America’s New Vinyl Bars

Drawing on the Japanese record bar tradition, American bars are swapping streaming playlists for vinyl and turntables.

When I catch up with Ariel Arce, she is about to get on a plane to Champagne. The proprietor of Air’s Champagne Parlor in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and its new, underground counterpart, Tokyo Record Bar, is a frequent traveler, but it was the experience of a music-collector friend in Japan that inspired the her latest venue.

“[My friend] would come back with all this interesting vinyl,” Arce says, so they decided to do a weekly event at Air’s called Tokyo Record Bar, “based on these little omakase joints in Japan.” What started as a weekly experiment in DJ-ing and dealer’s choice Champagne service evolved into a new basement bar with izakaya-style food and cocktail pairings, along with the “vinyl jukebox,” for which each guest gets to select a track from the bar’s record collection to hear during the evening. This interactive bit wasn’t in their original plan, Arce says, but it evolved with the concept.

Even in the age of streaming music services that constitute the majority of public soundtracks, a growing number bars are incorporating vinyl—not just for their playlists, but as central to their ethos. Tokyo Record Bar pays homage to the intimate jazz cafés and vinyl bars discoverable around Tokyo since the 1950s. The postwar popularity of jazz in Japan’s capital led to a proliferation of venues that were dedicated to group-listening to records. These refuges for audiophiles have evolved over the years, but there are still a good number that continue to place music at the forefront of the experience, boasting album collections in the thousands.

Like many of Tokyo’s vinyl havens, Tabula Rasa Bar in Los Angeles seems less concerned with what you see on the outside of the bar than what you experience upon entering. Co-owner Daniel Flores first used his personal collection, accrued over 20 years since first pilfering from his grandparents’ basement in junior high, to stock the records that line the back bar. Flores, who came up in hospitality managing such forward-thinking restaurants as Bäco Mercat and Bestia, wanted to get back to his roots as a musician and DJ when he and his partner Zach Negin opened Tabula Rasa in 2016. The process of selecting and playing record is a “tactile experience,” he says, “something that we’ve lost as a culture.”

The result was a low-key space with a menu of natural wines, a much-beloved panini-grilled burger and, of course, vinyl. “Wine is the same way—wine comes from a specific place,” Flores says, referring to records as having a tangible provenance. “People talk about terroir, the type of soil and the weather, and the people that bring you that wine and how that tells a story. I think that there are a lot of parallels with that and these records we have at the bar.”

Chef-Partner Josh Habiger of Nashville’s vinyl and booze hall Bastion is another industry vet who brought his record obsession with him when he opened in 2016. In the early stages, Habiger says, he “fell in love with a space that was conducive to either a neighborhood bar or a destination spot.” So he decided to do both.

Bastion comprises two spaces: a large, street-facing craft cocktail bar with a neighborhood feel that serves Tecate by the can and nachos, and a tiny, high-end cocktail bar adjoined to a 24-seat restaurant serving upscale fare in the back, accessible through an unmarked door, reminiscent of many Tokyo record dens. The spaces serve different crowds, but the music is, Habiger says, the “arrow that shoots through both.” Echoing the sentiments of all the bar owners I spoke to, he describes flipping through sleeves to find the right album, brushing the dust off and placing it on the turntable as “something with a little more intention than simply picking a pre-made playlist.”

Houston owner-operator Mike Criss also cites a lifelong love of music, combined with the desire for a more personalized listening experience, as the reason his Nightingale Room has its 5,000-record collection hanging over the bar. The former manager of OKRA Charity Saloon and Anvil Bar and Refuge alumnus claims that there is “a cocktail and a song for [everybody] at the bar—you just have to figure out how to get it to them.” Nightingale staff are charged with finding a new album each week to add to the stacks, lending a sense of collective ownership.

If there is a common thread through all of these bars, it’s this desire for the music to be a central part of the story of the bar and an expression of the people who work there, rather than a footnote.

“Our guests may never know specifically what goes into selecting a records for each night,” says Flores. “But what they can sense is that the people that are behind this bar, the people that are creating this experience for them are doing it with intention, with thought, with care—and that there’s a history to it.”

The Three Records That Define Each Bar

Daniel Flores, Co-Owner, Tabula Rasa Bar | Los Angeles

Les McCann Much Les
“Even being a big time jazz fan pretty much my entire life, I discovered Les McCann relatively late. So many of my favorite artists have sampled his work.”

Tom Waits The Heart Of Saturday Night
“This is one of my favorite Waits albums, and it’s perfect for those moody moments in the bar. It brings me back to my teenage years when I was really into Bukowski and Kerouac. I always liked the album artwork too, which is an homage to an old Sinatra album cover.”

Madvillian Madvillainy
“When we play hip hop in the bar its usually something that is striking both lyrically and sonically. The first record from MF Doom and Madlib is exactly that. It’s also a record that a lot of mainstream casual hip hop fans don’t know, but they should.”

Mike Criss, The Nightingale Room | Houston

Michael Jackson Thriller 
“It’s difficult to choose one, but this sets the tone for the night. Can’t go wrong with the King of Pop.”

Selena Selena Live!
“Voice unmatched.” 

The Suffers The Suffers
“They’re a local band from Houston; we like to introduce good local talent to guests.” 

Ariel Arce, Tokyo Record Bar | New York

Curtis Mayfield Super Fly
“It was the first song we played out of the speakers, the type of music those speakers were meant for.”

Dr. John Gris-Gris
“We feel like New Orleans is a birthplace for such incredible and emblematic music, and we all have a deep connection to it.”

Fugees The Score
“Because it’s one of the most requested.”

Josh Habiger, Bastion | Nashville

Michael Kiwanuka Home Again
“I’ve been revisiting this one a lot lately; it’s kind of a rainy day album. Singer-songwriter vibe, but so much soul it can rip you apart.”

Rolling Stones Some Girls
“The Stones had such a dynamic career and, to me, this one is sort of the summation of everything. And ‘Beast of Burden’ is probably my favorite RS song.”

Bon Iver 22, A Million
“Some musicians write songs, and some create art. On this one, Justin Vernon certainly achieved the latter. An audio landscape that weaves between cacophony and beauty. I dream of a culinary equivalent.”

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