‘It’s atmosphere’: is noise of London’s restaurants just part of the charm?

Cutlery clanging on plates, chairs scraping across a hardwood floor, the boisterous anecdote of a half-cut raconteur: when it comes to restaurants, one person’s idea of a “good atmosphere” has another reaching for their earplugs.

But for those who like their food served up along with the decibel levels of a motorbike or lawnmower, London is the place to be. Data released this week reveals that the capital’s restaurants are the loudest in Europe, and second only to San Francisco worldwide. A random survey by SoundPrint, a global app measuring noise levels, found 80% of 1,350 London restaurants were too loud for conversation.

Half of those measured exceeded 80 decibels (dBA) during peak times, louder than a vacuum cleaner and past the threshold for potentially endangering hearing. The restaurant at the top of the table, according the data provided by app users, was the Japanese restaurant Shack Fuyu in Soho, which registered 94 dBA, according to one reading submitted.

According to the hearing loss charity RNID, volumes of more than 90 decibels are equivalent to sitting next to a motorbike or lawnmower, and continued exposure to noise at or above 80-85dBA can cause hearing loss.

As diners emerged on to bustling Old Compton Street on Thursday night, they expressed surprise at Shack Fuyu’s newfound title.

Unsurprisingly, younger diners were less fussed. Among them were sisters Cara and Alix Bell, who had dined with their mother and the former’s boyfriend. “It was probably us making the noise, I’ll have to get my own decibel meter out,” joked Cara. “We’ve been in before and it can be loud, but it depends what the other tables are like. If you have someone loud next to you, then of course it will be, but I don’t remember it being particularly bad though.”

“I find it very hard to believe, it wasn’t that noisy, it was like any other restaurant,” said mum Claire. “We didn’t notice it was noisy when we were just in there. My impression was amazing food and great company, there were no problems, but it wasn’t that busy.”

Francis, 25, and his girlfriend Femke, 22, said they could understand why the restaurant got the title, but didn’t much mind. “Yes, it can get a bit noisy, we’ve been here before,” he said. “But it just adds atmosphere and that’s something you want, you can still hear each other talk. It has incredible food and the people are really nice.”

“It’s become quite trendy and popular,” a restaurant spokesperson said. “I think it is just part of the atmosphere around there. The whole street is very party vibe. It’s quite nice to be able to have a place where people want to let loose a bit and get some great food. It is the atmosphere of Soho.”

But for those who would prefer a more serene dining experience, turning down the offerings of youthful vigour with a side order of tinnitus, SoundPrint has crowdsourced a database of quiet lists on its website. It was developed by Gregory Scott, a New Yorker who found it impossible to hear women he went on dates with due to his hearing loss.

Hushed hotel restaurants – the Park Plaza Riverbank – and a sedate sushi bar in more salubrious surroundings – Kitcho on the Greenwich high road – appear on the list, a far cry from fashionable former pop-ups in Soho or east London eateries in old industrial buildings.

Carpets and curtains, which help dampen sound, are more likely to be found in more expensive places that cater to an older clientele, the food critic Jay Rayner said.

He said the expansion of the restaurant world into east London had led to new places being founded in “old warehouse buildings – and that was part of their appeal”.

He added: “It is a design feature that people like. It looks nice. It may not be easy on the ears, but then you may not care because those aren’t your customers. The vast majority of restaurants, in my experience, are run by people under 40. And at that point in your life, questions around listenability in restaurants, print sizes on menus, lighting, all of that, it doesn’t really occur to you.”

But the people with more money to spend are “not your young ’uns”, he noted, and it “might not be the best thing” to close out older demographics – “unless, of course, you want that younger crowd and that’s what your restaurant is aimed at.”

A recent RNID survey found four out of five respondents had had difficulty holding conversations in restaurants. It estimates one in five adults have hearing loss.

Pipedown, the campaign for freedom from piped music, is urging restaurateurs and publicans to check their noise levels using the SoundPrint app amid the “growing trend of industrial-style decor”.

Its national secretary, Nigel Rodgers, said: “It amplifies all types of noise. Instead of absorbing it, it bounces back everything from loud voices to clanging plates and rattling cutlery to piped music.”

Some restaurants, keen not to alienate diners, have paid heed to customer feedback. Tozi, a Venetian-inspired Italian restaurant and bar in Pimlico, installed special sound dampening ceiling panels four years ago.

Rayner believes noisy restaurants risk losing one of the biggest benefits from eating out. “People tend to share more when you put food in front of them,” he said. “And it’s a crying shame if the ability to get people to spill their gossip was curtailed by acoustic issues.”