|illustration by Seth|
When I was in college, long ago and far away, we would drive to New York from the provinces to enjoy big city delights: museums, concerts, plays, andâ€”most of allâ€”food. Too much mystery meat from the university cafeteria can turn a desperate adolescent into a budding epicure in search of something more sophisticated. Manhattanâ€™s West Side used to be dotted with small, unpretentious brasseries like Brittany du Soir. It was staffed with stiff French waiters of the old school who didnâ€™t introduce themselves to you, try to cozy up and flatter you, or tell you that what you had just ordered was â€œan excellent choice.â€ They minded their manners and performed their duties. You did the eating. If you had a question, you asked. They answered. Then you got down to the serious business at hand: enjoying a meal of exotic stuff you never ate at home. Escargots! Artichauts vinaigrette! Quenelles! ÃŽle flottante! Over dinner you were also conducting polite, even intense, conversations about lifeâ€™s important issues, or crying over romance gone sour. Restaurants were for intimacy, and for intimacy peace and quiet are prerequisites.
Those days are gone forever, like black-and-white television. In nearly every restaurant, everywhere, it seems, commotion and hysteria have replaced tranquility.
Not so fast: last year I refreshed my memory of civilized life when, on a trip to Paris, I made a point of eating in highly recommended but not break-the-bank bistros. You sat cheek-by-jowl with your neighbors, whose food you could see. You could even grab a forkful of it. You could hear their conversations, but only if you listened hard. Why? Everyone was speaking in what our mothers used to call indoor voices. Politesse still existed. I was appeased.
But in Dallas: how many times have you returned from a dinner, having spent a kingâ€™s ransom, or even less, and come down with laryngitis to boot? When did the noise levels in restaurants begin to pose a public health hazard?
I knew I had tapped into some new roar in the zeitgeist 10 years ago when I went for an early supper with three friends to a now defunct eatery on Cedar Springs. We were the only guests. Music was blaring. I said to the waiter in my gentlest tone, â€œWould you be so kind as to turn the music down, or off?â€ He returned with the owner.
â€œWhatâ€™s the problem?â€ she inquired.
â€œThe music is so loud we canâ€™t hear ourselves talk,â€ I replied imploringly.
â€œBut thatâ€™s the whole point!â€ she said.
Things have only grown worse. Last month I went with a worldly foodie friend to Central 214 in the Hotel Palomar. We might as well have been at an SMU football game. My pal was in heaven; I was at least in purgatory. For our decent but costly meal in a beautiful room we suffered at the hands of an unctuous waiter who practically sat in our laps, and under deafening noise caused by high ceilings, sound-amplifying tile, loud music, and people screaming. I expressed my discomfort. â€œItâ€™s fun! Dinner as theater!â€ my companion helpfully explained.
If I want theater, I go to a theater. I donâ€™t want to witness, let alone participate in, the soap opera on all sides of me, any more than I want to eat architecturally sculpted, vertical food. Letâ€™s hear it for calm, and relative silence, and a nice plate of things laid out horizontally.
Am I too much an old-fashioned, kvetching purist? I hope not. I am a mild-mannered college professor with excellent hearing and simple tastes. I want good food, pleasant surroundings, and tranquility. I donâ€™t want to walk onto the set of Sex and the City. Quiet is a diminishing resource, like water, clean air, and petroleum.
So where does the noise come from? Three sources, but these make for a kind of chicken-and-egg dilemma. Who knows which came first? Restaurants like to pump up the noise in order to turn tables more quickly. Also to make people think theyâ€™re where the action is. Being where the action is naturally appeals to the young and the hip. So restaurants deliberately use sound-enhancing equipment rather than sound-deadening materials (factor No. 1). It doesnâ€™t matter whether ceilings are high (Toulouse) or low (Fireside Pies). And then they turn on the music to fortissimo (factor No. 2). People must scream. When one table screams, the next table screams (factor No. 3). On it goes.
Young peopleâ€”who by and large have not been trained in the niceties of polite conversation, in which people talk one at a time, in quiet voicesâ€”tend to be threatened by silence. And they become so used to screaming that even in a quiet place theyâ€™ll start to yell, and then everyone around them will join in. The noise snowballs.
The young and the beautiful like the Knox-Henderson area. On a recent bustling Friday night, I walked through nine different places to reconnoiter. Hectorâ€™s had a pianist doing a steamy â€œStormy Weatherâ€ for a slightly older crowd. At Hibiscus, the forbidding thump of the bass oozed its way through the sound system. The noise was nothing compared to that at Cuba Libre or at The Porch, which at least had some booths (which always make things a bit better). Villa-O was filled with the Carrie Bradshaws of Dallas, jolly, glamorous babes in spaghetti straps and heels. Abacus, the fanciest and most beautiful of them, was a little less noisy only because it was half empty.
I took a spin down Cedar Springs. Lola had four tables filled; The Old Warsaw fewer. When was the last time anyone you know went to the Old Warsaw? At 8:30 on a Friday night, it seemed more like a tomb than the heavily brocaded 19th-century brothel it has looked like for the past 60 years. At Fearingâ€™s the women all had real jewels and plastic surgery; the men werenâ€™t wearing socks. One room was quiet, the next noisy.
Why was that? Because, regardless of ceilings, acoustics, or music, everything can be spoiled by your neighbors. Think of your favorite little bistroâ€”The Grape, Parigi, the venerable Lâ€™Ancestral, Sharon Hageâ€™s divinely unpretentious York Street. You canâ€™t pick whoâ€™s going to sit next to you. At Lola one night, the people next to us were so rambunctious that we couldnâ€™t speak across a circular table for six. On my way out, I stopped and said, ever so sweetly, to the group of drunken revelers: â€œDo everyone a favor. The next time youâ€™re out, if youâ€™re going to be loud, please try to make sure that your conversation isnâ€™t so boring.â€ Nonplussed, they continued their revels.
I have a dream. I want a boÃ®te du quartier, a neighborhood place where I can go for a good meal and quiet conversation. What to do? Where to go if you donâ€™t want the over-upholstered plump of The Old Warsaw, City Cafe, or The French Room, or the over-miked rush and glitz where the wild things grow? Where you donâ€™t have to take out a second mortgage and can still have a conversation about lifeâ€™s persistent mysteries? Everyone can make recommendations, but youâ€™re not always safe. One recent night I went to Lâ€™Ancestral, where nothing has changed in a quarter centuryâ€”neither the staff, the menu, the dÃ©cor, nor the best pommes frites in townâ€”and where you hear Handel or Vivaldi, not rock. There were three tables of two and one of six. The last, at the far end of the small restaurant, was full not of raucous kids but screaming sixtysomethings having the time of their lives, thinking they were in their own dining room.
I had three choices: to go over and politely tell them to turn it down, to tell the waiter to do so, or to wait and hope theyâ€™d get out soon. I opted for No. 3, and after 40 minutes they hobbled out on their canes and left the rest of us to return to our delicious dinners.
And then it came to me: for the best, most civilized meal in town, you might as well stay home.
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at SMU and the editor in chief of The Southwest Review. Write to [email protected].