DennisBeaverApril 17, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Have you ever thought, “Is it my imagination, or have restaurants and bars become noisier? Why should I be paying for dinner which includes a side order of headache and screaming yourself hoarse in order to be heard?” If so, you’ll find our story relevant and may very well even save you a great deal of money.

Part two – next week – will be of special interest for anyone who works in one of these insanely loud restaurants or bars. Additionally, we’ll take a look at a device which far too few restaurant and bar owners own but which they desperately need – and which might just help keep them in business.

Today’s story began with an e-mail from Paul, who “made reservations for our party of six, guaranteed by credit card, at a “fine dining” restaurant with a $75 per person charge for no-shows. It is located off of the lobby in a recently refurnished hotel.”

He works in the occupational and safety section at the health department of a Northern California county. “The last thing I expected was to suddenly be on the job, but that was exactly what happened when we walked into the hotel lobby. Bombarded with incredibly high levels of noise, echo, and reverberation, it was impossible to carry on a normal conversation without raising our voices considerably.

“It was like a bad amusement park ride, exposed to harsh, shrieking sounds and so much echo.

“The restaurant is completely open to the lobby, so all this, piercing noise from the lobby and bar flows directly in. The busy street outside seemed positively quiet by comparison.

“I immediately went to my car and retrieved the sound level meter which I use in my job. The measurements in the lobby and bar area were close to 90 decibels, and in the restaurant, over 80 db. This is like standing next to a lawn mower, loud vacuum cleaner or gasoline powered leaf blower and trying to have a conversation. You can’t without yelling. It hurts your ears.

“There was absolutely no sound reducing materials anywhere – just hard, reflective surfaces. We advised the manager that this was completely unacceptable for a restaurant which claims to be fine dining, and we were leaving. He said that my credit card would be charged as a no-show.

“I just got the bill, $450. This is really unfair. Do you have any recommendations? Do I have to pay this?”

We are ruining our hearing

Before he became an attorney and law professor at the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston, Stephen Barth was in the bar and restaurant business. He has strong feelings about noise and charging a guest under these circumstances.

“We are ruining our hearing. Restaurants and bars do not need to be as loud as they are today to be successful. There is no reason to create distraction from the food and beverage and that is what noise does.

“I can’t imagine a real chef allowing someone to smoke around great food. Noise is the same thing. The ultimate goal is for the guest to enjoy the dining experience, not to distract from it,” Professor Barth maintains.

Lee Johnson, an environmental health officer with the Kings County Health Department in Hanford, points out that the effects of exposure to the levels of noise reported by my reader, can, “easily lead to psychological and physiological effects, such as anxiety. When you have to shout to be heard in a so-called fine-dining restaurant, you are in an environment which isn’t healthy.

“Noise in bars and restaurants is often seen by management as part of the sizzle, but impacts workers and guests. People vote with dollars. In fact, my wife and I quit going to a certain restaurant in Visalia, for that very reason; the owners obviously did not care to address the severe noise problems, despite complaints.”

“Fine-dining restaurants should deliver a meal and pleasant experience for the customer. As they are selling a perishable item – that table, tonight – they can charge a no-show fee. But here, when the customer arrived to fulfill his part of the agreement and discovered they were in a situation which could be considered as dangerous, it’s the restaurant who is in breach of contract,” Professor Barth reasons.

“Most likely there was no written agreement, which should be helpful to Paul. Typically, credit card companies will side with the customer in these cases, and he needs to contest the charge immediately,” he advises.

So, why don’t restaurant owners do more for guests and their employees? We’ll answer those questions next time.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.