The Spanish have long had a reputation as a boisterous people with a directness that extends into the country’s eating culture.
Packed pintxos bars, bustling tapas eateries and rowdy rice restaurants - in Spain, food is often served with a side of noise and this is a place where it's perfectly acceptable to march into a bar and shout a polite but clear “Oye!” (Hey!) to signal you’re ready to order.
There is no let up on the street, where so many bars and cafés are located. A report last year found Spanish roads are a major source of noise pollution and nearly 12 million people, about 25 per cent of Spain’s population, are constantly exposed to higher-than-advised noise levels. Spain is also the only European country to have two cities in the world’s top 20 noisiest (Barcelona and Madrid).
In an attempt to make dining out a more tranquil experience, the “Comer sin Ruido” (Eat without Noise) campaign wants to put peace and quiet on the menu. The campaign was created by AG Bell International, an association for the deaf and hard of hearing, and promoted the benefits of “acoustically pleasant premises” to chefs and restaurant owners.
Launched in late 2015, the campaign now has more than 50 restaurants pledging to be “quiet dining” venues, including several with Michelin stars.
“In all the surveys Spain is the second noisiest country in the world after Japan and there are high levels of noise in Spain everywhere, in restaurants, in bars, in schools, in hospitals, in the street. We thought we’d start with restaurants,” Svante Börjesson, director of AG Bell International, tells SBS Food.
Spain is also the only European country to have two cities in the world’s top 20 noisiest.
“Spain is the second biggest receiver of tourists in the world after France. I've seen a lot of foreigners complaining about noise in Spain and saying ‘you go to a restaurant and you can't talk because everybody's so loud’. It affects everybody, whether they have a hearing impairment or not.”
Börjesson believes more acoustically-friendly design could be the ingredient to quieten down raucous restaurants. The Comer sin Ruido website offers tips for restaurants to create a more relaxing atmosphere. They include making more space between tables so diners can speak without overhearing other conversations and turning down the background music or television (blaring TVs are not uncommon in Spanish bars).
“A lot of people ask me 'aren't the Spaniards just loud and more rowdy?' But I think to a certain extent it has to do with bad acoustics,” Börjesson says.
“If you walk into a restaurant and you're the first one it's actually not loud at all. There is something we call the ‘efecto de café,’ or ‘coffee effect’, which means somebody is talking, somebody else walks in and sits at the next table, and when the acoustics are bad you start getting an echo. When it starts filling up everybody ends up shouting because you can't really hear".
The campaign created headlines in Spain and prompted plenty of discussion (but no shouting, hopefully) about the Spanish dining experience. Börjesson is considering creating a quality seal or accolade, like a Michelin star, for those restaurants that create a more serene setting.
“I go out with friends and my wife in a big group and sometimes leaving the restaurant I have a headache – not from the wine I've drunk, but rather from shouting through dinner.”
There is also talk of expanding the campaign internationally, with evidence noisy dining is not confined to Spain. The UK-based Action on Hearing Loss launched a nationwide campaign for quieter dining last year after finding eight out of ten people have left a restaurant, café or pub early because of the noise.
Noise can be a turn off for a chef as well as diners, according to chef Ramón Freixa from two-Michelin-star restaurant Ramón Freixa Madrid.
“I conceive my restaurant as a 'space of happiness' and to achieve a complete experience in addition to good food, comfort, textures of the kitchen, excellence in service are essential elements. Noise should not be a distracting factor,” Freixa, whose restaurant is signed up to Comer sin Ruido, tells SBS Food.
“Diners appreciate moments in a kind of oasis in the middle of the daily bustle.”
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