Sunday, June 23, 2024

For Some Diners, Loud Restaurants Are the Opposite of a Party

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My mother’s hearing loss started with the dissolution of high-pitched sounds, such as the subtle trilling of the migrating sandhill cranes where she lives near Waco, Texas. Soon high-frequency consonants melted into the din. Then whole sentences. What began as an irritation became a daily hindrance to social interactions. When we tried a new lunch spot, I realized just how isolating her hearing loss had become—especially in restaurants, where it can be difficult to hear over the din of talk-shouting conversation and blasting music. She couldn’t hear me praise the hand-formed huarache and missed the soft-spoken server’s offer of more iced tea, some dessert, or the check. The few feet separating us felt like miles; she retreated out of frustration and embarrassment, resigning herself to eating in near silence.

For folks who are hard of hearing, interacting with waitstaff and fellow diners in a restaurant can be anxiety-inducing and isolating. The struggle to hear necessary interactions—whether a server listing the night’s specials or a dining companion recounting the day’s events—creates what hearing specialists call concentration or listening fatigue. “It’s tiring, and there is a tendency to withdraw from activities that present these challenges,” says Nancy Yoxall, Deaf Educator and Homebound Teacher for Midway ISD, a school district near Waco. But while not all restaurateurs consider the hard of hearing when designing their spaces, some are finding ways—through physical changes and staff training—to not just accommodate but welcome these diners.

In general, restaurants aren’t being malicious when their decibels climb. Plenty of restaurateurs don’t realize that their spaces are too noisy for a portion of the population. But for some people, a roaring dining room isn’t just an obstacle to easy conversation; it makes all communication nearly impossible. One in four Americans have sensory needs—a number that includes 60 million Americans who suffer from hearing loss. And so many diners are missing out on one of the key functions that eating out should provide: a social experience.

Design trends bear some of the blame. The curtains, carpeting, drop ceilings, and tablecloths in high-end restaurants of yore have been largely replaced by exposed brick, concrete, and towering industrial ceilings, which amplify everything from kitchen clatter to conversation. Fast-casual restaurants are often just as loud. It is unrealistic to think restaurants will go back to being all draping curtains and heavy carpets. But for restaurants that are open to—and can afford—physical changes, there are ways to make dining rooms more inviting and accessible. Soft music, noise-absorbing wall and ceiling panels, high-tech speakers, and well-spaced tables can all make a space quieter.

And many chefs who have the resources and awareness to change are doing so. After opening in 2022, the popular New York restaurant Claud was quite noisy. So, according to a Wall Street Journal report, the restaurant invested in acoustical treatments—sound-absorbing materials, curtains, carpets—that dramatically lowered the volume of the dining room. At Comal in Berkeley, owner John Paluska, a former manager for the band Phish, installed a state-of-the-art sound system when the restaurant opened back in 2012. It manages noise so effectively that a loud clap at one table is all but inaudible a few tables over. This design allows guests to interact in relative quiet without the intrusion of distracting chatter.

These modifications can be costly, and restaurants operating on already-thin margins might not be able to invest. This is where staff training and good old-fashioned empathy come in. KultureCity, a nonprofit that focuses on sensory accessibility, currently works with 45 food and beverage establishments nationwide to create sensory-inclusive environments for guests. The organization’s mission is to make public spaces welcoming to all people.

At Lazy Betty, an Atlanta-based Michelin-starred restaurant, staff are trained to use their first interaction with a diner to assess their communication needs. For waitstaff, this includes not being put off when guests do not make eye contact, have trouble speaking, or rely on communication devices to interact. Diners sensitive to noise—people with autism, or PTSD, for example—may also receive bags with noise-canceling headphones to help manage the amount of sound they take in during a meal.

The KultureCity website also provides a map of each of the establishments in its network, allowing diners to prepare for their meal by learning about seating arrangements, staffing, menu navigation, and noise levels in advance. For many casual restaurants, this level of training is out of reach. But there are plenty of low-cost adjustments that even the most budget-constrained restaurant can implement.

Cha Community, a boba tea café in Waco, offers tools for accommodating customers with sensory needs in its diversity, equity, and inclusivity training. “I always tell staff we can check our biases for people with different backgrounds,” says owner Jaja Chen. “If we have to slow down an interaction—even if there’s a line—that’s okay.” Cha Community also keeps music at a low volume and uses well-spaced, wheelchair-accessible tables in the dining room, adjustments that Chen says boil down to cultivating awareness.

For her part, my mother’s quality of life improved when she was fitted for hearing aids three years ago, but technology has not caught up to people’s varying degrees of sensory needs. Volume adjustments can only do so much to distinguish words directed at my mother from a car horn down the street. As her hearing aids struggle to raise the overall volume of her environment, ambient noise competes with nearby conversation, with the result that she can hear everything, but she can’t understand any of it. She likens the experience to trying to swat a gnat with a baseball bat. Whether it’s turning up a hearing aid or reading lips, there’s only so much hard-of-hearing diners can do to improve their own time in a noisy restaurant. And the effort required can make dining out an experience to dread rather than one to look forward to.

Changing how we think about noise in restaurants isn’t the kind of cultural shift that happens overnight. For their part, though, many chefs and restaurant owners are becoming more aware of the obstacles that might stand between diners and a great meal. Dominica Rice-Cisneros, chef-owner of Mexican restaurant Bombera in Oakland, says that despite careful consideration of music volume, quieter outdoor seating areas, and attentive staff, she still worries she isn’t doing enough to accommodate hard-of-hearing diners. With more resources, she’d focus on changes like new speaker placement.

Even for business owners who can’t afford to change their dining rooms, a willingness to meet diners where they are can go far. The way Rice-Cisneros sees it, the solution comes back to the most basic hospitality: “All restaurant owners are thinking about the whole table.” Or at least they should be.

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