I used to love hanging out in restaurants, but these days I don’t go out to eat anywhere near as much as I used to. Why?

The noise. My aging ears can’t take the noise, my aging brain just frizzles in the confusion.

I’ve led a privileged life as far as food is concerned. I’ve lived and worked, traveled and dined, in parts of the world where the food is as good as it gets, places like China, Italy, France and the Middle East. I’ve eaten in fancy restaurants in high-powered towns like New York and London, and I’ve frequented hole-in-the-wall food stalls and working people’s lunch counters in Tunisian souqs, Turkish bazaars and Mexican markets.

Coming home to Maine 20 years or more ago, I was thrilled with the changes in the restaurant scene. In my youth, menus regularly featured lobster thermidor, prime rib, veal parm, and baked-stuffed haddock, week after week right the year round. What I came back to were exciting new places like Arrows in Ogunquit and Portland’s Fore Street, and soon after that, Primo in Rockland and Hugo’s in Portland.

But it wasn’t just the Sam Haywards and Melissa Kellys. All up and down the coast, from Bar Harbor to Kennebunk, it seemed, eager cooks were leaning in, connecting with local farmers and fishermen, insisting, for instance, on asparagus in May and not November, on the virtues of mackerel on an upscale menu, and on the flavor impact of foraged berries, greens and mushrooms.

Cooks like these were going beyond the basic chef training of cooking schools and experimenting with new flavors and techniques learned in their travels, here and abroad. Many of these places have evolved into steady, much-loved establishments. They’re joined each season by enthusiastic crops of newcomers from away, ready to go where the buzz is. Not everyone succeeds, of course, but it’s clearly a very different and much buzzier Maine food scene than it was less than a quarter century ago.


I believe dining together in public spaces connects us at a foundational level. It’s also one of the quickest ways to get inside another culture. If you want to know Maine, spend a week here traveling from west to east, eating your way from one town to the next. Bring on the lobster rolls, doughnuts and blueberry pie, but astute visitors quickly find Maine restaurants of all shapes and sizes offer so much more these days.

So why do I dine out less?


Like Maine itself, I’ve gotten older. And unlike Maine, I’ve grown less tolerant of the pretentious hipster noise and clamor that has invaded some of our finest spaces, making them disagreeable, despite good food and (sometimes) good service. I can think of any number of even the most highly touted restaurants where the volume of noise becomes intolerable as the evening wears on, where diners are not expected to converse but simply to yell. (In Belfast a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t surprised to see six people at a restaurant table, each on a cell phone — apparently, even when sitting next to each other, they communicate only by texting.)

Lots of people like this scene, apparently. Lots of people, according to the informal survey I conducted with a couple of midcoast Facebook groups, don’t consider an evening truly memorable unless it includes a prodigious amount of noise: A throng of people clamoring at the bar, hovering over tables and flailing at waiters. Staff rushing back and forth with plates and platters held high to avoid slamming into patrons. The scrape of chairs on tiled floors, the clink of forks and knives and drinking glasses on harsh surfaces, the calls for orders at the bar, and the growing frenzy of diners shouting over each other to be heard. All of this exacerbated by the relentless throb of music of an indeterminable genre. It’s a party, those who love it say.

And those who don’t plead, a little timidly: Could you just turn down the music please?

Mind you, I don’t want to dine in a mausoleum. I think of those old-fashioned Boston restaurants with their plush carpeting, heavy double and triple layers of table linens, stiff brocades draping windows, muted waiters’ voices, maybe a little barely identifiable Schubert tinkling away in the background. Anything louder than a stage whisper can seem like an affront. No, give me some animation, please.


But a little animation can go a long way. Give me a restaurant with a steady hum of conversation, an occasional burst of laughter, even a happy birthday song — as long as it’s directed to someone 15 or younger and does not engage the entire restaurant staff. I like walking into a place where you instantly feel a happy hubbub, even early in the evening when the restaurant is just opening and waiters are still adjusting table bouquets.

I like a friendly greeting, even when I’m alone. I like to feel I’m not a pariah just because I’m an old lady. When I can see an ocean of empty places, I like to be seated somewhere other than at the tiny table wedged in by the bathroom door.

Above all, I like, even on my own (maybe especially on my own) to take some time to enjoy the food the chef has worked on; the wine the wait person has suggested; and, above all, conversation with friends, new and old, catching up, sharing the experience of being together for a brief spell around a table filled with beautiful food. That’s my kind of holy communion.

We laugh, of course, and, like the tables around us, we can get loud, but our volume is controlled by good manners; we don’t want to force ourselves on the strangers at the next table. The volume is also controlled by a restaurant management that understands music is there to soothe the savage breast and not to cover up savage shrieks and raucous screaming.

Music is often the source of the problem. (When I look around me at people wandering through life with earbuds permanently in place, it occurs to me we’ve trained ourselves to believe music should be the soundtrack to our days and nights.)

I want a restaurant to hum with activity, with chatter, with sights and sounds of platters of food. But top that bustle with music, and the volume starts to increase. First, customers raise their voices trying to be heard. Then the manager ups the volume to stay above the noise. Pretty soon everyone is shrieking and when you leave — when I leave — I feel a great wash of relief as I step out onto the quiet night sidewalk. My ears finally relax, my throat readjusts to quiet conversation, my blood pressure goes down.

So what’s the solution? You can tuck your ears between your shoulders and put up with it. Or you can complain. Complain loudly, if you must to get above the noise. If enough of us Ancient Mainers with money in our pockets, looking for enticing places to spend it, if enough of us complain, the owners will hear, believe me. Or they will, perish the thought, get old too and understand what we’re yelling about.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a food writer based in Camden. Her most recent book, written with daughter Sara Jenkins, is “The Four Seasons of Pasta.”

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