is a predictor of client age. The higher the decibels, the younger the crowd. I'd put a finer point on this claim. Loudness is not only something, as McLaughlin suggests, that young folks can withstand. It is something they are prone to liking.

Environmental loudness is de-inhibiting in ways conducive to young people's needs. The young, particularly the single, tend to want to meet new people when they go out more than older people do, so environments encouraging socially outgoing behavior, a signal of which is the sound level, facilitate mingling. Due perhaps to their higher energy level, young people are more likely to want to be loud than older folks, and an environment in which high decibels are tolerated or even encouraged might make a young person feel comfortable behaving spontaneously. There is more auditory "room" for them to move around in. The less constricting sound space acts as a behavioral cue.

McLaughlin claims that this newer--and younger--fine diner desires a more informal dining experience. This much agrees with my own observations above about the young consumer. Where I part ways with McLaughlin, however, is with her claim that the same diner is "cost-conscious." While there could be some truth to this, I believe McLaughlin is largely conflating the diner with the restaurateur. With entrees in the thirty-dollar range at many of these restaurants, the cost of a night out at any one of them can be comparable to the white-table-cloth places. But to be able to charge thirty-something for an entree without the overhead of laundering linens and deep-cleaning carpets night after night is of greatest financial advantage to the restaurateur.

Perhaps, then, the young customer is not the only one being heard in this din. Loud and clear!

(P.S. The "pot roast," using beef cheeks, and the deconstructed-reconceptualized "carrot cake" at Graham Elliot were so incredibly divine, and the service so knowledgeable and nice, I would cross any sonic barrier to eat there again.)

Copyright 2010 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.


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