Who put the din in dinner?

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IS IT just me, or are restaurants getting noisier? I said - is it just me, or are restaurants getting noisier? It wasn't long ago that the only things you had to worry about when dining out were the killer kilojoules. Now it's the deadly decibels.

When restaurants were thickly carpeted and plushly draped, and their tables double-clothed and napkined, dining was a subdued affair. But the more light, Mediterranean, modern and minimalist our restaurants become, the more maximalist the noise - it just loves to bounce off those shiny poured-concrete floors, stainless-steel counters, glass panels, terracotta tiles and wood-grained tables.

Restaurant noise reduction is a growth industry, with new technology continually turning up new ways to tackle the problem. Yet suspended ceiling baffles, padded walls, upholstered banquettes and foam underlay for timber floorboards have barely halted the power of Babel. Noise levels continue to escalate. Let's hope your roasted monkfish with crushed new potatoes and red wine sauce is thoroughly absorbing, because unless you read lips, there's no way you'll be engaging in meaningful dialogue once the clock strikes nine. And good luck with trying to hear the specials of the day over the CD of the week. It's no easier for small tables, either: why bother whispering sweet nothings across the table if all your sweetheart is going to hear is the nothing bit?

Eventually, we all find our own ways of coping with excessive noise. There is a bar in Milan where the noise builds up and up and up until it eventually gets to the point where it is totally unbearable. At this point the owner simply stands on a table and screams at the clientele to SHUUUUTTUPPP! It works for a good hour.

Not all noise is bad. The only thing worse than a really loud restaurant is a restaurant with no noise at all. It's just as hard to speak, when your own voice is the only one you hear. Noise, after all, is part of the atmosphere. It means people are talking, laughing and generally enjoying themselves. Glasses are clinking, music is playing, chairs are scraping, the espresso machine is hissing, the kitchen is banging and clattering in all the joy of a service in full flight.

Making noise is a tribal affirmation, as we huddle in our modern-day caves, surrounded, and therefore protected, by man-made sound. Now that we live and work in neat, tiny, individual boxes, we need a common meeting- place to let off steam. In the weird way of the 20th century, the restaurant fulfils that role for a certain economic segment and age group. I say age group, because the youngies have their bars and clubs, and the oldies stay at home so they can hear themselves ask for the salt and pepper.

Apparently, if you work an eight-hour day for 10 years in a noise environment of around 85 decibels, then you have a 6 per cent chance of incurring lasting hearing damage. (Heavy rock concerts, for example, can go way over the 100 decibel mark.) Noise of 70 decibels requires a raised voice for face-to-face conversation at about one metre. By the time the level reaches 80 decibels, you have to shout.

A recent noise-level survey in my area found that nine of the 10 restaurants surveyed weighed in at over 70 decibels, with four rising to 80 decibels. The worst news was that on a typically busy Friday evening, my favourite French bistro registered 84 decibels. I haven't yet put in eight hours a day for 10 years at the place, but it would have to be close. I said - it would have to be close.