Until it closed in May, the white-tablecloth Italian restaurant Mangia Mangia in Albany was our family’s candlelit go-to for date nights and small celebrations. It’s where we took our tiny son in a button-down shirt for his first fancy dinner, and relatives when they visited from the East Coast. I have fond memories of an evening there with my now-late father as he enjoyed a plate of osso buco and filled me in on daily life back in my hometown. The best part? I could hear him. And he could hear me, too, despite his aging pilot’s need for hearing aids.
It might be an old-fashioned notion, but that kind of quiet intimacy used to be widely available as part of a restaurant experience. Diners were enveloped in a hush, as though all outside noise was turned down for this small event of a meal with someone special. But recently, that “hush” seems almost obsolete, as the more typical hallmark of a popular restaurant is a loud, lively ruckus of competing voices, music, kitchen and crowd noise bouncing off an open, modern interior built from tile, steel and stone.
San Francisco Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho made (sound) waves earlier this year when one of her first decisions in her new position was to remove the noise ratings — those little bell and bomb icons denoting decibel levels — from reviews. Ho concedes that too much noise can be a distraction, even harmful, to sensitive diners or restaurant employees, and she will include, as a compromise, a bit of verbal description of a spot’s sonic atmosphere. But noise, she said, is complicated, subjective. It can change with the location of a table or time of day, and is difficult to measure in any meaningful way.
That is true, but such debate tends to fade a bit when ushering an old friend or favorite aunt through the doors of a restaurant and into an hour or more of discomfort. When full inclusion and enjoyment at the table depends on quieter acoustics, measuring noise becomes increasingly straightforward. (One might say, “I know it when I don’t hear it.”)
There are still many East Bay restaurants where ambient noise does not overwhelm or eclipse the private little acoustic world of the table.
Luckily, whether it’s due to thoughtful interior design (tables that are well spaced and a separated bar area, perhaps), unobtrusive service, strategic carpeting, an overall hushed atmosphere or even groundbreaking audio systems from Berkeley’s own Meyer Sound, there are still many East Bay restaurants where ambient noise does not overwhelm or eclipse the private little acoustic world of the table.
For the purposes of this list, Nosh took the unscientific approach of informally polling a wide variety of local folks of varying ages and food preferences, to ask where they like to go for quiet conversation with their meal. We asked people who wear hearing aids and those with full hearing, young singles, busy parents, corporate diners, senior couples and folks on the street outside of restaurants. The type of cuisine did not matter, and in fact, the more variety the better. People seemed eager to talk about their favorites — as others should, in the comments, if they don’t see theirs — and we were happy to listen.
Ajanta Solano’s gem of an upscale Indian restaurant was recommended for its acoustic comfort; ask for a table on the dining room’s perimeter.
Au Coquelet The back dining room of this no-frills haunt is undeniably quiet.
Chez Panisse Café Part of this iconic Berkeley destination’s appeal is in the way diners are made comfortable, with warm details such as flattering lighting and beautiful design. The entire café is accommodating, but some recommend the back dining room, past the open kitchen, for best table acoustics.
Comal An all-around winner for upscale California-Oaxacan cuisine and crowd-pleasing ambience, Comal was also the very first restaurant to use Meyer Sound’s Constellation and Libra technologies to manage and sweeten its acoustics. (Comal co-owner John Paluska knows a little something about good audio.)
Corso Italian restaurant Corso is an upscale Berkeley favorite, but despite its nightly crowds, fans still recommend it for intimate catch-ups or celebrations. Ask for a perimeter table.
Donato & Co. Rustic Italian comes with comfortable acoustics thanks to the Meyer Sound systems built into this welcoming Elmwood district dining room.
Da Lian Some said this Chinese restaurant with a spacious dining room on Shattuck Avenue is a good one for quieter meet-ups.
FatApple’s This subdued, diner-style restaurant is one of the homier eateries on our list. Grandparents and their grandkids are often spotted here enjoying pancakes, spaghetti or big slices of pie.
Gaumenkitzel Far from Octoberfest rowdy, this German restaurant features an unexpectedly cozy atmosphere.
Ippuku With its Japanese-style wooden booths and tucked-away appeal, this standout downtown Berkeley izakaya is a good bet for private conversations among friends and dates.
Jazzcaffè There’s a reason this (temporarily closed) casual café near a jazz stage is popular with Arts District lunch and pre-theatre dinner crowds — when there is no concert happening, the acoustics are just right for individual conversations.
Julia’s The Berkeley City Club, inside the ornate, historic “Little Castle” designed by Julia Morgan on Durant Avenue, hides this small, hushed jewelbox of a French restaurant on the second floor. Julia’s is open to the public for sophisticated lunch, dinner and Saturday brunch.
Lalime’s Many mentioned this Cal-Med restaurant’s lovely, calming interior. One noted, “I feel like I always lower my voice a bit when I walk in there.”
Maîson Bleue A modern French café for intimate lunches and dinners, Maîson Bleue specializes in crepes, salads and other casual fare.
Riva Cucina Nosh has it on good authority that native Italians frequent this southwest Berkeley standout for its cuisine. The attractive restaurant, with its high ceilings and brick dining room divided by long, thick drapes, is also a good one for quiet celebrations, dates and business dinners.
Rivoli This long-loved Berkeley classic on Solano Avenue received multiple mentions for its calming, well-designed interior and date-night acoustics.
Brown Sugar Kitchen Chef-owner Tanya Holland outfitted her lively new Uptown location of this soul food destination with Meyer Sound audio, lending unexpected intimacy to the acoustics despite the restaurant’s mood-enhancing soundtrack and conviviality.
Commis Chef James Syhabout’s fine-dining enclave on Piedmont Avenue is also a study in luxurious serenity, despite the open kitchen. This is a true occasion restaurant; Commis has been a two-star Michelin restaurant since 2016.
Mockingbird New American cuisine and intimate conversation can be had at this Downtown Oakland restaurant with a modern aesthetic, comfortable acoustics and well-spaced tables.
Oliveto Widely recommended for its magical sound, upscale Italian restaurant Oliveto has used Meyer Sound’s Constellation and Libra audio systems to manage its ambient noise since 2014. In an article explaining the Constellation technology, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross called his dinner at Oliveto, “two hours of acoustical paradise.”
Scott’s Seafood This Jack London Square seafood restaurant with harbor views received special mention by a friend who is hard of hearing for its helpful carpeting, tablecloths, well-spaced tables and quieter mezzanine.
Soba Ichi Soba Ichi has won many, many fans for its Japanese cuisine and striking minimalist decor, but it is also a surprising member of the comfortably-quiet dining room list.
The Terrace Room This hidden dining room inside Oakland’s Lake Merritt Hotel began as a swanky hot spot in 1934; though it has kept the swank, the unique space with lakefront views has since morphed into a quiet dining refuge.
The Wolf The back area of the dining room (and this nook) are recommended for intimate groups and dates at this New American brasserie on Piedmont Avenue.
Juanita & Maude A friend with hearing aids recommends the back patio of Albany’s Juanita & Maude for acoustic comfort to match the pleasure of the cuisine.
Postino Recently reopened after a fire, Lafayette’s fairy-tale house of an upscale, Italian-inflected restaurant features many good choices for quieter dining, both indoors and out.
Taverna Pellegrini This white-tablecloth Italian enclave in Orinda was recommended for its classic cuisine, good service and quieter scene.
Ricky’s Corner Described as a restaurant from another time, the retro American dishes (including popular fried chicken) at homestyle Ricky’s Corner in Rodeo come with a side of old-fashioned peace and quiet.
Zaytoon Mediterranean Restaurant This wide, high-ceilinged Mediterranean restaurant on Solano Avenue features an airy atmosphere and soothing ambience, in the earlier hours especially.