Restaurant critics routinely award points for "ambience," which can mean anything from parquet flooring to the number of yummy mummies in the room. Human chatter almost always makes for good ambience, an index of conviviality the patron has somehow contrived. But when does restaurant buzz become unacceptable noise?
Richard Vines, the food critic of Bloomberg News, recently popped into Jamie Oliver's Union Jacks pizza joint in Covent Garden, bearing a decibel counter. The combination of music and entertainers outside was deafening: "The decibel reading bounced along above 80," wrote Vines, "and peaked near 90."
Ninety! That's an alarm clock going off by your ear. Before the Hyde Park gauleiters pulled the plug on Bruce Springsteen, do you know the limit at which he was allowed to play? It was 75dbs. So Jamie, friend of diners everywhere, is running a restaurant whose noise level borders on pain.
How do you stop it? You could turn the music down – but what about the braying of diners who are so pleased to have scored a table at Union Jacks or Shrimpy's or Dabbous that they raise their voices to a hubbub that needs a greater hubbub to shout over it?
Many trendy London restaurants (MeatLiquor, 10 Greek Street) favour a stripped-down, wood-on-wood, carpetless vibe, a hard space in which every sound reverberates. A burst of laughter sounds like the Cockfosters Tube arriving. What can be done? Will noise inspectors invade Jamie's establishments and pull the plug? And in music-free places, will they employ someone to tell noisy conversationalists to keep their hilarious thoughts on beach volleyball down to more bearable levels?