Wednesday, June 6, 2012


If Craig Claiborne were alive today,  and he walked into The Slanted Door in San Francisco, I believe he would turn around and walk back out without tasting the food.  He would find the noise unbearable.  I spent more than two years researching a book called The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance (just out, by the way), so I’m pretty confident in saying that.  Craig was the first food editor of the New York Times, having started in 1957, and he is the father of the food world we now inhabit.  Some of his legacy would appall him.  Civilized conversation was something he prized.

Yet The Slanted Door is very popular—it is the highest-grossing restaurant in San Francisco, so clearly a lot of people can tolerate the racket and do like the food.  I don’t, but I wouldn’t eat there again anyway, so that doesn’t matter.

New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles—every major American city is chockablock with painfully noisy but nonetheless popular restaurants, each full of bellowing men and screeching women.  To my ear the women are worse, owing to two factors: the relatively recent ascent of baby-talk voices so piercing they almost could cut glass; and the increasing tendency of some women to imitate men in laughing with their mouths wide open.  Woo hoo! is their aural signature.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviews do their readers a particular favor by bestowing not just the usual star ratings for food but also noise ratings that rise from one bell for “pleasantly quiet” to four bells, “can talk only in raised voices,” and finally to a little icon of a bomb, indicating “too noisy.”  It’s not unusual for the Chron to give a place three stars and also a bomb.  Why so many people willingly go to a restaurant in the full knowledge that they will have to shout to be heard throughout the meal, and and still may not be heard, would be a mystery to Craig Claiborne.

Why are things like this?  I can think of several causal factors.

    —Managers and servers know that turning up the music makes a crowd louder, and they conflate the resultant shouting with “having a good time.”  The New York restaurateur Tony May was quoted thus in the Wall Street Journal: “I don't think of it as noise.  It's excitement.  The new consumer is looking for energy, a good vibe.”  In France and Italy, meanwhile, people laugh and have a great time in restaurants without yelling.

    —Owners tend not to mention this, but the din makes people drink more, eat faster, and leave sooner.

    —Many restaurants are physically designed to be noisy, with hard surfaces and no sound-deadening materials.  Of The Slanted Door the Chronicle’s Michael Bauer wrote, “When the metal legs of the formed wooden chairs drag across the floor as patrons scoot in or away from the table, it's the 21st century version of nails scraping across a blackboard.  All through the night, the already explosive noise level is pierced by the screech of metal against stone.”

    —A small number of very noisy people raise the noise level throughout a restaurant.

    —The belief is widespread that we must show happiness and that raucous laughter is an index of happiness.

    —Ear-splitting noise increases the secretion of the “fight-or-flight” neurotransmitter epinephrine, and the edgy sensation that that induces can be perceived as an exciting “buzz.”

    —Many American children are no longer instructed in civil behavior.  When they grow up, they do not know the difference between public and private space.

    —People with empty lives crave overstimulation—hence not only noise but obesity.  People with empty lives have nothing to say anyhow.

    —There are fewer and fewer alternatives.  In the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants,” ratings of one or two bells are scarce.

No doubt you can supply more reasons.   In Craig’s last years—he died in 2000—he published a slim little book titled Elements of Etiquette: A Guide to Table Manners in an Imperfect World, and in it he decried the increasingly boorish behavior he saw around him in restaurants.  If he were still among us, I am certain that he would be raising hell about it, in print and often, and he would undoubtedly get results.

The big question for the rest of us, now, without Craig to speak on our behalf, is, What can we do about it?   One thing I’m sure of is that if enough of us complain, things will change.  So complain.  Assertively.  Just not too loudly, please.

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