San francisco restaurants

Are restaurants in San Francisco too loud? New app helps diners navigate the noise

Thanks to a week-long survey, an app that measures noise levels in bars and restaurants proves what some diners have been complaining about for years: Bay Area restaurants are too loud. In fact, they’re right up there in decibels with those in Midtown Manhattan.

SoundPrint, an iPhone app founded by Oakland native Gregory Scott, incorporates a calibrated decibel meter as well as an interactive, searchable map of companies with ratings at Restaurants and bars with green pins are labeled “quiet,” which means ambient sound on a typical night is below 70 decibels. Those marked in red are over 80 decibels – loud enough to cause hearing loss to someone who spends hours in the environment every day.

The average restaurant in San Francisco: 78 decibels, well in the orange zone, and among the highest averages in the country. “It’s too loud for a conversation,” Scott said. “You have to raise your voice. It’s hard to hear. »

Scott, who has lived with hearing loss since he was a child, released the first version of SoundPrint in 2017. The current version of the app, which was released in April, includes 50,000 ratings in cities nationwide, although only about a third are for establishments in New York, where the company is based.

“My personal mission is to help people with hearing loss or other sensory disorders, such as ADD or autism,” Scott said. Still, he found that many app users had normal hearing.

In late October, volunteers connected to the Hearing and Speech Center of Northern California and the Sound Speech and Hearing Clinic, both in San Francisco, conducted a week-long “mapathon” to check sound levels at 100 local restaurants, and SoundPrint analyzed their results this past week.

Some of the loudest: Kin Khao (89) and Nopa (85) in San Francisco, and Mua (85) and Gogi Time (90) in Oakland.

General Manager John Mortimer displays the SoundPrint app on his phone at Zero Zero on Tuesday, December 18, 2018 in San Francisco, California.Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

Bruce Hill, chef-owner of Zero Zero at SoMa, wasn’t surprised when he was told his restaurant was one of the loudest in SoundPrint’s rankings. Zero Zero landed at 87 decibels, although the number was lower in a recent lunchtime test.

“The energy drives high noise levels, and I have to say, customers are drawn to the energy,” Hill said. “No one goes to a dead restaurant.” At certain times of the evening, managers can even crank up the music to boost that party feeling; the restaurant also attracts large parties, which make more noise than smaller tables.

Eric Yee, vice president and acoustic consultant at Charles M. Salter Associates, an acoustic and audio-visual design consultancy in San Francisco, said he’s noticed an increase in sound levels in restaurants over the past 10 to 15 years. Architects and designers often prefer the look of hard surfaces that also reflect sound, and restaurateurs now place tables much closer together to keep the business profitable.

Still, Yee added, restaurateurs may not realize that diners aren’t the only ones affected by noise. “At Cal-OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), they talk about dosage: you’re only allowed to be exposed to certain levels of noise for certain times,” he explained. If an employee works in conditions above 85 decibels for more than eight hours, the employer is required by law to provide hearing protection.

SoundPrint isn’t the only silent restoration app on the market. Kelly Tremblay, a professor of auditory neuroscience at the University of Washington, two years ago created IHearU, a crowdsourced app for restaurant noise. The app gives users the ability to measure a room’s noise level or offer their subjective impression, and offers limited listings in the Bay Area.

Former Chronicle reviewer Michael Bauer, who retired in September, began bringing a decibel meter to San Francisco restaurants in the 1990s, and subscribers can look for noise ratings in his individual Chronicle reviews. : two bells (65-70 decibels), three bells (70 -75), four bells (75-80) or bomb (more than 80).

People dine at Californios in San Francisco, California, October 14, 2017.
People dine at Californios in San Francisco, California, October 14, 2017.John Storey / Special for The Chronicle 2017

SoundPrint and the volunteer panel also released a “silent list,” posted on the company’s website. The majority of restaurants are in the higher price range, including Acquerello, Californios, and Kusakabe. Silence apparently comes at a premium these days. However, a few, like Firefly, Eric’s Restaurant and the deaf-owned and operated pizzeria Mozzeria, are priced more affordably, and Scott hopes that as the number of reviews increases, the list will diversify.

Brad Levy, owner of Firefly in Noe Valley, said he’s heard both complaints and support from customers about noise levels. “We have a draped fabric feel, which was for cosmetics but had the added benefit of adding soundproofing,” he explained. “We don’t really block in the tables. We have lots of wooden surfaces, no hard concrete or steel.

Noise levels are subjective, he added: Some nights the bistro is dominated by a rowdy party, other nights by quiet conversation. But Levy and his team are trying to address customer complaints. “We’re the kind of place that will turn down music if someone asks for it,” he said.

For its part, Zero Zero’s Hill adds that there are a few quieter sections in the restaurant, and customers who request a less, well, sonically blessed corner will be seated there.

If a SoundPrint user finds the noise in the orange or red areas, the app founder recommended people show the playback to the manager. “Most often it’s because the background music is too loud,” Scott said. Just as speaking slowly encourages the person you hire to do the same, he added, turning down the music can unconsciously lower the volume of customers around you.

Jonathan Kauffman is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: jkauffman@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @jonkauffman