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Finding quiet dining amid all the noise

This one came by snail mail:

"Dear Janice: Please comment on the increasing problem of NOISE in restaurants. What was to be expected in a sports bar seems to be creeping into even our finer restaurants.

"I am not talking about music or TVs, but people who are getting painfully loud. Even the kitchen racket of dishes and silverware pervades the atmosphere. It's annoying!"

-- Marie P., Williamsville

What's that you said, Marie? I couldn't quite hear you.

All joking aside, it is more than just "annoying" to sit down for a relaxed meal and not be able to converse with your table companions. If the situation is bad enough, you can leave with a headache, even a sore throat.

But "noise" is a subjective thing. Some diners like a little excitement, and one person's idea of a dignified, peaceful ambience could be regarded by another as tomblike.

Restaurateurs know this, too. Paul Jenkins admits his restaurant Tempo on Delaware Avenue can get "raucous," and he sympathizes. "There are so many ambient noises in a restaurant," he says. And, he adds, if it's a restaurant with brick walls, high ceilings and hardwood floors (all popular decor notes currently), those noises escalate. "Acoustic improvements are sometimes possible, but can cost a lot."

Jenkins admits he has gone over to tables to talk to people who are having an overly good time and ask them to calm down a bit but, he says, "That's tricky." Those people are his customers, too.

Jenkins does have a suggestion. When calling to make a reservation at any restaurant, explain that someone at your table is hard of hearing. Ask to be seated at a quiet table (restaurateurs know where they are); even ask what is a good time to come. It helps when a restaurateur is advised ahead.

(Of course, Jenkins is lucky. He now can seat diners upstairs at Tempo, where there are carpeting and draperies to muffle noise; not every restaurateur has that luxury.)

Kevin Richert of Torches on Kenmore Avenue agrees that overly loud diners can cause problems. Sometimes he even goes so far as to move their table, often to the bar. Or, if everybody has pretty much finished an entree, he might send over a dessert, "just to move things along."

But is there anything a diner can do on her own? I have a few suggestions. (I'm the first to tell you, though, they may not work.)

First, pick the right restaurant. As you have noted, a sports bar is not the place for someone who seeks quiet. Nor was it meant to be. (All that yelling builds up a thirst, after all.)

Second, pick the right table -- before you are seated, that is. If you can possibly help it, avoid sitting near a large table of eight or more.

Oh, they look like a bunch of cowed second-graders sitting there, but the more people and the more wine, the louder the conversation. (I have been at those tables; I know.) A professional restaurateur will usually try to seat large groups away from the center of things if he possibly can.

Sitting away from a big group has another plus. It could be that only one sorely beset server is assigned to that multitude. If he happens to be your server, too, he may be so busy taking care of them, you have to wait.

Also, avoid tables too close to the bar -- pick another room if there is one. And try not to be seated too close to the kitchen.

Third, if the music or the TV is too loud, suggest it be turned down. A sensitive restaurant person usually adjusts the background in a hectic restaurant without being told.

And last, if all else fails, ask to move your table. If this is the route you take -- I don't have to tell you this, do I? -- do it pleasantly and with a smile.

Janice Okun, former food editor for The News, has been out and about in the regional restaurant scene for 40 years. Send your dining questions and comments to her at