Would you consider eating out on a New York City subway platform during rush hour a pleasant dining experience?

I hear you all scoffing at the idea as you imagine the din of two express trains simultaneously roaring into the station.  Then why oh why do we frequent restaurants where the noise level exceeds a front row seat at a Jimi Hendrix rock concert?

Quick answer.  Because we have little choice.  If you, like millions of others, engage in what my friend labelled “recreational eating,” then often what you make for dinner is a reservation.

And everyone wants to sample the hot new restaurant in town.  So, you call and are fortunate enough to be granted a table for four by the snotty young hostess in the very short, very tight black dress and five-inch heels.  (Of course, you can’t see her, but you just know!)

A month from the time of your call, the big night finally arrives.  After a brief conversation with the other couple regarding who shall pick up whom (I think I got the grammar straight), you arrive at your destination, trust your car to the valet, and step inside. And in an instant, you feel like you’ve just been transported onto the runway of the world’s busiest airport!

The hostess (you were right about her!) informs you that your table is not quite ready and asks you to wait at the bar, where the exceptionally loud sound of people trying to be heard is augmented by pulsating music more conducive to disco dancing than to dining.  There is nowhere to stand to avoid the music. Speakers are everywhere!

You feel as if your entire body is being assaulted.  With good reason.  Because it is.  Sound is measured in units called decibels (dBs).  The higher the dB number, the louder the sound.  Returning to the New York City subway platform for a moment, the sound level measurement is approximately 90 dB.  And the sound level in your current situation is at least 85.  Bear in mind that average conversation takes place at about 60dB.  It’s no wonder that the most frequently uttered word in modern restaurants is “What?”

The hostess finds you just seconds before you fall into a noise-induced stupor, escorts you to your table, and hands you the menu.  You think about asking if the venue also provides ear plugs, but it seems rather unlikely.  Besides, she probably won’t be able to hear you.  The sound level at the table is only slightly better than it was at the bar, but still risky for noise-induced hearing loss.

The waiter appears and recites the specials.  Twice.  Three times.  And you’re still not sure if the fish of the day is prepared with almonds or artichokes.  You don’t want to gamble, so you order from the menu.  Thank goodness Apple thought to include a flashlight on the iPhone.

In an attempt at conversation, the four of you lean onto the table, foreheads almost touching.  Some of you fiddle with your hearing aids to try to drown out the background noise.  The one who doesn’t yet wear hearing aids wishes she did so that she could remove them.  Straining to be heard, you soon find yourselves competing with the other diners in yell-talking.  The meal is tasty, but you skip dessert.  You long to escape to the soothing lull of street noise.

So, why are restaurants so noisy? Clearly, there has been a shift in restaurant aesthetics.  Carpeting and soft seats have been replaced by metal and concrete and very high ceilings.  Restauranteurs claim that soundproofing has gotten too expensive for spaces that are barn-like.  Besides, noise equals excitement.  Who wants to walk into a room that is deadly quiet?

I definitely get the latter argument.  But surely, there must be some compromise between the experience of eating amidst a herd of lawn mowers or the public library!

So, people of a certain age:  do we give up recreational eating or try to accommodate to the new normal? One thing we might consider is that we abandon yell-talking and take classes in lipreading.  Or decide beforehand, that we will communicate via texting and eliminate the risk of laryngitis.

Or, we simply stay at home, and hope that one day, soon, the local senior center will open for dinner.

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