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Volume Control

To show that they're part of the sexy dining scene, eateries crank up the mind-blurring volume

By Christina Waters

FROM THE parking lot, they can hear the buzz of music and laughter, underscored by the metallic rhythms of pots and pans briskly hitting the stove. Once in the door, they're showered with a wall of sound Phil Spector would have envied. The hostess uses sign language to ask them to follow her. Blood-hungry ancient Rome, minutes before the gladiatorial games, had nothing on this.

Bathed in a coating of glitz, clanking silverware, corks popping, children whining and middle-management show-offs barking into their cell phones, patrons practically have to perform their order. Wait persons smile, nod and repeat each phrase three or four times. Hoarse from yelling across the 24-inch expanse of table, our protagonists flee without ordering dessert. Stopping at Long's, they chug an entire bottle of Robitussin in the parking lot to soothe their burning vocal chords. "What did the meal we just ate taste like?" they wonder, gradually regaining their ability to think.

Our fictional duo has just suffered a fate now rampant in designer California. They have eaten at a fashionable restaurant that insists on celebrating itself with noise. They're loud and they're proud. Loudness tells everybody how successful the place is. It's soooo loud because it is filled with loud people all engaging happily in loud eating and spending practices. Quiet is dull. Quiet means empty. Loud is vivacious. Loud means money.

Such logic is twisted in the extreme. Yet the trend grows. The volume is cranked up in California dining rooms, and there's no sign of lower decibels on the horizon.

Give me a break. You don't have to be wearing patchouli to know that there is a holistic organization among our senses. We don't just see with our eyes. All our senses cooperate when we reach out to feel the shape or texture of something. In the same way, we don't just taste with our mouths, lips, tongue and tastebuds. The flavors of food become more accessible depending upon environmental influences.

Just as it's difficult to discern different flavors in the dark--the onion-that-tastes-like-an-apple trick--it's also impossible to focus on flavor when the noise level is chaotic. Those who doubt this factoid should try eating their favorite dessert while listening to BBC coverage of a Liverpool soccer match. It will be impossible to taste, much less enjoy that chocolate brownie or homemade apple pie. We could push the point to its extreme and recall the times that terrific sex was ruined by outside sounds, children's voices nearby--supply your own examples. ...

IT IS ABOUT FOCUS. Whenever we want to engage in some pleasantly sensual experience--and that's surely what enjoying a meal is about--it's difficult to appreciate the main experience when suffering from sensory bombardment. Too much unwanted information--people incessantly cruising the aisles or several loud conversations nearby--and you're distracted from what you're trying to enjoy.

We taste with all our senses, as restaurateurs know who bother to create an attractive setting, bring food to the table fragrant and hot, and provide soft, pleasing music and no TV blaring baseball scores in the background.

Sports bar? Yes, TV, yes, loud laughter, yes, Bud Lite. Bistro? No rock music. No screaming children. No corporate Bubba blaring his greatest investment hits for people in the next county to hear.

Abuse is rampant. Not just the tendency to crowd tables together, line the floors and ceilings with hard materials that refuse to absorb sound, and play music at full blast. But those are key offenders. If you can't afford to carpet your establishment, then at least turn down the volume. Playing loud music is counterproductive. Unless, of course--
and this could be important--the point is to distract the diner from the shortcomings of the food. A fast-food place has got to have loud distracting music blaring at all times. If it were quiet, customers might actually come to their senses and run screaming from these toxic gulags of cardiovascular hell.

To be honest, most offending restaurants--the ones so loud that conversation is impossible--have plenty of noisy support. Patrons bring their own sensory assault weapons with them in the form of cell phones, babies and attitude.

Here's the fantasy. A cell phone rings. All heads swivel to see who is important and cool enough to be called during the seared ahi appetizer. At least that's what our dotcom fool thinks as he elaborately retrieves and laughs theatrically into the electronic device. Cell phones in restaurants--accessories for losers. Another one is small children allowed to run loose in the aisles, to scream, fuss and throw food, all without a word from adults.* Sterilization should be legalized.

Grown-up children can be equally rude, especially people whose lives of loud desperation need to be acted out in public, people who go to restaurants to feed their egos, the ones who humiliate their dates by barking at waiters. The flipside in noise pollution is the inappropriately familiar waiter who keeps stopping by to ask how everything is. Or the waitress who gushingly reveals her personal tastes in food, hair care and serial divorce.

LET'S ADD TO THE DECIBEL MIX we've already got--echo-inducing interior design, rude fellow diners, screaming children, nosy waitstaff--off-the-wall musical choices. Only a philistine would be weary of hearing one more Andrea Bocelli love song. The dreamy sounds of Italian light opera were made for romantic dining. Bossa nova, happily in resurgence, is another great choice for musical background. Music should create a soothing, yet faintly sexy background.

Right: Sinatra, early Elvis, Aretha Franklin (in certain contexts), jazz, anything Italian.

Wrong: The Beatles (please!), Pearl Jam (sushi bars are the exception), polka music, the blues (only for hardcore bars), Vivaldi (enough already) and Joni Mitchell (abrasive, pretentious and disturbing).

No harp music (notoriously unsensual). No Celtic music (kills the appetite for anything but single malt). No Tibetan chants (crème brûlée and meditation?).

The point has been made. Loud, hyperactive restaurants bustling with sensory distractions simply counteract the whole point--which is to enjoy a meal. The chef might as well take those fresh sea scallops, that porcini ragu and the impeccably spit-roasted chicken and just throw them out into the street. No one will be able to taste them.

Wait a minute. Maybe tasting the food isn't part of the real agenda. Just why are you are dining out? If it's to woo a new sweetie, or to reminisce about some delicious personal moments, then you want appealing, unobtrusive atmosphere.

But sometimes, loud is exactly what we want.

When you're fulfilling a family obligation--grandma's birthday--loud is festive. When you want to talk high-powered business--loud is inspiring. When you're sick of hearing the kids fighting with each other--loud is obfuscating. And when you're talking divorce--plenty of noise creates the perfect buffer for unpleasant accusations and uncontrollable sobbing.

It's your call. Make it as loud as you want.

* This remark is aimed at the two shameless women who deposited five 4-year-olds at O'Mei Restaurant last summer and irresponsibly sat by as the kids held the entire restaurant hostage with their spoiled-rotten behavior.

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From the October 4-11, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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