Highly Sensitive Refuge
A crowded restaurant

Dear World, Your Trendy Restaurants Are My Personal Hell. Love, an HSP

Dear world:

We need to talk about these restaurants you like.

I know it’s fun to try new places. Like that bustling new lunch counter where the cooks yell out the orders, and 40 people hover in line waiting for your seat. Or the trendy brewpub in an all-concrete space, which reflects and magnifies sound, where the Trivia host cranks his microphone to Ke$ha-concert volume. Or the “cozy” traditional restaurant which seems to be in a competition for how tightly they can pack tables together, with lights so bright they could sideline at an airport.

I guess all that stimulation must be exciting for some people. But for me, it’s overwhelming. Because here’s the thing: I’m a highly sensitive person.

That means I’m one of the 1 in 5 people whose nervous system processes everything much, much more deeply. That’s true of feelings, thoughts, details, and physical sensations.

So when others are experiencing things at a volume of 5, I’m experiencing them at a 10. And in these loud, busy, jam-packed spaces… I’m off the top of the dial.

What Happened to Cozy, Quiet Restaurants?

It wasn’t always this way. As a kid, I remember restaurants being quiet places of cozy booths and semi-private nooks, with indirect lighting. Now, it seems like every new restaurant is racing to be the brightest, the crowded-est, the most HEY LOOK AT ME place they can be. Not just with gimmicks; with the very way they’re built. 

Today, even my “less” sensitive friends can find these spaces overwhelming. And for the highly sensitive people in the world, it can feel impossible. I can barely even walk into these places without a dizzy feeling; forget about enjoying a meal.

What changed, you ask? Here are six things that ruin the restaurant experience for anyone sensitive — that are now industry-standard. 

6 Ways Restaurants Have Been ‘Ruined’ for HSPs

1. An “Open” Design

By now we all know that open floor plans are a disaster in office buildings. Somehow, other industries haven’t gotten the memo. Yes, I’ve heard the claim that “open” spaces are supposed to foster conversation and interaction. But the way you get people to enjoy conversation is not by putting them in a barn.

The way you foster conversation is by getting people together with other people they enjoy. And that’s mostly not something restaurants can control. So instead of trying to make “engaging” spaces, restaurants should focus on giving us somewhere to eat where we can hear each other talk… without yelling. 

People relax more when they have a sense of privacy — even if it’s just an illusion created by a quieter, more intimate space. And HSPs in particular cannot handle overstimulating spaces.

2. An Open Kitchen

Name three things every commercial kitchen must have. If you’re stumped, I’ll help: harsh white lighting, equipment so loud the staff need to yell, and an exhaust fan powered by a SpaceX rocket engine. 

But I guess no one told that to whoever started the trend of kitchens that are open to the dining space. To be clear, I’m not talking about cozy diner counters with a couple of grills, or food trucks or any other special case. I mean plain ol’ restaurants who had the option of having a wall between the kitchen and the guests, and drunkenly tore it down.

This kind of layout guarantees a baseline noise level of 85.9 decibels on average (enough to damage hearing); some pretty gnarly smells; and, not infrequently, smoke. All of which are bad for anyone, but especially HSPs.


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3. The Rush

I’ve been to Spain and Italy, and I aspire to one day eat like them — in other words, taking about three hours to have a simple meal with friends. They know how to pace themselves, an art that I (at least with food) have yet to master. 

But something about these trendy restaurants swings waaaaaaay too far in the opposite direction. As soon as you’re seated, almost before you’re in the chair, they want to know your drink order. (Um, can I look at the drink list first?) You’ll see your server again in two minutes flat, and they’ll be ready to take your food order, too.

As a highly sensitive person, my brain doesn’t work that way. I’m set up to process things carefully, thoroughly, and deeply. I wish I could use that power only when it mattered, but the truth is, it kicks in before I even sit down. I’m still taking in the décor — and the energy of the people around me — while the waiter is pretending not to be flustered that I haven’t opened the menu yet.

Sadly, this is inevitable given how the restaurant industry works. Unlike Europe, where servers are generally paid a living wage, U.S. servers need to earn tips as fast as possible or they go home underpaid. That’s a cunning move on the part of restaurant owners, since they too earn more if they can turn tables over faster — although I’d argue that I’d spend more if I could enjoy the space for a couple of hours. 

4. The Seating Situation 

In Ye Olden Days, restaurants had things like big, cushioned booths and upholstery everywhere (which, by the way, also helps dampen sound). Today, it seems that the “in” thing is to put out metal stools or a wood bench and call it an aesthetic. That’s great — I love the factory vibe, that’s exactly what I want to think of while I eat — but here’s a tip from anyone who’s ever sat on a log: Not everything that looks cool also feels cozy.

And, I guess, for some people, this isn’t a problem? I mean, I’ve seen people play soccer on a sprained ankle; I’ve seen people take ice baths; I’ve even seen people act calm after getting stung by a frickin’ scorpion. (Not the emergency room kind, don’t worry.) So, obviously there are people out there who can tune out discomfort way better than I can. But my highly sensitive system doesn’t work that way — I notice almost every physical sensation — and if my butt is hurting, it’s hard for me to even follow the conversation, let alone savor the chef’s strong plate.

5. The Devil’s Own Air Conditioning

Before my fellow HSPs rebel on me, let me just say: I love air conditioning. Yes, I am sensitive to heat; yes, I get heat stroke easily; yes, even slightly too-warm days leave me fatigued. 

But, you guys, what is with this restaurant AC?

Generally speaking, the way summer works is you wear lighter, cooler clothing. That’s what’s comfortable outdoors and that’s what’s fashionable. But if the AC inside somewhere is set to negative 6 jillion, it means you’re shivering. In summer. And someone is paying to make it happen. 

And my system seems to react very quickly to changes in temperature. I don’t get to enjoy AC long before I start to get uncomfortable, at least if it’s set down too low. Am I the only HSP who brings a sweater to restaurants in July?

6. The Sheer Mass of People 

In truth, I think I could handle a lot of these stimuli if I just had some room to breathe. But, when you consider the stuff above, it all adds up to one thing: people

Tighter-packed seating means more people per square foot. 

An open design means you see, and hear, all of them. 

And fast table turnover means even more people coming and going throughout your meal. 

Crowds aren’t easy for highly sensitive people. You can be at the most amazing event in the world, but if you’re surrounded by people who are moving, talking, doing — all of them at once and all around you — your system overloads.

For me, it means I get cranky, which I hate. I also get a brain fog. Other HSPs get exhausted, or have anxiety or even panic on the inside.

Yet there’s something in our culture right now that says more people = more better. That doesn’t add up to me. Most of life’s pleasures involve intimacy and savoring and specialness; there is nothing inherently pleasant about being a nobody in the middle of a thousand voices. Maybe if it were a rave or a beach party I’d understand, but while eating?

Maybe it’s just me. But maybe it’s not. If any restaurateurs want to make a pile of money, I’ll be over here with 20 percent of the population waiting to eat somewhere soothing. 

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