Restaurants need to turn the music down

When we go out we want to chat to our companions and be comfortable - its not much to ask, says Andy

When we go out we want to chat to our companions and be comfortable - its not much to ask, says Andy Newman. - Credit: PA

There is an old joke in the catering trade which goes like this: How do you get to be a millionaire? Start with two million and open a restaurant.

The reality might not be quite as bad as that, but there can be no doubt that making a living from running a restaurant can be a tough gig. Alongside the many and varied costs involved, attracting and retaining customers is a colossal challenge.

So you would hope that creating an environment in which people felt comfortable would be high on any restaurateur's list of priorities.

It would seem this is not the case. Just lately one of my local pubs in Norwich's Golden Triangle has been transformed by achingly trendy designers into a kind of 'social eating house'. Comfortable seating has been jettisoned and replaced by hip (but bottom-numbing) Scandi-chic furniture, alongside soft banquettes which look comfortable until you sit on them and realise that the table you are going to eat off is now at chin height.

I'm sure this sort of thing looks great on the designers' iPad, but it's clear that whoever came up with this nonsense has never actually tried to eat while sitting at this kind of furniture.

It's a shame, because the food, created by one of the county's better-known chefs, is actually quite good. But the whole experience is just so uncomfortable that I won't be going back. Customer lost, for good.

A new study has shown that the biggest reason people stop going to a restaurant is excess noise. Apparently, eight out of 10 of us has left a restaurant, pub or café early because of noise, and a whopping 90pc identified high noise levels as the biggest problem when eating out.

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And yet so many establishments persist with both design and behaviour whose sole aims appear to be stopping their customers from talking to each other.

Too many restaurants seem in thrall to interior design trends which concentrate on bold, sleek aesthetics, using lots of hard surfaces and high ceilings. Unsurprisingly, with soft furnishings (which absorb sound) stripped out, these places soon become extremely noisy, making conversation impossible.

This is then exacerbated by the introduction of extra, and unnecessary, noise. Subtle background music is OK if you must, but I have never quite understood why you would want to eat in an environment more akin to a nightclub. You go to a restaurant as much to socialise with your fellow diners as to appreciate the food. If you can't hear a word they are saying, there is little point going. All of this was brought home to me recently when eight of us had dinner in one of the city's most prominent restaurants. Wilfully designed in the minimalist-stripped-wood-hard-surfaces style, it is renowned both for its food, and for the lack of comfort of its surroundings. Never mind, we were going upstairs to the private dining room, so at least we could control our own environment.

Not so, apparently. A speaker was blasting out music, making conversation impossible. When the waiter's back was turned, I turned it off.

Minutes later, he came back and turned it back on; when he went downstairs to get our food, I turned it off again. As he tried to turn it on for the third time, we pointed out that we were the only people in the room, and we wanted to talk to each other. He seemed genuinely surprised.

According to the research, by charity Action on Hearing Loss, 91pc of people – and not just those with hearing loss – would not go back to a venue where noise levels were too high. They also found that half of all negative Tripadvisor reviews mention excess noise. Is the restaurant trade really so healthy that it can afford to lose customers in this manner?

Restaurants, cafes and pubs are not just places to eat and drink; they should be pleasant social spaces where we can catch up and chat with friends and family. So put the trendy designers back in their box, bring back some sound-absorbing soft furnishings, and turn the music down. It's really not rocket science.

• Andy Newman is passionate about food and drink, a champion of Norfolk's wonderful produce, and is on a mission to persuade everyone to eat and drink better.