I was reassured to find that New Orleans restaurants, from the upscale to the funky, remain some of our proudest cultural jewels. The grand old dowagers like Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, were exactly as I remembered—and rightly so. Only a fool would change a winning game. The real excitement was discovering the hot new places that blend high-end creativity with local products and tradition—Upperline, Herbsaint, Lüke, One, Cochon. Another surprise was finding down-home neighborhood joints like Mandina’s and College Inn all gussied up and gentrified—with pricier menus and waiting lines out the door. Who would have ever believed you could break $100 on dinner for two at College Inn? Last time I ate there, in high school, you could get a whole oyster loaf for a buck.
The really surprising thing is the noise level of many local restaurants, some of which sound like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier as soon as you walk in the door. Partly this is due to the acoustic properties of hard surfaces—tile floors, bare walls, curtainless windows—that are typical of many restaurants here. But the main problem is the prodigious lung power of the diners themselves. People in New Orleans restaurants don’t converse; they shout at one another across the table, often punctuating their babel with loud claps and explosive laughter that seems to rise in volume in proportion to the alcohol consumed.
Can their exchanges really be that funny? Is everyone at the table a Jerry Seinfeld or a Jon Stewart? The French can be loud, too, especially when they’re travelling in other countries and want the natives to know that they are French (as if they could possibly be anything else). But the high-decibel talking and laughing I hear in local restaurants are different. It’s not just the volume that seems strange, it’s the ritual of it. It seems to be obligatory table behavior, like picking up kebabs with your right hand and burping after meals in Arab countries, or sopping up the sauce with your bread in France so the hostess will know you savored it down to the last molecule.
If you’re not loud in a New Orleans restaurant, apparently, people will think you’re not having a good time and everyone will go home depressed. But for this returning native, whose ears are battered from years of playing in jazz bands with overexuberant drummers, all this conversational cacophony can border on the physically painful. You might say that’s just my generation talking. But I remember rock musicians in the 1960s shouting from the stage: “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” Guess what? Most of those rockers are deaf today. Or dead of drug overdoses.
Speaking of painful noises, what on earth has happened to the voices of young women? I am astounded to hear the raspy, gutteral, iron-filing voices almost universally affected by American females these days. Most of girls I remember here, like the French women I have lived among, had melodious voices, feminine voices. The voices I hear today sound more like the gratings of rusty gate hinges. How did this happen? Obviously some misguided female somewhere—probably a California valley girl--started talking like that and other girls thought it was cool and copied it. Maybe the original raspy-voiced girl was a whiny country and western singer, or maybe she just had a sore throat or a tracheal disease. No matter: once it got picked up on television, the effect was multiplied and universal emulation was assured.
The vocal timbre is bad enough. The vocabulary it transmits is equally regrettable: “awesome” (a word once applied only to things like Grand Canyon and the Second Coming), “I’m like” (which has largely replaced the verb “to say”), and “you guys” (as in, “Hi, I’m Tiffany and I’m going to be waiting on you guys tonight.”) So strange!
© 2010 by Thomas A. Sancton