Bay Area restaurants are a sensory nightmare

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Experts say that restaurants torture us with their loud, unhinged Spotify playlists for a number of reasons – and it all boils down to money.

Experts say that restaurants torture us with their loud, unhinged Spotify playlists for a number of reasons – and it all boils down to money.

Images via Getty; illustration SFGATE

When you first step inside, Tosca Cafe is exactly what you’d imagine a historic restaurant in North Beach to look like. 

As you walk past the murals of Venice, Italy, and couples celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, you’re quickly seated in a red booth under the warm glow of a chandelier. While the server pours you another glass of Sangiovese made with grapes harvested from Tuscany, you carefully bite into the richest arancini you’ve ever had. It all seems overwhelmingly luxurious. 

Feeling sentimental, you raise a glass with your loved one to celebrate – but then, out of nowhere, you’re interrupted by a brooding, all-too-familiar, stomp stomp clap, stomp stomp clap. 

“WEEEEE WILL, WEEEEE WILL, ROCK YOU,” Freddie Mercury screams over the sound system. Ratty guitar solos rip through the cozy, 104-year-old cafe, decimating any lingering feelings of romance. As you come to, you see Marina trads in puffy vests yelling and pounding beers, spilling booze all over the table. It is, in every way, a sensory nightmare. 

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FILE: Once known for it's well-curated jukebox, Tosca has since opted for Spotify mayhem. 

FILE: Once known for it’s well-curated jukebox, Tosca has since opted for Spotify mayhem. 

Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

That entire evening, the quaint North Beach restaurant chose violence, assaulting us with hair metal, ‘90s grunge and, inexplicably, the “Ghostbusters” theme song. For once, even the smokers couldn’t find refuge: Those who desperately tried to escape Sammy Hagar’s shrill voice in “I Can’t Drive 55” realized that it would follow them outdoors, blaring onto the street. I never thought I’d be forced to listen to butt rock while pathetically nibbling on a $27 bowl of cacio e pepe, but there’s a first time for everything, unfortunately. 

My guest and I were so confused, we couldn’t focus on anything else  – and we weren’t the only ones who were baffled by the restaurant’s chaotic playlist, either. 

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Over the years, a slew of Yelp reviews have called Tosca’s music “discombobulated,” “strange” and “annoying,” describing it as a form of sonic assault. This trend persists in Oakland, too. One day, as I walked by Juice Holick, a tiny smoothie shop that serves feta avocado toast, I heard “Be Quiet and Drive” by Deftones blasting onto the sidewalk. This aural phenomenon persists all around us: in bars, in grocery stores, in hair salons, in malls – and experts believe it’s a key component of consumer culture. 

Sweta Thota, a marketing professor at the University of San Francisco, says there are a few theories why Bay Area businesses are torturing us with their loud, unhinged Spotify playlists: One is that it stimulates our pleasure centers, making us eat, drink and spend more. The other is that it creates a hostile environment, subconsciously telling us to “get the hell out” and make room for more customers. 

According to Thota, previous studies suggest that dance music stimulates saccule, tiny vestibular organs in our inner ear that connect to our hypothalamus, a structure deep within our brain that controls our mood, hunger and sex drive. If we listen to pulsating beats with low-end frequencies at 90 decibels or higher, our brains release more endorphins and we end up spending more money, she says, which is probably why stores like Hollister famously sound like a cruise ship nightclub. The faster the music, she explains, the faster we put clothes in our shopping carts. 

More insidiously, studies indicate that bars also play loud music to stifle social interactions. If they’re noisy, Thota says, it’s much more difficult to talk to your friends. “So what do you do? You give up on the conversation and you start drinking more.” 

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FILE: The bar at Nopa Restaurant on Divisadero Street in San Francisco.  

FILE: The bar at Nopa Restaurant on Divisadero Street in San Francisco.  

Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

In 2018, Kin Khao, Nopa, and Gogi Time were among the loudest restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland, according to an analysis by SoundPrint, an app that measures decibel levels and directs users to quieter venues. But some business owners stand by it, believing that it helps create a fun, party-like atmosphere. As a result, the average San Francisco restaurant’s noise levels in 2018 were some of the highest in the nation at 78 dBA, making it near impossible to have a conversation. 

“Energy leads to loud noise levels, and I have to say, customers are attracted to energy,” Bruce Hill, owner of the now-closed pizzeria Zero Zero, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “No one goes into a dead restaurant.” But decibel levels can quickly veer into dangerous territory, especially for employees. If they’re exposed to noise that exceeds 90 dBA for eight hours at a time, they’re required to wear protective hearing devices, OSHA wrote. Restaurants are also encouraged to consult acoustics engineers if it hovers above 85 dBA, though it’s unclear how many are actually investing in this costly safety measure.  

It appears that businesses are only getting louder, too: In 2018, Eric Yee, vice president and acoustical consultant with Charles M. Salter Associates, said that sound levels in restaurants have intensified over the last two decades, namely because interior designers use hard surfaces that reflect noise and crowd tables together to cram in customers. 

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To funnel more people in and out, businesses sometimes remove cushions from chairs and replace carpeted floors with beige tiles, deliberately making the acoustics louder, harsher and more inhospitable to diners, Thota explained. Certain fast food restaurants also use dark, contrasting colors to usher out any lingering customers who can’t decide between a chalupa or cheesy gordita crunch. To no one’s surprise, Chick-fil-A, Burger King and McDonald’s locations throughout the Bay Area seem to perfectly embody these design principles. “They just want to make you uncomfortable in any way,” Thota said. 

By contrast, fine dining establishments are much gentler on customers – and unfortunately, it’s included in the tab. It’s no coincidence, then, that the San Francisco restaurants on Soundprint’s Quiet List all skew on the expensive side, including spots like Acquerello, Saison and Californios. 

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Earlier in October, for instance, Thota and her spouse went to Copra, an upscale Indian restaurant on Fillmore Street. When they sat down – on chairs with cushions, mind you –  she said that the Southeast Asian music illuminated their conversation as opposed to completely dominating it. “It was beautiful. It was very comfortable. I could talk to him,” she said.   

“But, you know, we paid a lot of money towards the end of it,” she added. 

An interior view of Copra on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

An interior view of Copra on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

Image via Yelp user Michelle H.

Thomas Schoos, whose award-winning firm designed Copra and a number of high-end hotels and restaurants, was appalled at the notion of deliberately creating a hostile environment for customers. Instead, he hopes to create spaces that feel like a second home. “That’s what it should be,” he told SFGATE.  

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Copra’s upholstered chairs, art-filled shelves and wicker pendants work in tandem to soften the acoustics, he explained. The restaurant’s unique, intimate layout also gives returning customers an opportunity to sit by their favorite corner as opposed to wading through a sea of chairs, which he considers unwelcoming. “It gives the people a belonging,” he told SFGATE. Copra’s beige palette – a direct contrast to what he calls the “wham-bang” color scheme of fast food restaurants –  soothes customers while highlighting the restaurant’s Indian fare. And the music, he says, plays an equally important role in building the atmosphere. 

When asked about Tosca’s choice to play ‘80s hair metal, Schoos burst out laughing. But he’s well familiar with this issue: After opening The Woods WeHo, a tropical dispensary in Los Angeles, a number of his friends who visited complained that it blasted the “dirtiest” house music at 9 in the morning. This trend irks him as a diner, too. While eating at an expensive restaurant in the city, he was confused to hear grating banjo music playing – another strange choice given the food and environment, he said, which all come together to weave a story.   

“It was like, do I need right now to get home and get into a medicine cabinet to get some downers?” 

In the end, Tosca representatives didn’t respond to SFGATE’s questions about the restaurant’s eclectic playlist and their intentions behind it – but sometimes, silence speaks louder than words. 

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