Bustle and quiet, can you have both?9/17/2014
Des Moines has generated some media noise this year. The latest was made by “Women’s Health” magazine and Yelp. Anyone who has felt the savagery of bad Yelp reviews probably puts little credence in any survey that website takes, but at least this was good news. Des Moines was named an “up and coming” food town. It’s a small thing compared to Forbes rating the city No. 1 in America for careers and business, but it’s all good for restaurants, which continue to grow and prosper with the buzz. The problem is that many readers are finding that the buzz of restaurants is becoming annoying. The most frequent complaint I heard all summer was about an expensive meal being ruined by unbearable noise. Eatery A, which opened in April, heard enough about this problem that they have already ordered new sound-eating acoustic tiles for their dining room.
One reader asked us to provide a list of good places to eat that are also quiet enough for polite conversation. We thought that was a good idea. First, a couple general rules of thumb on this subject. There is a good reason why almost all the great concert halls of the world were built more than 100 year ago. In the 1890s, glory days of classical music, builders laid masonry walls that were six to 12 feet thick. Furnishings and fixtures were almost all wooden. Bricks and masonry eat noise far more efficiently than drywall and siding. Wood produces better acoustics than any plastics. Secondly, in many places — Eatery A, Centro and Alba for instance — the bar area is usually quieter than the dining room. This might be because most people in a bar are having their first drink of the evening and have not reached the point when each cocktail raises their decibel threshold.
Lucca and Splash provide fine dining with good acoustics. Both are old, rehabilitated buildings with brick walls and tall ceilings. They bustle as much as anywhere and push wine more than booze, which helps keep the noise down. In a 19th century building, Lucca has an entire row of tables against one wall where no one is seated to either side of diners. Splash’s main dining room is actually underground, and its luxurious furnishings (wide, ostrich covered chairs) set the table for civility.
Of all Des Moines’ many Italian cafés, two stick out for conversation — Café di Scala, another 19th century construction, and Noah’s. The former has rooms that are quieter than others, and a porch. The restaurant is responsible for keeping the art of scratch-made pasta alive, and theirs are the best in town. One young friend believes Noah’s is quiet because its demographics trend older than other places. I think it’s more a serendipity of design, with multiple rooms and semi private booths.
Staff influences noise as well as ambiance. None better illustrate this than those at the Urban Grill and Trostel’s Greenbriar (one place where the dining room is quieter than the bar). Both staffs remind one more of the great waiters of the world than of what is typical in Des Moines. I don’t ever recall being interrupted by a server in a hurry at these restaurants. Urban Grill also offers cozy little rooms, some with fireplaces, that help the ambiance. Both places have an aura that suggests people are here for special occasions that require a level of decorum one does not find in the hot spots of the moment. Both are American restaurants, de facto steakhouses with grill work anchoring diverse menus.
Steakhouses, where patrons often prefer booze to wine, are not usually quiet places. 801 Steak and Chop House is an exception. Lots of wooden booths provide some privacy; lots of other wood absorbs noise. The building just doesn’t have the din of other steakhouses. Atmosphere comes at a price in this all-prime, aged steak house. In 801’s case though, you get what you pay for. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.