According to a recent study by hearing specialists at the University of California, San Francisco, the noise levels in many restaurants and bars create a potential health hazard. Piped-in music, high ceilings, open kitchens and customers who shout to be heard contribute to the threat, according to a report in Nation's Restaurant News, an industry weekly. The magazine suggests that deafening decibels may soon become a front-burner issue, just like second-hand smoke.
Mega-hot hospitality honchos and some customers like it that way. Noise equals excitement, they say. A quiet restaurant is a dead restaurant, many believe. Thus, when planning new establishments, some restaurateurs nix sound-absorbing tiles, thick fabrics and other noise-muffling design elements. Big sound, in fact, is often part of a restaurant's overall concept, particularly at venues where alcohol and mindless good times are among the main draws.
Like a growing number of restaurant reviewers in California and New York, I routinely comment on noise in print. Some readers are reassured by boom boxes and mouthy crowds of likeminded merrymakers. Others want to talk while they eat. Everybody needs information before investing in dinner.
For those who equate peace and quiet with dining out, a handful of establishments in every category continue to offer worthwhile food and service in restful -- not to say solemn or funereal -- settings. Here are a dozen to keep in mind.
Shingaar Palace, North Hill Plaza, 3364-H Chamblee-Tucker Road, Chamblee, 770-458-4466. Pretend you're in an Indian hill station tearoom. The flowered wallpaper, full bar and whispered answers to questions about food suggest colonial-style comforts and a sincere appreciation of relaxation and repose. Of equal importance, this eastside newcomer offers what may be the city's best combination of authentic Indian food, agreeable service and elegant décor. Appetizers (potato cakes laced with cottage cheese and spinach, charcoal-grilled chicken drumsticks), vegetables (mashed spiced eggplant) and curry sauces are particularly notable.
Aria, 490 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-233-5208. The fat lady does not sing. Root-canal house music is happily absent. You might as well be choosing furs at Neiman Marcus. The former Hedgerose Heights has been repositioned as a hangout for youthful entrepreneurs and wannabe Bill Gateses. Some of them don't own suits but they do speak low. Gerry Klaskala's accomplished American cuisine (slow-cooked chicken and beef, soups, grilled meats), Kathryn King's dreamy desserts and the half-baked, weirdly erotic décor by Bill Johnson Studio take one's breath away. Who could sing after that?
Antica Posta, 519 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-262-7112. Although Italian restaurants can be loud, that's not invariably the case. Sometimes the food is so good that customers simply sigh and moan with sensual pleasure. At the former Riviera, Tuscan specialties such as superb risottos, superior seafood and seasonal vegetables do the trick. Keep in mind that the glitz factor is down since the restaurant changed hands. Service and physical comforts are still first-rate, though, making this a prime romantic destination.
Bacchanalia, 1198 Howell Mill Road, at Huff Road, 404-365-0410. The industrial-rehab setting into which the city's best restaurant recently moved must have seemed ripe for a crash-and-burn, post-post mod "noise experience." Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. Though no chapel of silence even so, the setting in a former meat-packing plant (tile walls, metal-frame windows) has been softened by velvet and burlap fabrics, wooden Venetian blinds and floor-to-ceiling bolts of cloth. The modernist surroundings thus match the California-influenced cuisine of owner-chefs Clifford Harrison and Anne Quatrano like beurre blanc on fish. Service, wines and fresh, first-quality ingredients leave little to be desired.
Seeger's, 111 W. Paces Ferry Road, 404-846-9779. You will be tested on this material. Guenter Seeger does not cook for the uninitiated. No, his meals are serious business -- the culinary equivalent of seminars at Harvard Business School or Georgia Tech. Appreciative silence is the applause du jour. Guests sip champagne, taste unheard-of marvels (in small portions, mind you) and thoughtfully consider. Talk is cheap and Chef Seeger's meals are dear, but worth it for those who can pay for novelties, high-level cosseting and ultra-moderne Europeanissimo surroundings.
The Dining Room, the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, 3434 Peachtree Road, 404-237-2700. Wood, thick carpets and upholstered banquettes so successfully soak up superfluous sound in this splendid, baronial-style room that the piped-in classical music seems almost not there -- and yet every note is distinct. Perfectly trained servers speak in modulated tones. Champagne corks are popped just offstage, not tableside. Plates are carried by hand, the better to avoid the metallic clang of trays. Chef Joel Antunes' fusion cuisine is as perfectly controlled as the ambience, the result being excitement without fuss, the ritual of dinner elevated to a form of High Mass.
Babette's Café, 471 N. Highland Ave., 404-523-9121. Depending upon the crowd, this homelike, intown standby falls somewhere between Sunday dinner-at-grandma's condo and pretty-darn-lively. People do raise their voices. Words bounce off wood, plaster and glass. Yet the ambience is serene and restful. And the cross-cultural comfort food runs a lip-smacking gamut from owner-chef Marla Adams' familiar and beloved specialties (Romaine-arugula salad, mussels steamed in white wine with strawberries and serrano peppers, grilled lamb chops with shoestring fries) to the kicky and slightly adventurous (sublime pan-roasted monkfish with tomatoes, croutons, aioli and asparagus; beef tenderloin with gorgonzola sauce).
City Grill, Hurt Building, 50 Hurt Plaza (at Five Points), 404-524-2489. Quiet as a bank. Formal as a private club (it boasts a fortune in starched linens, crystal tumblers and heavy silver flatware, you know). And, with its Edenic murals, private rooms and "Hello, Dolly" staircase, this downtown stage set is as dramatic as all get-out. Engagements have been known to happen here. Big deals get consummated. Serious talk and agreeable pampering are the restaurant's reasons for being. Enter, enjoy the splendid quiet and dine or lunch on lump crab cakes with lemon pasta, seasonal soups, big salads and spice cake so good you'll finish every super-caloric, cholesterol-laden morsel.
South of France, Cheshire Square, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-325-6963. For classic retro-romance, it's hard to beat 1960s country French cuisine and atmosphere. As if preserved under glass, it's all at this storefront, just steps from the Tara Theatre: farm implements, candles, onion soup, pork dijonnaise, chocolate mousse and all. Take a table next to the fireplace, sip a glass of vin rouge, talk of love and escape without spending too much money.
Uncle Tai's, Phipps Plaza, 3500 Peachtree Road, 404-816-8888. Dragons, carpets, layered tablecloths and bowing servers whose measured tones promise culinary wonders, all fit the upscale atmosphere of the city's highest-end mall. Although Uncle Tai's all-purpose Chinese cooking is nothing special and prices are hefty, the handsomely decorated chain link serves as a welcome hideaway for shoppers and moviegoers. For my money, this self-styled "Chinese bistro" is the best quiet-dining bet in either Phipps or Lenox Square.
Northlake Thai Cuisine. 3939 LaVista Road, at Montreal Road, Tucker, 770-938-2223. Quieter than the typical Bangkok eatery, this cousin to Midtown's spectacular Tamarind possesses its own soothing tropical ambience. Moderately formal service, Thai politeness and a softly rounded physical layout seem to attract well-behaved, soft-spoken customers. For the neighborhood, the cooking is notable, with starters deserving particular attention.
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