When Jennifer Coco was opening her midtown restaurant, J. Coco, she didn't just think about the menu. She also thought about acoustics.
She installed curtains around the windows. She disguised sound panels along the walls with vintage photographs of Omaha. She had chairs upholstered, all to mute loud ambient sounds.
And she hoped it would be enough.
“It does weigh on my mind,” Coco said. “We took all the finishes into consideration, outside of floor-to-ceiling carpet.”
Nonetheless, some diners still complain that the restaurant is too noisy.
“When we have a full bar and the room is full, I hear about it,” she said.
She's not the only restaurant owner who does.
Restaurant noise levels are becoming a more common complaint from diners in Omaha and around the country. Yelp, an online dining site, now lets users rate restaurants on acoustics. At OpenTable, an online reservation service, diners can say whether a restaurant is quiet, moderate or “energetic.” National restaurant critics are factoring noise levels into their reviews.
And, according to a nationwide Zagat survey, noise is the second-biggest complaint from diners, sitting just behind bad service. In the 2013 survey, 16 percent of diners complained about noise and crowds, up from 12 percent five years ago. Since 1979, Zagat has conducted an annual nationwide survey that gathers information about restaurants.
Coco and other restaurateurs said noise levels are a delicate balance.
“It's unnerving when it's quiet in here,” Coco said, “and when it is quiet, people feel like they can't talk because everyone hears their whole conversation. But on the other hand, when people are celebrating and talking loud, it's the opposite.”
Omaha diner Nick Schumacher said he didn't have a problem with noise during a recent dinner at J. Coco on a busy Tuesday night.
“It was the perfect balance of restaurant noise, people talking and the privacy to carry on a conversation at a reasonable level,” he said.
However, at a recent dinner at another Omaha restaurant, Schumacher said his party and people at one other table were the only diners.
“With the high ceilings, our voices boomed around the whole place,” he said. “I swear the cook in the back was laughing at our jokes.”
High, exposed ceilings, hard surfaces such as wood, concrete, glass or mirrors, and speakers placed all over restaurants all can cause noise problems.
Anthony Hitchcock, manager of the Flagship Restaurant Group, which runs Blue Sushi, Roja, Blatt Beer and Table and the soon-to-open Plank in the Old Market, said Flagship considers acoustics in all its restaurants, but it also considers the crowd and the time of day.
Some of Flagship's restaurants have sound absorbers, he said, and some don't. For example, the west Omaha location of Roja has sound barriers while the downtown location does not. Flagship also adjusts music — the music at Sake Bombers Lounge on the second level of Blue in the Old Market is louder than it is in the restaurant's main-floor dining room.
“Our restaurants get two types of diners,” he said. “We get someone looking for energy and action, and someone out for a nice dinner with their husband or wife.”
Blue can be especially noisy during its popular happy-hour specials, but Hitchcock said clients who come in for happy hour, for the most part, are expecting it to be louder.
“They are looking to let loose a little bit,” he said, “The noise creates a vibe they like.”
Indeed, some diners look for noisy spots.
Megan Murphy said she often takes her 4-year-old son, who has sensory issues, to noisier restaurants.
“We know where we can and cannot go,” she said. “In a lot of ways, we feel more comfortable in noisy restaurants because my son is so active. He fits right in.”
She said diners who go to a popular new restaurant looking for quiet should think twice — she said they're almost always noisy with new visitors.
“And if what you are seeking is quiet, there are plenty of other options,” she said.
Ron Samuelson, who co-owns M's Pub in the Old Market, said throughout his restaurant's 40 years, diners have always complained about noise.
Part of the solution, he said, is knowing your customers.
“It's a delicate balance, and we just try and recognize our limitations.”
Samuelson said M's seats large parties in the middle of the restaurant, and if a diner requests a quieter spot, they're seated near the front window or at one of the more intimate bar tables.
“Noise is part of what makes a place popular, in certain ways,” he said.
Katie Cook, who is a server at Lot 2 in Benson and also has worked at Vivace and the Indian Oven, said she always tries to accommodate customers bothered by noise, honoring requests to be moved to different tables if possible, or turning down music.
“If we were full and I couldn't move them, I would try and make them laugh at the situation and remind them that we can only do so much,” she said.
Omahan Scott Benedict said as he gets older — he's in his 40s — he doesn't appreciate noisy restaurants as much. When he was younger, he said, he'd often go to restaurants where he had to shout at his friends. Now he doesn't like that.
“When I go out with my extended family, which is six adults and four children, unless the adults are sitting very close to each other, we can't have conversations,” he said. “I don't go out to eat to be isolated. I go for the conversation and good food.”
Cook said loud restaurants don't bother her. She thinks the noise is part of the experience.
“I just don't think about it,” she said. “I don't think I have ever once said, 'The food was great but it was really loud.' I figure it means the restaurant is doing well, they are busy and that it's part of the experience.”
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