Friday, April 01, 2005 | The complaint I receive most about restaurants from friends, family and colleagues is noise. It has become such a problem for restaurant goers in San Francisco, that San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer now includes a decibel level symbol in his reviews.

For restaurants, this is a double-edged sword issue. To maintain that ever important “restaurant buzz,” noise is part of the package. The new generation of restaurant-goers grew up with head phones and boom boxes. They like noise. Without it, they would pronounce the restaurant dead. For those of us in our “later years,” all the racket drives us nuts. So what exactly is a restaurateur to do?

The first thing every restaurant owner should look at is the clientele. For high-end, fine dining, this is a no-brainer. People who are spending upwards of $100 per person are not going to tolerate being unable to hear the person across the table. For a restaurant like Buca di Beppo, noise is part of the ambiance package. Customers love the frenetic activity of the place and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Restaurants should take a look at their interiors and make sure everything possible has been done to muffle noise. Is there carpet on the floor? Are ceiling tiles the kind that help with noise control? How far apart are the tables? Is the music piped in? If so, can the volume be controlled? If music is live, where are the musicians stationed in the dining room?

And for the diners, try and make your reservations early before the younger crowd arrives. Ask for tables away from the bar area or the entertainment. Find out when the entertainment begins and ends and make reservations before or after.

The biggest help would be if all restaurant reviews contained a decibel level. Restaurant guides and magazine listings should publish noise levels as well. As a result, people could make dining choices based on clear information. It is important for restaurants and customers to remember that restaurants cannot be all things to all people. Making choices based on clear information will keep both sides happy.

Pamela J. Wischkaemper is a local food consultant and is the founder of San Diego Gastronomically Correct, a group that goes on the road twice a year to promote the San Diego restaurant industry. The only criterion for membership is having cooked at the James Beard House in New York. Nineteen chefs in San Diego are members.

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