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Quietest and Loudest US Restaurant Chains as Rated by the SoundPrint App

Some places are just too noisy for good conversation. Here is a list of the quietest and loudest restaurant chains and information about how SoundPrint's app, a kind of 'Yelp app for Noise,' can help you find quieter public places like restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and more.
Chain Restaurant Logos Soundprint Study

A total of 18 national and regional restaurant chains were evaluated for their loudness levels in the SoundPrint study presented here.

While searching for love in notoriously loud New York City, entrepreneur and hearing health advocate Gregory Scott identified a problem with the dating scene: it was too noisy. Scott has sensorineural hearing loss, which also means he is more sensitive to loud and intrusive noise, found the city venues were rarely quiet. This made it difficult to hear, converse, and connect with his dates. The mixture of loud music and competing conversation, minimal soft furnishings, and poor acoustics, all added to create a noisy environment—certainly not conducive to conversation.

Scott would often go to Yelp, Google, Foursquare, OpenTable, and TripAdvisor to search for quiet restaurants, bars, and coffee shops so he would be able to hear his dates. Unfortunately, most of the time the places were seldom quiet, which caused him to experience some anxiety before a date, as he couldn’t be sure whether he would be able to relax and be fully present in the conversation.

When he did find a quieter venue, he started using decibel (dB) meters to make objective sound level measurements to get a sense of exactly how quiet or loud the places truly were and created a so-called list of “Quieter Venues.” His friends kept asking him for this list—both those with hearing loss and those with normal hearing.

“So, the idea was born to create a crowdsourcing decibel meter app that helps a community measure places to gauge whether they are conducive to conversation and safe for hearing health, and to discover places based on how quiet or loud they are—find the quieter ones to visit and avoid the noisier ones,” explains Scott.

Gregory Scott Soundprint App

Gregory Scott measures the sound level at a restaurant using the SoundPrint app.

In April 2018, Scott founded the SoundPrint app, aka the “Yelp for Noise.” The app helps users find quiet places of all types—restaurants, bars, coffee shops, movie theaters, hotels, retail stores, and gyms—where people can hear and connect with others.

The app relies on crowdsourcing, and users are invited to carry out SoundChecks by using the decibel meter to measure a venue’s sound level and then submit it to the database for everyone to see. This data allows the community to find and promote quieter venues.

Empowering users to advocate for their hearing health

The SoundPrint app categorizes sound levels into the following categories:

  • Quiet (below 70 dBA): Safe for hearing and great for conversation
  • Moderate (between 70-75 dBA): Safe for hearing health and conducive to conversation
  • Loud (75-80 dBA): Likely safe for hearing health but harder for conversation
  • Very Loud (above 80 dBA): Difficult for conversation and potentially dangerous for hearing health; prolonged exposure may lead to noise-induced hearing loss

It is important to note that high noise exposure can damage the delicate hearing hair cells in the ear, causing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). NIHL can occur from a one-time exposure to very loud noise, such as a firework blast close to your ear; however, more often, NIHL develops over time from repeated exposure to loud noise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC estimate 12.5% of children and adolescents aged 6-19 years (approximately 5.2 million people) and 17% of adults aged 20-69 years (about 26 million) have suffered permanent damage to their hearing from excessive exposure to noise.

Soundprint Challenge 2023

Finding places where you can have an easy and relaxed conversation in a relatively quiet place is getting more difficult in our noisy world.

Note that decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, so the intensity of a sound grows very fast as decibels increase. A sound at 20 dB is 10 times more intense than a sound at 10 dB, and the intensity of a sound at 100 dB is one billion times more powerful compared to a sound at 10 dB. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which serves as the research arm of OSHA, recommends a maximum time exposure of 8 hours in sound levels of 85 dBA, and that time interval goes up or down by about half for each 3 dBA decrease or increase, respectively (i.e., 88 dB = 4 hours, etc.).

As a rough reference, noise at 80 dB is about the same sound intensity as a traditional alarm clock. The CDC states “If you need to raise your voice to be heard at an arm’s length, the noise level in the environment is likely above 85 dB in sound intensity and could damage your hearing over time.”

With this in mind, users of the SoundPrint app can use measurements they take of a venue’s sound levels to advocate for themselves. For instance, if a user is in a noisy place and wants to request the venue to reduce the background music or be moved to a quieter area, they can take a measurement and show it to the venue manager or employees. “Many times, the venue employees simply are unaware of how various sound levels comprise a hazard to one’s hearing health,” comments Scott.

“In addition, users can submit noise complaints and SoundPrint will reach out to the venue to inform them that users are requesting them to do something about the noise and pose inexpensive ways to improve or optimize the sound level,” says Scott. “Sometimes a venue can be louder but still good for conversation if it has the right acoustical treatment.”

Restaurant noise-level data speaks volumes

SoundPrint is using the data from SoundChecks to generate useful information and insights about different locations. For example, Soundprint data scientist Erin Dugan was able to show the quietest and loudest US chain restaurants and the quietest times of day to visit them.

Dugan analyzed data collected from 3,300+ user-based SoundChecks across 18 casual restaurant chains. To be considered, each chain needed a minimum of 100 SoundChecks and had a SoundCheck from at least 30 unique U.S. locations.

First, Dugan looked at the median sound levels in major restaurant chains:

Median Db Levels In Restaurants Soundprint

Median sound levels (in dBA) of 18 popular national and regional restaurant chains.

The graph shows Panera and IHOP both register below 70 dBA, which is quiet and very good for holding a conversation. On the other hand, the loudest restaurant chains include True Food Kitchen and Yard House, which come in at 80 dBA and 81 dBA respectively, making Yard House a whopping 14 decibels (dB) louder than Panera—sounding 3-4 times louder to our ears!

Not only do these high volumes make conversation difficult, but sound levels above 80 dBA can potentially cause hearing damage, putting not only the health of their customers at risk but also their staff.

When to visit a chain restaurant

Next, Dugan explored the best time of day to visit a chain restaurant according to comfortable sound levels. The time periods were defined as follows: Early Morning (6-9 am), Mid-Morning (9-11 am), Lunch (11 am-2 pm), Afternoon (2-5 pm), Dinner (5-9 pm), and Late Night (after 9 pm).

Let’s begin with breakfast. When it comes to being able to enjoy a quiet and peaceful breakfast, there are some clear winners and, likewise, some places to avoid, as the graph below shows:

Quietest Breakfast Restaurants Soundprint

Median sound levels by time of day for four breakfast chains.

Amongst the 4 popular breakfast chains considered in this study, IHOP wins the award for having the quietest sound levels throughout the day, particularly during breakfast hours. This makes it a good choice if you want to start your day with some peace and quiet or meet a friend or colleague for a relaxed conversation. On the other end of the sound spectrum, Le Pain Quotidien has much louder sound levels in the mornings, and Cracker Barrel reaches almost 80 dBA during mid-morning, making it a poor choice for a quiet breakfast.

The quietest and loudest chain restaurants

The remaining 14 restaurants in the study were next split into two groups according to their sound levels: “Quietest Restaurant Chains” and “Loudest Restaurant Chains.”

The results for the Quietest Restaurant Chains were as follows:

Quietest Restaurant Chains Soundprint

The 7 quietest restaurant chains by time of day.

Apart from a couple of exceptions, the sound levels of these 7 restaurants remain below 75 dBA throughout the day. There is a noticeable increase in noise levels during dinnertime, which is to be expected since this is often a busy time for any restaurant.

Panera is notably the quietest restaurant overall, particularly during late-night hours when sound levels drop below 60 dBA—quieter than the average dishwasher. Applebees and Olive Garden also deserve a mention due to having consistent quiet-moderate sound levels of 75 dBA or less.

The remaining 7 of the 18 restaurants considered in this study have been classified as the Loudest Restaurant Chains, and are as follows:

Loudest Restaurants By Db Soundprint

The 7 loudest restaurant chains by time of day.

In these restaurants, sound levels were recorded as remaining an uncomfortable 75 dBA and above throughout much of the day, making it difficult to have a conversation. Yard House and Texas Road House are shown to be extremely loud, particularly from the afternoon onwards.

Diving deeper into the data: Q&A with Erin Dugan and Gregory Scott of SoundPrint

HearingTracker spoke with Dugan and Scott to talk about the significance of their findings.

Was there anything surprising in the data?

Dugan: It was one thing to see that Panera was noticeably quieter than the other chain restaurants and that many other chains can be almost twice as loud. But I'm mostly surprised that many restaurant chains in general are as loud as the data shows—more than half we analyzed have median sound levels over 75 dBA. These are popular places for people to meet friends and family for a meal, but those sound levels make it really hard for most people to hold a conversation.

Erin Dugan Soundprint

Erin Dugan.

Scott: I think the surprising thing is that there is such a wide level/range of sound levels across different venues. It shows how paying attention to acoustic design and different restaurant atmospheres plays a role in sound levels. Oftentimes, people make blanket assertions that "all restaurants are loud" or all "bars are loud."

Our data clearly show that this is not the case. There are plenty of quieter or moderate restaurants, as well as wine bars and gastropubs, that are quiet or moderate—meaning they're good for conversation or safer for hearing health.

We loved that Panera demonstrates a quieter environment because they pay attention to and devote resources to designing a quieter venue. And it shows in the data.

Are there any additional discoveries from the data that you would like to share?

Dugan: Some factors don't necessarily show up in the measured sound levels, but in the subjective responses provided with the submissions, which I love to see. I'm also an acoustical consultant, so it's interesting to me to see when a restaurant is not rated as great for conversation, even if it might be considered "quiet" by subjective standards.

There's a lot of nuance in restaurant design—details of which most people aren't aware. For example, an empty restaurant may be quiet, but if there are a lot of hard surfaces that create reverberation [echoes] in the room, it's still uncomfortable to hold a conversation because of those echoes.

Table size and placement can also affect the ability of a party to converse, whether it's due to the distance across your table, or the closeness of other tables. This can impact privacy and the ability to understand the other people at your own table.

In the study, you commented that “Panera’s interior design contributes to acoustic success.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

Scott: Panera has more absorptive surfaces that act like sound absorption materials—which can include carpeting, tablecloths, plants, acoustic panels, table spacing, and private seating areas. A recent article shows how acoustic paneling helped solve the issue of excessive noise and echo when many people were in Panera.

Panera Soundprint

Panera is quieter and better for conversations because the company has put some thought into how to make its spaces more conversation-friendly.

We believe the founder of Panera made acoustics a strong priority in the overall dining experience and shows how it's a major component of their success.

What is the main takeaway from this data?

Dugan: Owners, managers, and developers should put more thought into the acoustic design of these spaces if they want to improve customer loyalty, as well as the hearing health of their own employees. I think this is even more important when it comes to chain restaurants because their customers will know what sound levels to expect when visiting other locations.

How to get involved

The SoundPrint app lives and dies based on crowdsourcing and users making SoundChecks. Scott told HearingTracker, “We highly encourage users to take SoundChecks wherever they go, whether it’s a restaurant, bar, movie theater, park, library, or retail store. Every SoundCheck makes the database more robust and reliable, and it continues to signal to the mainstream public that noise is a serious issue; there are things that can be (and are being) done to help make the world a bit quieter, step by step.”

As well as contributing to the working of the app by submitting SoundChecks, users and hearing health partners are invited to participate in a month-long challenge called the Find Your Quiet Place Challenge every October. Participants compete for prizes given to the user with the most SoundCheck submissions during the month overall.

Carly

Hearing Health Writer

Carly Sygrove is a hearing loss coach and a hearing health writer who has single-sided deafness. She writes about living with hearing loss at My Hearing Loss Story and manages an online support group for people with hearing loss. She is also the founder of the Sudden Hearing Loss Support website, a source of information and support for people affected by sudden hearing loss.