We're not gourmets, gourmands, or foodies. When we go out for a meal, the surroundings are as important to us as the food. We don't need a fancy environment, although we'll take what we can get. We love the classic, white-linen, French bistro–ness of Petit Robert. But we're more often in the mood for burritos from Anna's Taqueria than fancier food in a stylish room. (We've been eating at Anna's at least once a week for nearly 20 years and it still hits the spot.) What we value most when we go out to any restaurant is not having to yell at each other. We seek out quiet spots and, when we find one with good food, we keep going back.
I assume that most restaurants are designed with high ceilings, hard surfaces, and big sound systems because their owners believe that diners equate a "lively atmosphere," i.e., lots of noise, with having a good time. They didn't ask me; I'm the opposite. I equate a lively conversation around the table with having a good time. I have to assume that enough people find it a struggle to make conversation over dinner, even with their friends, that they find salvation in a noisy dining room instead of the torture I feel. I hate leaving a restaurant with an aching throat and ringing ears. (The only worse thing was when we'd come home reeking of cigarette smoke... remember that?)
We know we're odd, not only because noise bothers us so much but because neither of us drinks when we go out. Since 2002, I can't even have a splash of red wine in a pasta sauce because it makes me ill. My husband likes to have a glass of sherry at home but doesn't like wine with meals. Maybe drinking causes temporary hearing loss so noisy restaurants seem more pleasant. But drinking people often make restaurants louder and less pleasant for the rest of us. So we don't often eat in bars. When we do, we go for lunch.
Which brings me to my list of tricks for eating out in peace:
1. Eat at odd times. We eat a late lunch at Petit Robert in Kenmore Square around 4 in the afternoon on a weekend, when we often have the place almost to ourselves. Going to a popular brunch spot at dinnertime also works, especially if you're still in the mood for pancakes. If you prefer Italian, Panificio, on Charles Street, is another delicious, smaller restaurant that stays open through the afternoon and is usually pretty quiet. I haven't been across the street to Artu in this century, but it looks quiet, too.
2. Choose small restaurants — with care. This can backfire. The Grotto is tiny and subterranean, designed to be romantic and intimate, but it can be noisy. The tables are close together. On the other hand, we've had wonderful times at The Wine Cellar. It's also in a basement and has about 14 tables, but it's never been loud. While we can't partake of the wine list, we can stuff ourselves with fabulous cheese fondue and then stuff ourselves again with chocolate fondue. What's not to love?
3. Sit outside. It's counter-intuitive, but sitting outdoors, even on a busy street, will be quieter than the average dining room. As long as the motorcycle clubs aren't in town, and the ambulances and fire trucks aren't too busy, outdoor dining in Back Bay, along Newbury Street and even Boylston Street, is ideal for conversation. I especially like restaurants with sunken patios, like Piattini and La Voile. When your table is below sidewalk level, you can watch the world go by without feeling like you're on display. Restaurants with a hidden garden or courtyard, like The Hungry I and Casa Romero, are also good places to take people you want to talk to.
4. When quiet really matters, call ahead. Ask for a reservation at a secluded table and ask what to expect. When we took my mother-in-law out for her birthday last year, we knew that she cares about quiet even more then we do. She wanted a classic French restaurant, so we chose Pierrot Bistrot, on Cambridge Street in Beacon Hill. We've passed it on the way to Anna's hundreds of times, and it was always pretty empty on weeknights, at least — and it's pretty enough to be a film location. But, of course, the night we took my mother-in-law, they happened to be hosting some corporate dinner in their little dining room. There was a table set for 26 right next to us, they were very convivial, and we couldn't hear each other. Dinner was a disaster, my mother-in-law complained about the food as well as the noise; I can't say if the atmosphere influenced her tastebuds. That night, I learned not only to make a reservation when we eat with her, but to call ahead for dining room reconnaissance. (And since then, we've never passed Pierrot when more than a few tables were occupied.)
On the other hand, The Capital Grille will reserve a quiet table for you if you request one, and it will be quiet. I know it's a chain, but I have to say that I've never been to a Boston restaurant with nicer service or more charming waitstaff. (Or better French onion soup. And yeah, it has wine in it, but it's so good that it's worth the inevitable late-night mild illness later on.)
5. Eat in bookstores and libraries. Bookstore cafés are hard to find; currently, I think we only have The Trident on Newbury Street. It's a new favorite of mine. They recently expanded to the second floor, where you'll find more books and another dining room, offering good people-watching. We've been there a few times with friends and family, and the conversation flowed quietly. The menu is also good: lots of interesting sandwiches and comfort food, extensive hot and cold beverages, vegetarian offerings, and a few more sophisticated specials. For lunch, there's also the elegant Courtyard Restaurant and the Maproom Café (for coffee and a snack) at the Boston Public Library.
6. Know when to just shut up and eat. Sometimes, good food is worth enduring noise. When someone turns on the jukebox at the original Regina's in the North End, we know enough to laugh, stop talking, and enjoy our pizza. (If they're playing Dean or Frank, I sing along since no one can hear me.) When we tried out the new Tasty Burger in Harvard Square, we were so busy snarfing our perfect cheeseburgers and a mountain of skinny onion rings that we didn't care if music was blasting. Sometimes it IS all about the food.