This is why you can’t stand certain restaurants — and it has nothing to do with food

The foundation of any great dining experience is the food. But, besides what’s on your plate, a new study finds background noise levels can also make or break a meal. The research team says a loud eating environment can even make food less enjoyable! Suddenly the mall food court doesn’t sound so appetizing.

This research was conducted at Flinders University via a series of lab experiments that recreated various noise levels typically heard in restaurants. Surprisingly, the results of those experiments indicate that even “normal” noise levels in a restaurant dining area can be detrimental to customers’ overall experience.

Conversely, however, some relaxing music played at a low level appears to improve dining experiences, and even helps food taste better.

“Our study not only shows that relaxing music at low noise levels increases food enjoyment but indicates that even ‘normal’ background noise levels in restaurants can be unpleasant to diners,” says lead study author, Flinders University Ph.D. candidate Mahmoud Alamir, in a press release.

This isn’t something we always consciously recognize. Sure, if you walk into a restaurant and the place is blasting heavy metal you’re going to notice right away. In many other scenarios, though, the influence of noise on meal enjoyment is much more subtle and cumulative.

Imagine you booked a table at one of the hottest new restaurants in your city for Friday night. You arrive, sit down at your table, and barely notice just how loud the packed dining area is. You’re busy reading the menu and ordering drinks. Throughout your meal, however, all of that constant, grating background noise and chatter eventually extracts a toll on your overall dining experience.

“We do not always recognize the cumulative effect of noise to our stress or annoyance levels, but we see how every one of us has a sensitivity to noise in different ways,” Alamir explains.

Of course, not everyone reacts exactly the same to noise and music, and much of these findings depend on just how sensitive a person is to noise in the first place. If you spend your days with your headphones cranked up to 11 you probably won’t mind a noisy restaurant quite as much as, say, a librarian would.

The study’s authors considered this during their experiments and accounted for gender, age, and background noise sensitivity while compiling their final findings. This led them to conclude that noise-sensitive people (predictably), women, and older adults all reported the lowest levels of food enjoyment during dining scenarios that included “elevated” background noise.

These findings carry a number of implications for eating establishments the world over, of all varieties. Restaurants come in several different shapes, sizes, and themes. Some go for a classic, elegant atmosphere, but many others have adopted a much more modern approach to dining that often comes along with blaring music and loud, crowded dining areas.

Does this mean every restaurant should adopt a strict “only whispering” policy? Not necessarily, but the research team does think it’s a good idea for every restaurant to have a few “noise management strategies.” For example, a quieter dining area for customers who request such an atmosphere is one such strategy.

“This could include more practical acoustic design of dining areas to suit different groups of people,” comments study co-author Dr. Kristy Hansen. “Quiet dining areas should be considered for older and noise-sensitive people.”

So, if you’ve ever left a restaurant feeling unsatisfied but couldn’t quite put your finger on why it may have been all the background noise. They say silence is golden, but maybe it’s actually just delicious.

The full study can be found here, published in Applied Acoustics.