An anonymous Slashdot contributer shared this fascinating Atlantic story by Kate Wagner:

Let me describe what I hear as I sit in a coffee shop writing this article. It’s late morning on a Saturday, between the breakfast and lunch rushes. People talk in hushed voices at tables. The staff make pithy jokes amongst themselves, enjoying the downtime. Fingers clack on keyboards, and glasses clink against wood and stone countertops. Occasionally, the espresso machines grind and roar. The coffee shop is quiet, probably as quiet as it can be while still being occupied. Even at its slowest and most hushed, the average background noise level hovered around 73 decibels (as measured with my calibrated meter).

Sounded like paradise to me, right up until the decibel output. I need white noise when I sleep, and the gentle droning of people, crockery, and coffee machines is just about the most magical audible concoction in existence. I’m writing this during my lunch break in our quiet office, which is counter-intuitively less conducive to thought than the coffee shop across the street.

But I hadn’t considered the volume of the sound. Coffee shops in Sydney tend to be quieter than Singapore, but are still loud. The Starbucks in the building alongside Wheelock Place was practically a booming concert hall. And I still went there!

Kate attributes the shift to modern design trends:

Restaurants are so loud because architects don’t design them to be quiet. Much of this shift in design boils down to changing conceptions of what makes a space seem upscale or luxurious, as well as evolving trends in food service. Right now, high-end surfaces connote luxury

There definitely seems to be a shift towards cut stone and metal cladding. The byline of her article comments that minimalism has replaced plush opulence; I’d say its possible though to be minimal and clean without employing these garishly reflective sound surfaces.