How to avoid New York’s noisiest restaurants

One recent night at Cote, an upscale Korean steakhouse in the Flatiron District that opened to acclaim last year, the din from diners imbibing potent cocktails reverberated against the concrete floor and soapstone tabletops. My female friend and I couldn’t focus on anything but trying to hear one another and the waiters as they gamely tried to explain the restaurant’s Michelin-starred menu.

“I’m worried about starting rumors,” she said with a chuckle as she leaned in to talk to me. “Maybe we should text each other instead,” I said.

Welcome to the ear-splitting hell of New York dining. We’ve always had noisy restaurants — Mario Batali was an early offender when he pumped up the volume at Babbo in the ’90s — but now it’s hard to find any place that doesn’t take a bite out of your ears’ sensory receptors. Fearful their places will lack buzz without a racket, restaurateurs seem to be increasingly cultivating cacophony. And it’s not just more mature curmudgeons like myself who are taking issue.

“Quality Eats [on Second Avenue at 78th Street] is so loud, you feel like you’re on a date with the people next to you,” says 25-year-old Alexis Benveniste, who works in media. “You can hear every word of their conversation — but you can’t hear your own.”

Physicians say that hearing damage from restaurants is one of their patients’ biggest complaints.

“Younger people won’t admit to their friends that they can’t hear, because they want to be cool. So they’re screaming at each other,” says Dr. Darius Kohan, director of otology/neurotology at Lenox Hill Hospital and Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. “They’ll make other reasons to their friends for not going to specific, loud restaurants.”

The situation’s grown so bad that two new free apps have been created to warn customers how bad the din will be before they go out.

SoundPrint, a self-described “Yelp for noise,” tallies decibel levels at 3,000 New York City eateries. The free, crowdsourced app lets you measure the racket anywhere you eat and enter the number into the app’s database.

The more ambitious, Seattle-based iHearU, will launch in New York with promotional activities during Restaurant Week later this summer, with a full-scale, dedicated local rollout to follow.

I found SoundPrint spotty when it came to forecasting how noisy a restaurant might be. The app averages out readings submitted by users, but so far there aren’t enough submissions to be meaningful, especially given the fact that readings can vary widely depending on where a user is sitting. Cote, maybe the noisiest place where I ever set foot, registered just 80 decibels, compared to an utterly absurd and inaccurate 90 decibels at calm-and-collected Brasserie Ruhlmann in Midtown.

It does accurately register some rather obvious general findings — such as the fact that downtown is Manhattan’s loudest eating zone. Lower East Side restaurants have an average sound level of 81 decibels, according to the app. The Upper West Side was the quietest hood, with an average of 73 decibels.

Anything above 79 decibels is considered potentially dangerous according to medical professionals, especially with repeated exposure.

“You begin to lose hearing,” Kohan says. “It may take them time to realize it.”

The interface also has issues. You can’t simply type in a restaurant name and get its sound reading. Rather, you have to scroll through lists of places in various categories (quiet, moderate, loud and very loud). Adding to the confusion, bunches of decibel-rated places alternate with bunches of unrated ones, so you must scroll indefinitely to find what you’re looking for.

SoundPrint founder Greg Scott launched the app out of personal necessity. Scott has limited hearing due to childhood meningitis, and he found dating in the city “exhausting” when he struggled to make out what his dates were saying in noisy establishments.

“I’d look on Google or Yelp for [supposedly] quiet spots,” he says. “I’d go there and it wouldn’t be quiet 95 percent of the time.”

Some responsible owners are trying to ensure a reasonable sound level. Jesse Davis, chef-owner of 60-seat Bushwick bistro 191 Knickerbocker, hired San Francisco-area sound-system installer WaveWorks.

“They recommended having no reflective surfaces on walls like mirrors or glass. Anything that you can see your reflection in will cause sound to reflect the way light does,” Davis says.

Architect Glen Coben worked with Empellón Midtown to install acoustic panels after the restaurant opened and problem areas were detected.

“The crowds at the bar were generating more sound than we had anticipated, but once the sound panels were installed, the sound calmed down without taking away from the energy of the room,” Coben says. I’ve noticed a welcome difference on recent visits compared to earlier ones.

Cote’s hard-edged, boxy dining rooms opened without anything to buffer the din. A representative for the restaurant says they’re now addressing the noise issue with “soundproofing material under all the benches and booths.”

They’re also “working with acoustic specialist David Harvey of Harvey Marshall Berling Associates to create noise abatement panels that will be installed both on the ceiling and dining room walls, hopefully within a month or so,” according to the rep.

At least they’re aware of the issue. But I’ll wait to go back until the job’s done. And I’ll try SoundPoint again — but I’ll keep earplugs handy.

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