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Places

Happy Hour Goes Hi-Fi

July 11, 2022

Story: Nino Padova

photo: Shawn Campbell

Places

Happy Hour Goes Hi-Fi

July 11, 2022

Story: Nino Padova

photo: Shawn Campbell

Across the country, new “listening bars” are refashioning the Japanese model for an American audience.

When I first meet Shirin Raza, she’s holding a stack of records and doing what embattled collectors have done practically every day since the invention of the phonograph: complaining about space.  

“There’s just no way these will fit—the shelves are already so tight!” she says with a resigned shrug, surveying the 12-foot wall of vinyl that’s the focal point of Bar Shiru, a listening bar in Uptown Oakland that she and her husband, Daniel Gahr, opened in 2019. In somewhat typical Silicon Valley fashion, the couple abandoned high-powered careers in tech (she was an attorney at YouTube; he was a creative director at Pandora) to focus on more atavistic pursuits.

Bar Shiru is an homage to the jazz kissa, a concept that flourished in postwar Japan, giving cash-strapped salarymen a way to hear the newest Art Blakey or Lee Morgan record on a high-end stereo system for the price of a cup of tea. The rooms are small, often dingy, presided over by a single proprietor, and—aside from the music flowing from custom-built speakers—dead quiet. 

They’re also disappearing. As rents in Tokyo skyrocket and owners die off, the jazz kissa has taken on a near-mythic quality. The handful that remain have become pilgrimage sites for passionate audiophiles, many of whom, like Raza and Gahr, have brought the concept stateside. A growing crop of venues across the country have sprouted up in the last few years, each with its own interpretation of what a listening bar should accomplish. 

“When done right, it should feel like an extension of someone’s living room,” says Zach Cowie, a Los Angeles-based DJ and musical supervisor for television (Master of None, Little America) who consulted on the build-out of ESP HiFi, a listening bar that opened in Denver last fall. For Cowie, listening bars are the perfect place to start tiptoeing back into the world. “I know a lot of friends who were hiding out for the last couple of years and aren’t ready to be in a club yet. They just want a comfortable, mellow environment with good sound.” 

Listening Bars
In Denver, ESP HiFi was designed to feel like a comfortable extension of home.

Dan Wissinger, a longtime DJ and co-founder of Eavesdrop in Brooklyn, says that good sound is at the heart of everything they do. The wood-paneled, 1,000-square-foot space, which opened in March, was designed like a recording studio. Every acoustic detail—from speaker placement to the low hum of the dishwasher—has been taken into account. “High fidelity doesn’t mean high volume,” says Wissinger. “We share a building with six apartments. They’ll let us know if we’re too loud.”

Shushing is common in Japanese kissas, which adhere to a strict “talk less, listen more” ethos. However, the bar owners I spoke with agreed that the approach doesn’t translate to an American nightlife audience. “We do everything we can to promote an active listening environment,” says Mitchell Foster, co-owner of ESP HiFi, “though at the end of the day, you can’t make people listen.” 

But, more and more, bars don’t have to. 

Like the cocktail renaissance of the early aughts, vinyl culture is in the throes of a massive reawakening. Record sales topped $1 billion last year for the first time since 1980, sending shock waves through an industry that all but shuttered with the advent of the CD. The pandemic only accelerated the craze. With tours canceled, and everyone suddenly stuck at home, people realized how shitty their portable Bluetooth speakers really sounded. They began gobbling up vintage tube amps and turntables, and scouring online auctions for early pressings of their favorite bands’ records. For the first time in a generation, music appreciation had gone analog. People were finally listening.

“We’ve been trading quality for convenience in audio since the 1930s,” says Cowie. “Along the way, music became lifeless and unrecognizable. There’s a natural urge to start over again, and listening bars are one way to do that.” 

Listening Bars
“We do everything we can to promote an active listening environment,” says Mitchell Foster, co-owner of ESP HiFi.

Francis Harris thinks the shift is more elemental. As the head of programming at Public Records, a “music-driven restaurant, performance, and community space” in Brooklyn, he looks at the phenomenon through a hospitality lens. With the elevation of food and beverage programs over the past several decades, he says, it stands to reason that better sound would follow. 

“I never understood why bartenders would go through the elaborate process of perfecting their craft, using all these customized ingredients and techniques, only to have the same Rolling Stones soundtrack pumping through the same terrible speakers as every other bar,” he says.

Harris cites research done in the emerging field of neurogastronomy that correlates what we hear with how we taste. Studies show, for instance, that music played at certain frequencies can affect everything from the flavors we perceive to how quickly we chug our drink. Fine-tuning that formula is the inspiration behind listening bars. “That’s where the Japanese got it right,” says Harris. “They figured out how to put all the pieces of the picture together. You can have a great drink and good sound. The two can coexist.”  

Back at Bar Shiru, Raza is losing the storage wars. She takes one final jab at the shelves, then sets the records down and darts to the bar. For a brief moment, I’m alone, standing between two enormous mahogany speakers. A song by Ethiopian jazz composer Mulatu Astatke is playing, and though I’m familiar with the recording, there’s something oddly disorienting about the music. The instruments feel closer, breathier; the melodies, more brooding. Gahr calls this “presence.” It’s what you strive for with a high-fidelity sound system. “It should feel like the musicians are present in the room with you,” he explains. 

Gahr gives me a tour of the space. As listening bars go, Bar Shiru is huge. Before the build-out, it was basically a 2,000-square-foot concrete box—“an acoustics nightmare”—but he and Raza found creative ways to make it work. They designed separate listening “zones,” each with its own set of speakers, buoyed by large fabric panels that help soften the reverberation. 

As we visit each zone, Gahr explains the sonic challenges he faced and how he wrestled with bass traps and high-frequency pileups until he achieved what he calls “warm, three-dimensional sound.” He then goes on to describe the gear: the turntables and tube amplifiers and the hand-built rotary mixer from the U.K. that allows him to adjust the sound from zone to zone, speaker to speaker. But by that point, I’m so absorbed in the music that I’m barely listening.

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Tagged: culture, trends

Nino Padova is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Sunset, San Francisco Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Airbnb. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife, daughter, and pet beagle, Stevie Nicks.