These bars have cutting-edge sound systems, expansive vinyl collections, and food and beverage programs to go with.

By Oset Babür
Updated March 03, 2020
Advertisement
The Ruby Red Pamplemousse Paloma from Bar Shiru in Oakland.
Victor Protasio

My biggest complaint about bars is that there’s too much expectation. The dive bar demands that we socialize at an unbearable decibel over nachos and Narragansett, and the wine bar dares us to spend that post-rent pocket change on a bottle we’re pretending to know how to pronounce. There’s a time and a place for both, but I didn’t really know what kind of imbibing environment I was missing out on until I came across the listening bar, which has been popular in Japan since the 1950s. Here, socialization isn’t discouraged, but it isn’t expected either. You can listen to music in a solitary, meditative state, or you can have a serious conversation that’s too awkward to have at home— like a breakup. The listening bar is perfect for a breakup. Choice, as it turns out, is a hell of a drug.

In the U.S., listening bars are similar to those in Japan, with sound systems that woo folks who are prone to complaining about digital music, expansive vinyl collections, and food and beverage programs to go with. There’s the warehouse iteration in Brooklyn, Public Records, which houses a hi-fi café that focuses primarily on plant-based food and live DJs. There’s the master sommelier-approved version in Denver, Sunday Vinyl, where Bobby Stuckey and the award-winning Frasca Hospitality team fuse the drinks they know and love with an appreciation for what Stuckey calls “vinyl’s renaissance.” At Le Fantastique, set to open in early April in San Francisco, guests can expect “pristine raw fish, French wine, and a dedicated bread and butter program.”

Sunday Vinyl in Denver.
Mike Thurk

Food and drink aside, the listening bar is primarily an audiophile’s dream. Oakland’s Bar Shiru features over 70 acoustic absorption panels in the ceiling and walls to maximize sound quality, and even the photos of Bilie Holiday and Nina Simone hung over the bar are printed on acoustic-friendly fabric. Sunday Vinyl boasts two Project turntables and an MT-10 McIntosh, enabling the team to have two albums on deck while an album plays one side in its entirety. “When designing the audio and layout, we wanted guests to have as much ear candy as they did eye candy,” says Jenn Upton, founder of Onyx, which designed Sunday Vinyl's audio setup. “Every seat was designed to offer an exquisite listening experience while the guest savors their wine and delicious meal.”

In Brooklyn, husband and wife team Tarek Debira and Patricia Ageheim spared no expense when outfitting Bohemien Bar, which opened in February. There are floor-to-ceiling speakers at the front of the bar, as well as two vintage Altec Model 17s with 604 8G drivers, and over a dozen open baffle pendants suspended from the ceiling. “The combination allows the sound to travel without bouncing off the surfaces, so you can enjoy the music and still have a conversation,” Debira says.

Bohemien Bar in Brooklyn.
Heidi’s Bridge

With such attention to detail woven into every stitch of the listening-bar experience, owners hope that guests will be open to spending more time than they might at their average neighborhood bar. When guests enter Bar Shiru, for example, they’re greeted at the far end of the space by an expansive record collection, and all albums are played in their entirety. That may sound like a lot of time at first blush, but Gahr thinks many guests will warm up to the idea of staying put for one or two full albums worth of music and drinks. “Today, we all walk around with every single song ever written in our pockets,” he says. “I just feel like the idea of engaging with an album in this way has kind of been lost.”