Restaurant Conversation: Not Just for the Hearing

By Kathi Mestayer

While planning a recent visit to see my sister in Berkeley, she suggested that we go out to dinner at their favorite restaurant, Comal. I took a peek at its website and saw that the food is inspired by the regional cuisine of Oaxaca, Mexico, which we’ve visited three times. It was an easy yes!

The website also told me that Comal has spent a lot of time and effort on its acoustics, to make it possible to have both dinner and a conversation—at the same time, without yelling or becoming frustrated. Since I recently wrote about workplace noise in open office plans, I was also interested in real-world noise dampening efforts.

Because three of the five of us for dinner have hearing loss, I thought it would be the perfect group to check it out. My sister and I showed up a little early, and were lucky to find the general manager, Andrew Hoffman, also a co-owner, willing to give us a quick description of the acoustic features.

These include large acoustic panels on the walls to dampen reverberation, covered with original artwork (see photo above), acoustic material (tectum) behind the walls, and duct liner on the ceilings.

Andrew told us to look up at the tiny black microphones extending from the ceiling—barely visible. They were the working end of the computerized acoustic system (Meyer Sound’s Constellation System) that adjusts itself to the level and type of sound in the restaurant and creates the best acoustics possible given the noise level. 

We went downstairs into the control room, where a large stack of data processors was blinking away, doing the real-time work of managing noise upstairs. Andrew’s iPhone could make adjustments on the go. I asked him about the conventional wisdom that more noise in restaurants results in more sales of food and drinks. “We’re not just about turning tables here,” he replied.

We then sat down to a wonderful meal, and talked. We were able to have a conversation for at least an hour, while every seat in the place was full, including at the bar. It’s hard to know, of course, what the noise level would have been without the acoustic components and system, but given the shape of the space (open plan, high ceiling, hard surfaces) and the people in it, it was quite different than we expected. Not as quiet as our own dining room, but the food was much, much better.

Hearing Health magazine staff writer Kathi Mestayer serves on advisory boards for the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Greater Richmond, Va., chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

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