How Restaurants Get You Drunk

Ever wonder why you seem to drink more and eat faster at a noisy restaurant? George Prochnik, author of In Pursuit of Silence, has the fascinating science behind this everyday phenomenon.

Not long ago, I found myself in a new barbecue restaurant in Manhattan. Though it was barely cocktail hour, the noise level was punishing. Music raged. Patrons howled. Obviously, the place was happening.

I was sitting in this particular emporium with one of the restaurant's architects, a nice guy from the Rockwell Group, which has been responsible for projects ranging from Planet Hollywoods, to multiple Nobus, to a casino for the Mohegan Native American tribe. He was shouting to me about why the restaurant’s theme, which he described as being "like a garage in Harlem, where they’re cooking out of like the back of a garage,” worked so well at this moment in our public dining culture. A lot of what he had to tell me concerned sound and liberation.

Italian researchers have recently proven that acoustic stimulation heightens the effect of Ecstasy, to a degree that influences the drug’s toxicity.

“I can tell you,” he said, "people don’t want a space that’s really dead quiet, because that feels empty. And if it feels empty, it’s not going to feel successful. It’s not going to feel fun. You know, noise makes a place feel like it’s got a buzz." He cited, unexpectedly, September 11th as the moment when the trend toward raucous, informal, let-it-all hang out urban hoedown aesthetics took off. “People want to enjoy life more, and be more in the world. They don’t want to have these insular kinds of experiences of coffin-like, very tailored dressy restaurants. People want to be in the flow of life.”

Who would have known that silence in restaurants could be another way of letting the terrorists win?

Of course, there are less existential issues at work as well. For one thing, there’s the decade-old shift in visual aesthetics toward hard-bodied, noise-ricocheting interior décor—concrete floors, unpadded tables, and chairs. It’s as though the preciousness of exorbitant dining is somehow mitigated if we chow down in spaces evocative of an Industrial Revolution sweatshop, or a family-run slaughterhouse. Somewhere along the way, we began thinking of tablecloths, carpets, and soft ceilings as signs of weakness.

But it’s not just a matter of acoustical machismo. There are also sneakier efforts at behavioral manipulation in play. For years social scientists and marketers have been scrutinizing the links between loud music, fast tempos, and dining habits.

In the mid-1980s, researchers at Fairfield University demonstrated that people increased their rate of chewing by almost a third when listening to faster, louder music, accelerating from 3.83 bites a minute to 4.4 bites a minute. Stoked with data of this nature, chain restaurants, such as Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill, developed computerized sound systems that were preset to raise the tempo and volume of music at hours of the day when corporate wanted to turn tables.

And a study completed in the summer of 2008 in France found that when music was played at 72 decibels, men consumed an average of 2.6 drinks at a rate of one drink per 14.51 minutes. When the sound level was cranked up to 88 decibels, the numbers spiked to an average of 3.4 drinks, with one consumed every 11.47 minutes. Reasons for this acceleration may include an increase in ambient energy, and a consequent increase of difficulty in talking, which makes it easier to just signal the bartender for a refill than to engage in conversation. It may also be explained by actual changes in brain chemistry.

Italian researchers have recently proven that acoustic stimulation heightens the effect of Ecstasy, to a degree that influences the drug’s toxicity. Though the mechanism is not fully understood, the researchers demonstrated that even low doses of Ecstasy, when administered in conjunction with sound equivalent to a typical discothèque, spiked electrical activity in the brain sufficiently to produce what might be called, in layman’s terms, a sizzle and fry effect.

As I discovered repeatedly while researching my book, In Pursuit of Silence, we must always bear in mind that noise is a real, physical stimulant. Sound waves literally energize us. Moreover, the stimulation that noise provides is one that’s particularly effective at heightening other forms of stimulation. (Hence the jacked up volumes in our sports stadiums and the tendency for soldiers on battle missions to crave heavy metal.) To begin unraveling the problem of noise in our restaurants, like the noise of our culture in general, we have to acknowledge the actual energy dynamic at work in our hunger for over-stimulation—and start thinking about what might replace it as an ideal.

I asked my architect companion at the urban barbecue whether he thought a restaurant could ever be too loud. He looked around at the packed, distressed cement floors and frontier-style wooden booths as we chugged our last drink. "You know,” he said, “the real gauge for me is if I go out to a restaurant for dinner and I have basically lost my voice by the time I go home.”

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I wanted to suggest that it might be worth re-exploring the possibility for conversation in which both speaking and listening played a part; but then the music dialed up another notch, and the thought of trying to communicate above the cacophony silenced me.

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