It's a Thursday night at Rice, a popular Thai restaurant here, and the place is packed. It's a hip scene -- cool clothes, great haircuts, laid-back postures. But it's so noisy that patrons have to yell to be heard.
"The noise doesn't bother me at all," said restaurant regular Matt Fleming, 34, marketing director for the Building Owners & Managers Association International. "With these kinds of restaurants, people know it's loud. If you don't like it, you go somewhere else."
Such as the Bombay Club near the White House. There, the decibel level -- like the crowd -- is very different. The restaurant is almost full, but nobody's voice is raised.
Noise. It's what determines many people's choice of a restaurant. Sometimes it is more important than either the food or the cost, restaurant designers say.
"It's the biggest problem there is -- the thing that concerns Washingtonians the most," says architect Theo Adamstein, who with his wife and business partner, architect Olvia Demetriou, has designed nearly 50 restaurants.
"I hate noisy restaurants," says Francine Berkowitz, 62, director of international relations at the Smithsonian. "I will not go to one even if I love the food."
It's hard to know why noise is such a big deal in the Washington area. Maybe restaurants here attract an older age group than in some other cities. Maybe Washington movers and shakers don't like to be seen shouting at each other in a public place.
"We think Washingtonians are less tolerant about noisy spaces," Demetriou says. "A lot of New York restaurants can be very bustling, and it's quite acceptable."
People who go out to eat a lot might want to know three things about restaurant noise:
In building or renovating a restaurant, a lot can be done to moderate decibel levels. Although the calculus is never foolproof and always involves extra costs, restaurateurs, their architects and sound consultants know which factors will lead to a noisy restaurant and which to a much less noisy one.
Not all noise is bad. Sometimes the din of a busy restaurant can act as a privacy screen that lets dinner companions hear each other but blocks out conversations at nearby tables. The problems start when diners at the same table have to scream at each other to have a conversation.
Some restaurants not only want noise but thrive on it, especially if they aim to attract a young crowd and discourage older diners. Noise means buzz. "If there's too much sound absorption, it can suck the energy out of a place," Adamstein says.
"It's a balancing act," says Sara Wiley, an acoustical engineer with Cerami Associates, an acoustical consulting firm that has restaurants, museums, office buildings and sound studios on its client list. "You want life and vibrancy in a restaurant. But you don't want it so noisy that people exhaust themselves talking over it or hurt their ears. And you want people to be able to hear their dining companions without hearing every other conversation in the restaurant. Most successful restaurants manage to tie it all together."
How do they do that? In simple language, what's soft is good and what's hard is bad. "Hard surfaces bounce the sound around and create reverberations," Adamstein says.
Sak Pollert, Rice's co-owner, was warned by his architect that the design's noise implications might be something to consider. But he likes the look -- and the noise that comes with it. "I like the energy of it," he says. "A lot of people go out to see and be seen." Apparently this atmosphere attracts the "right" (mostly young) people, too. "I've got the best-dressed clientele in town," he says.