By Peg Moore

Thanks to the passion for locavorism and increasing sophistication about artisanal ingredients, it has become easy to find excellent food even in simple pizzerias, but it is not so easy to have a conversation with friends while savoring tasty food.

 

Many people report that, although they enjoyed the food at certain local restaurants, they will not return because of the noise. It may be partly a generational concern, but those under 30 are also complaining that they feel ripped off by prices in restaurants with a high noise level.

Décor sets the tone

Dick Elliott recognized the need to provide quiet dining spaces in High Cotton when it opened in 1999; he wisely separating the bar from dining areas and locating live music there. He designed the East Bay Room to absorb noise, exude graciousness, be unique — “I wanted an iconic reputation, like Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.” Chef Joseph Palma, plates his dishes with an awareness that we eat with our eyes first — yes, almost too pretty to eat, but don’t miss the unusual rabbit loin dish and the grouper. Sauces are exquisite.

You encounter this same eye appeal at Circa 1886. Music is low; the floors are carpeted. Expect tablecloths, of course. Civilized décor seems to influence both the way people dress as well as their table manners — even those at large tables do not get raucous. Stuart and Tootie Dawson recommend the lamb at Circa. The grilled quail with plum lacquer and cheddar grits is a winner. The dessert soufflé is worth every calorie.

Peninsula Grill, Charleston Grill, Fulton Five and Muse also serve excellent food in beautiful surroundings where you can talk normally.

Savvy restaurateurs provide options

Savvy restaurateurs provide options, areas where the buzz level is high, others where you can have a conversation. At Carolina’s, head for the Perdita’s room or a booth in the sidewalk room (Annie Caroline Reid recommends the flounder). There’s the terrace at Rue de Jean, Magnolia’s carpeted back room, Oak’s third floor, Cru Café’s piazza, second floors at Anson, Mercato, booths at Hank’s, edge tables at SNOB, Leaf.

Jay Williams sees restaurants as having become places of entertainment with smartphones replacing conversation. “Noise may mask what’s really going on — the increasing de-socialization of a society that seems almost as fascinated by Facebook friends as real friends.”

Why do restaurants permit so much noise?

The noise is deliberate — it generates more profits. Studies show that noise makes people eat more, drink more and leave sooner. Restaurants cut costs with hard edges, minimal décor.

New York Magazine reviewer Adam Platt noted that most of the restaurants he reviews now “aren’t restaurants at all in the classic sense. They’re noisy bars, built for sound, that happen to serve good, sometimes excellent food.” Restaurant scholars say blasting music in restaurants began in the late 1990s with Mario Batali in his New York restaurant Babbo.

The late Craig Claiborne saw it coming. In his last publication Elements of Etiquette, of 1992 he lamented, “Manners seem to have no place in the order of things.” He noted that at the dinner table “insecurity, insincerity and insubordination rule.” He recommended only gentle classical music with food.

Restaurants exhibit a lack of manners by encouraging noise with loud music and large bars located near diners. A super-casual ambience does not encourage good etiquette in diners.

Signs that civility is making a comeback

It takes awhile for trends to change but there are signs that indicate a changing sensibility. Or am I wishfully thinking?

The new Los Angeles restaurant Bucato dared to ban cell phones “to prevent gastro ADD.” In the fashion world, there is a move back to urbanity with reports of CEO’s setting fashion style with ties and pocket squares, women wearing power suits, a decline in casual Fridays. The lavishly renewed Sermet’s respects Charleston’s urbane style with its servers wearing bow ties from Ben Silver.

Charleston resident Maureen Ginty of SMG World, reports that her company sees good manners as good business. Maureen, who is Emily Post trained, will have classes in civility at the College of Charleston next year for those in her corporation who deal with the public. Maureen’s company manages more than 200 entertainment centers, includes catering and food services.

Diners are complaining — Zagat, who publishes dining guides, reports noise and service are main complaints. In Canada, Toronto’s classical music station is waging a campaign against noise: “We are serious about noise pollution in restaurants and we know you feel the same. If civilized drinking and dining is what you preach and desire, we want to hear from you.” Listeners report to the station, Facebook and Twitter on which restaurants have noise and which do not.

Studies show that noise makes food taste bland. One chef in France has taken steps to tame the noise.

Trendy Paris bistro sets an example

Those who travel abroad find casual Italian trattorias and French bistros are normally quiet enough for conversation, suggesting that there are national traditions about restaurant manners.

However restaurants that attract tourists can find noise to be a problem. It was recently reported in Food and Wine that noise and crowds at the trendy restaurant L’Ami Jean often overwhelmed the food.

Chef/owner Stephane Jego, one of my favorite Paris chefs, always stands at the door to his kitchen, adding last minute tastes to every dish. His devotion to excellence inspired him to provide a more tranquil ambience for diners by removing some tables and adding table linens. It is smart to book well ahead for this tiny Parisian gem on the left bank (011-33-1—47-05-86-89) — don’t miss the fois gras and rice pudding with salty caramel. Bon appétit!

Peg Moore may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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