Have we lost the desire for genuine conversation? Or maybe it's more that our opportunities are being robbed.
I ponder that statement whenever I find myself meeting a colleague or friend in a restaurant these days. What lengths proprietors go to to create the right first impression with furniture, lighting and finishes. (I work for a design firm, so I notice these things.) In the best situations, these elements create a sense of welcome. They can make you feel cozy on a cold day, like the fireplace room at Dunaway's. They can make you want to linger and soak up the sun, like the Patio at SI Restaurant on a summer Sunday.
Now I happen to think these two restaurants offer delicious things on their respective menus, but enjoying a dining experience may or may not have much to do with the food itself. Sometimes, the right atmosphere, in giving your mind and heart repose or stimulation, more than makes up for mediocre cuisine.
Yet other times, you go to a place for the sake of your taste buds alone, in which case a wobbly chair or garish lighting makes no difference at all.
But the one thing most restaurants have in common is sound playing in the background: recorded music, live music or whatever the television is spewing at the moment.
Why does there seem to be a pervasive belief that the louder the volume, the more "atmosphere" has been created? Why is it nearly impossible to carry on a conversation across a table these days without feeling your hearing is going to go and your vocal chords as well?
Why is it that when you politely ask if the volume can be reduced, you often are told, "I'm sorry, but we can't turn it off (or even down) because it's controlled or programmed elsewhere."? Really? So you return to leaning over your plate and straining to hear your dinner partner trying to tell you all about her vacation to the Greek islands.
Background music should be just that: in the background. In the foreground are the people who come to eat, drink and enjoy being alone or with others. How often do we get to sit down and talk with one another these days? E-mail and text messaging have replaced picking up the phone or writing personal notes, in the name of getting things done faster.
In our leisure time, which strangely seems to become more restricted as we get faster at technology, do we have to be assaulted with loud music and talking heads to receive the impression something fabulous is going on around us?
And it's not just restaurants that use music to make up for the lack of genuine atmosphere.
Attention, Planners of Very Fancy Events: In the past year, I attended six or seven "black tie" events in Indianapolis, lovely parties all. But in more than a few cases, the live music was so loud, so very loud, that people just left. More like fled, in one instance, including myself. Many didn't want to. We actually wanted the evening to last into the wee hours. We wanted to talk about what a great party it was, and bask in the memories it was creating. But that became difficult after a while and then annoying and then just impossible.
I am not suggesting music is not important. Music adds elegance, fun, excitement or romance depending on the occasion (and the age group!). It can make you want to get up and dance, like at the Bistro in The Columbia Club on a Saturday night, or it can take you back to another era, like the Sinatra-infused ambience at 14 West.
Maybe I'm just showing my age, and a little weariness of the noisy world we live in. To Those Who Are In Control of the Volume, why not let your patrons help you create more of that natural "buzz," the art of conversation?
Faenzi is an author, public speaker and vice president of Business Development for Rowland Design. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.