Noisy restaurants: We do a sound check

Laurel Hardware in West Hollywood can be as loud as a whirring blender during Saturday dinner hours, at 88.3 decibels. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / August 3, 2012)

We know it's noisy out there in the restaurant world. Customers' complaints are growing, critics are including noise commentary in their reviews, and restaurateurs, to some extent, are trying to figure out ways to modify the acoustic mayhem. But just how noisy is it?

With a decidedly unscientific approach, all it took was a sound meter app (deciBel Pro) and visits to a dozen restaurants and bars across Los Angeles to find out. In many cases, we're all dining with the noise equivalent of a lawn mower running next to us: That's 90 decibels. Normal conversation is 60 to 65 decibels. (And the decibel scale, like the Richter scale, is logarithmic: The higher up the decibel scale, the more noise it takes to move the needle.)

Sound meters read sound intensity — the pressure of sound waves traveling through the air from a noise source — not loudness, which is more subjective. A restaurant's sound intensity level will vary significantly on different days and at different times. But restaurants consistently clocked in at 80 to 90 decibels during peak hours. (Long-term exposure to noise at 80 to 85 decibels can cause hearing damage, experts say.)

Here are some sound level readings at a handful of L.A.'s noisiest restaurants on certain days of the week at particular times. These are sort of noise snapshots, as opposed to average sound levels over a period of time.


Bottega Louie

Location: Downtown Los Angeles

Time/day: 8 p.m. Sunday

Decibels: 87

The situation: The 10,000-square-foot restaurant has an open, stainless-steel-clad kitchen, soaring 20-foot ceilings, a marble-tiled floor and 20,000 feet of brass millwork. Though sound-absorbing material recently was installed under chairs and banquettes, by 7:30 p.m. on a lazy Sunday the dining room swells with the clanging of dishes and the murmur-on-steroids of hundreds of conversations. By 8 every seat in the house is filled, more than a dozen people are hanging out at the host's stand and the music (New Order's "Blue Monday") is turned up, at which point the decibel meter jumps to 87. But it sounds even louder.

Sound equivalent: Heavy traffic

Laurel Hardware

Location: West Hollywood

Time/day: 8:38 p.m. Saturday

Decibels: 88.3

The situation: Let's face it: Laurel Hardware might be as much bar as it is restaurant. The music is cranked, and the denizens of WeHo are out for a cocktail-fueled good time. The high-heeled already are swaying, either due to the music or due to a couple of Aqua di Vidas (plum vodka, Champagne and St-Germain). All that noise is bouncing off the floor-to-ceiling windows and the bar's mirrored and metal-paneled walls. For comparison's sake: At prime dinner time, it's as sound-intense in this rustic-chic purveyor of pizzas and small plates as it is at downtown's Tony's Saloon at midnight on a Saturday.

Sound equivalent: A whirring blender

Night + Market

Location: Hollywood