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Local View: Dining by decibels (whatever happened to candlelight?)

The new year always brings in a spate of new restaurants. A chef with a name like Maurice brings in a New York recipe for filet mignon sliders perched upon gluten-free garlic roasted bagels. Or a master chef named Adolphus — originally from New Orleans, of course — cooks up gentle soufflés with brown, cage-free eggs from an organic farm run by loving grandmothers in Virginia. And new concepts emerge, like "pancakes and pedicures," for eating breakfast while having your toenails done.

No way? Hey, who thought Menard's, basically a fancy lumberyard, would ever be selling groceries and electric trains?

I am a cranky old-timer. How old? Do the math: I watched "Howdy Doody" as a kid.

I enjoy good food but in a quiet setting, places where decibel levels are at 60 (normal speaking volume) and not at 80 (hair-dryer volume) where you have to shout at your dinner mate over the din. (For you sound-challenged, a decibel is a measure of the intensity of sound. A decibel scale is logarithmic, which means that a level of increase of 10 means the sound is 10 times more intense.)

It seems many restaurants, and particularly bars, believe louder is better. Perhaps it helps to sell more alcohol to customers. They seem to think they have an "in" place if it's loud. A well-respected restaurant manager put it this way: "The baby boomer and disposable-income wave likes the conviviality of being out and about and doesn't want to be excluded from patronizing great spots because they can't enjoy the full experience. There has to be balance between the energy of noise and the total enjoyment of the place."

Also, of course, we have loud, sit-down restaurants that still cater to kids, as if crayons will appease them and keep them quiet. That was the genius of McDonald's: build a playground inside a restaurant to channel kids' energy and loudness. In Europe, the solution for many restaurants is a policy forbidding children under 12 after 5 o'clock.

Restaurant greeters are no help in protecting you from noise while dining. They tend to seat you next to existing customers. It's easier for the wait staff to serve people grouped together. But do you really want to hear that Brad and Angelina are finally getting divorced and that Brad and Jennifer are an item again, as the conversation goes at the neighboring table?

You also have to deal with groups sitting down en masse to celebrate birthdays, sales goals, sports victories, or whatever, with cries of "get another bottle of wine!" echoing forth.

Restaurants can choose whatever noise level they want, of course.

But customers are growing wary, and now there's an online restaurant-finding site, "OpenTable," that lists noise levels among its write-ups of places to eat. The noise-level determinations are, however, open to interpretation. I checked out five places in Duluth that were supposed to be "moderate" for noise level. I, the cranky old man, found three in Canal Park to be intolerable, and I won't go back.

There is also an app that VOX magazine wrote about in April under the headline, "Restaurants are too freaking loud. This app helps you shame them." The app is called "Soundprint," and it's basically a yelp for noise levels in thousands of restaurants, bars, and cafes across America. But not yet in Duluth . According to Vox, "The app has a decibel reader and its noise reviews are graded by Soundprint users, who can submit their decibel readings — from quiet and moderate to loud and very loud." It notes that noise is a pollutant just like toxic waste.

"Noise is a pollutant," the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency notes. "Its physical ... level itself can be measured."

I predict we eventually will have a restaurant called "Sound of Silence," where, in addition to its menu being posted on the window out front, lunchtime and dinnertime decibel levels also will be posted.

John Freivalds of Wayzata, Minn., is the honorary consul for Latvia in Minnesota and the author of six books. His website is jfapress.com.

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