The Quiet Defiance of Decibel

How New York’s pioneering punk-rock sake bar became a culture unto itself.

Almost always, we’d come late and stay late. In those days, the bar didn’t even open until 8 p.m. But the path was always the same: Walk down East 9th Street, find the “ON AIR” sign glowing above a flight of stairs, descend and ring the buzzer next to an otherwise unmarked, locked door.

Eventually, someone would open it with a wary look, not because the place wanted to keep a low profile—often there was a line up the stairs—but because back then the East Village went bad pretty quickly east of 3rd Avenue. Inside, you would supplicate before a thin rope and eventually, hopefully, be ushered to a seat in a small back room with dim light, a few booths, a low bar with a maneki-neko (the ubiquitous beckoning cat) statue behind it, a tatami screen or two and graffiti on every wall.

Decibel, which quietly celebrated its 25th birthday last year, proclaimed itself to be New York’s first sake bar. But it was far more than that, at least to a generation of thirsty and often disillusioned New Yorkers. Sake Bar Decibel, as it’s officially known, was a last stand of sorts before the East Village went the way of Whole Foods—and just as important, it was the place where many of the city’s professional eaters and drinkers learned about sake.

In the mid-1990s, I’d go there on a date, or a would-be date, or with hacker friends who wanted to discreetly talk about how technology could make the world a better place (spoiler: it didn’t) or about the dystopian undercarriage of the dot-com era (spoiler: there was one). But many of the customers were Japanese punks or art kids—as were most of the servers—and on occasion when it grew late you’d notice men there in what I’ll call transactional arrangements. You could still smoke in bars in those days, and Decibel’s darkness always had a perceptible haze that added to the overall grunge. The soundtrack would rev with punk and trance and the precursors of emo.

While you could order shochu or a saketini, if you were serious about drinks, you came to Decibel for sake. The space may have been stygian, but its sake selection was more extensive than probably anywhere in the country at the time. Its list was filled with 60 or more of some of the best sakes being exported from Japan, denoted by terms like daiginjo and yamahai, that were as yet unfamiliar not only to newbies like me but to many Japanese as well. You’d soak them up with rudimentary snacks, prepared in the microwave up front.

Decibel is improbably, remarkably, as busy as it ever was—maybe more so. The stickers and graffiti that always graced the walls seem to cover nearly every inch of every surface today; the bathrooms are cleaner, and “they use a computer now,” says Miki Kanematsu, one of Decibel’s early managers. But the experience of drinking there has remained very much the same for a quarter-century—and that’s hardly supposition. I’ve been going there since its beginning, when I was as many of its customers are today: barely out of college, dreaming of a future of creative bliss while accepting a more sobering reality in a mundane corner of tech, in my case as an early employee of one of the first online ad firms. (Oh, for the days when the font of evil was spelled A-O-L.)

Of course, that was a totally different New York. Unemployment, just 4 percent today, was over 13 percent. Tompkins Square Park, a couple blocks away, had recently reopened after riots and attempts to empty its homeless encampments, although you still didn’t walk its perimeter at night if you had any sense. The East Village was a melting pot of Ukranian emigrés, smack addicts and post-punk burnouts, whereas today it has become a haven for Urban Outfitters, fancy hotels and four Starbucks. Veselka wasn’t yet a tourist attraction, just a coffee shop with Slavic accents. But somehow, of all places, it’s Decibel that has remained largely unbowed through the years.

sake bar decibel nyc

I realized not long ago that I really knew nothing about Decibel’s history, despite its seminal spot in my drinking history.

At the surface, its longevity tells  a tale of survival in New York’s brutally unforgiving restaurant economy. Its 25th birthday quietly passed last year with nary a mention, but any establishment that keeps its doors open so long earns an enviable status. Its origins in the last stretch of 20th-century New York puts it in company with stalwarts like Tribeca Grill (1990), Gramercy Tavern (1994) and Balthazar (1997). Much like its neighbor, the equally pioneering Angel’s Share (which opened the same year and similarly endures), Decibel predated by nearly a decade most of the city’s recently important bars, even Milk & Honey. Indeed, most great 1980s and ’90s bars, including the epic I.M. Pei–designed Fifty Seven Fifty Seven, in the Four Seasons Hotel, have vanished. (So have most of the shitty ones, like Decibel’s neighbor Continental, which helped at least two generations of college kids make bad decisions before closing, largely unmourned, late last year.)

Arguably, the sheer improbability of its aesthetic was what helped it to survive. A Japanese punk speakeasy, but with great sake? It’s the sort of combination that, if you conceived of it today, would feel utterly contrived, as though you’d drunk too much cough syrup and were dreaming up hotel-bar concepts with Ian Schrager. Yet even its sillier cocktail offerings, like the Lychee Martini, were benchmarks in their own way. “It was the first place in New York that had that drink,” recalls Takahiro Okada, another former manager.

I can’t quite say Decibel’s creation was entirely uncalculated, but it was calculated in a relatively innocent way, in that it mirrored its neighborhood’s growth. By 1990 that part of the East Village was morphing from its Ukrainian roots into a miniature Japantown. It had become a sanctuary for Japanese expats who had escaped to New York to pursue careers in art or fashion or music, described by the New York Times as the early-1990s equivalent of “the young Americans who flocked to Paris in the years after World War I.” And they frequented the passel of Japanese restaurants and bars that had opened along 9th Street.

Several of those were run by a man named Shuji Bon Yagi. In 1984, he opened his first Japanese restaurant there, the Edo-style sushi spot Hasaki, to compete with tonier joints uptown that he couldn’t afford. (Hasaki remains open today, just up the street from Decibel.) By the mid-1980s, Bon Yagi had the lease on an underground bar space at 240 East 9th Street. And in 1989, he opened Candy B1, a karaoke joint that was notable for its live band (technically making it a namaoke joint). Four years later, he refitted the space as Decibel, although initially it served whisky and beer.

But good sake had finally started to arrive in the United States, and Yagi was ever more taken with it, in particular after he tried one called Koshi No Kanbai from the mountainous Niigata prefecture. True, it was early to induce Americans to drink sake, but Yagi took an essential long view. Before long, the bar found a steady clientele—mostly Japanese at first, then increasingly mixed. “When I opened Decibel, it didn’t take off right away,” he tells me. “Most people, when it doesn’t take off right away, they decide to change.”

sake bar decibel nyc

The punk aesthetic was partly a segue from the space’s former karaoke days. But it also was a reflection of the East Village, and those young Japanese who were busy rejecting the conservatism of the culture back home while embracing nearly everything foreign: music, tattoos, radical art, you name it. Shonen Knife, one of the seminal female punk bands, was already famous. In 1996, Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori, the trip-hop duo known as Cibo Matto, released their debut album, Viva! La Woman, which intertwined that New York expat culture with their love of eating and drinking. (Extra sugar, extra salt / Extra oil and MSG!) More than a few of these expats ended up working at Decibel, which helped to explain why its staff typically looked they’d stepped off a stage at an underground Tokyo club.

But that would have quickly grown tiresome, if not for how dead-serious Yagi and his managers took their sake selections. Even if most of the staff wasn’t particularly versed in the nuances of various styles—things aren’t much different today, candidly—you could point to just about anything on the list and taste something far better than any sake you’d had before.

This wasn’t just curation. Yagi had the good fortune to open Decibel at a transformative moment for the sake industry. During much of the century, sake was graded on a tax-based system that forced most brewers to downgrade their best products, making low-grade sake the norm. But as of 1992, a new scale was enforced, based in part on the degree of rice polishing. It catalyzed a preference for more refined sakes, including the highly polished junmai daiginjo style, whose muted style and clarity were considered—especially among the finance types who did business with Japanese counterparts—to represent the same “purity” that the neutrality of Grey Goose would a decade later. As ever more high-quality sake began arriving in the country, shipped in refrigerated containers, Yagi bought all he could. Many of these were revelations not only for Americans, but also for many of Decibel’s Japanese customers and staff, who’d grown up drinking the cheap stuff.

“Even when I was in Japan,” says Kanematsu, who came to New York as a tourist from Kochi prefecture and began working at Decibel in 1996, “I hadn’t really had sake like that before.”

On the one hand, Decibel oozed its punkish cool with a Tokyo twist, an extension of the fascination many Americans had with anything Japanese during the 1980s: Benihana, Nintendo, Comme des Garçons. The food—now as then—wasn’t meant to be particularly notable; it was a combination of the familiar, like shumai, and the traditional but unfamiliar, like the wasabi-doused raw octopus known as takowasa. But the drinking was always serious, or could be. That unique mix drew a growing cadre of industry types and budding writers, such that most people who were serious about food and drink in New York during the 1990s have a Decibel story.

“These aloof, insanely attractive punk-rock Japanese kids seemed to be running the place,” recalls Besha Rodell, a longtime restaurant critic who now covers Australian dining for the New York Times and frequented Decibel during her college years. “It was that hospitality-kid fantasy of someone just opening the exact thing they wanted to do and having it work.”

sake bar decibel nyc

By the time he opened Decibel, Yagi had been in the neighborhood for nearly two decades. He had arrived in the United States in 1968 and came to New York in 1976, hanging out in the East Village through those darker days, which helps to explain the framed picture of him, lounging on a couch with a full pre-hipster beard, that hangs above his desk. Among his endeavors: running a diner, 103 Second Ave., one of the late-night 1980s hangouts for an increasingly arty downtown crowd—including, in his telling, a patron who would provide inspiration for the graffiti on Decibel’s walls. “Keith Haring would come in, and he’d write in my bathroom,” says Yagi. “And being Japanese and believing in cleanliness, I’d scrape it off.”

As time went on, Yagi became a sort of Keith McNally of New York’s Japanese food community, an unofficial mayor of 9th Street. Today, his company, T.I.C. Group, essentially controls most of the block on which Decibel sits, encompassing a mini-empire of 15 restaurants and bars. That includes Rai Rai Ken, which helped to introduce New Yorkers to ramen years before a guy named David Chang opened his noodle bar around the corner; Soba-Ya, one of the city’s seminal spots for buckwheat noodles; the teahouse Cha-An; the Japanese coffee shop Hi-Collar; and another basement sake bar, Sakagura, which opened in midtown shortly after Decibel, with an even more extensive sake list—now up to 250 selections—for those who might not vibe the punk thing. “The midtown salaryman, Japanese office workers, they didn’t want to come downtown,” recalls Yagi. (A second location of Sakagura recently opened across the street from Decibel.)

sake bar decibel nyc

If Yagi’s empire has become relatively corporate, that hardly seems to have dented Decibel’s rebel yell. Music was always at the bar’s core—the “ON AIR” sign was quite intentional—and that remains as such. The current manager, Ken Arii, who started working there 12 years ago, still sports a Mohawk and plays in an electronic noise band called Coput. Each night’s bartender selects a playlist from a selection of around 10,000 songs, with a tacit understanding about standards. “I got really angry one time because I went into Decibel and Top 40 was playing,” says Sakura Yagi, Bon Yagi’s daughter and the restaurant group’s COO. “And I said, ‘This is not Decibel.’” (On a recent visit, the soundtrack veered from Beta Librae’s “Skyla” to Nelly Furtado’s “Afraid,” indicating the pop-hating may have relaxed of late.)

That culture was designed to be self-sustaining. The staff still evaluates each new hire, less for hospitality than to ensure they’re appropriately offbeat. If today’s servers trend a bit more skate-kid and emo than overtly punk, they haven’t lost the attitude—including a certain apathy toward the Gen X gaijin who’s seated before them—their predecessors espoused two decades ago. Now, as then, they’re likely to be artists or musicians who came to New York for that expat life. In a way it reminds me of how David Schomer, whose Espresso Vivace in Seattle pioneered latte art in this country, sought out artists to be his baristas, proposing that it was a job where they could “make a living without being degraded.”

And if the staff aren’t really trained in the nuances of sake, that’s actually more feature than bug. Courtney Kaplan, who now co-owns the Los Angeles izakaya Tsubaki, built a career around the sake knowledge she learned at Decibel. But she was first drawn there as a student at Columbia in the late 1990s, when she was spending time in the East Village, going to hardcore shows. Primarily interested in a job where she could maintain the Japanese she’d learned while studying abroad, she called the bar, was told to come in and spent the evening over cups of sake, being peppered with questions about her taste in music. (The manager at the time was partial to Todd Rundgren.) As she discovered, it was the sense of belonging, rather than any expertise, that catalyzed the staff. “The bar closed at 4, and then somebody would usually make a second family meal, and we’d drink sake and hang out until the morning,” she recalls. “Because what else are you going to do at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday?”

Yet Decibel became a training ground for sake knowledge, perhaps in spite of itself, imbuing its servers with a serious interest many brought along to other restaurants. It also maintained a very Japanese view of the continuity of tradition—which I find to be the most reassuring part of its story. After all, so much of the East Village’s defining culture has been wiped away. Yagi’s 103 Second would eventually become the site of Vandaag and now the barbecue spot Mighty Quinn’s. The original location of the 2nd Avenue Deli is now a Chase branch. Holiday Cocktail Lounge, once a hole-in-the-wall selling $3.75 Dewars, is now a boîte with $16 drinks. But Decibel rages on, much as it always did.

Even today, I still get carded before the rope is lifted, gray hairs be damned. And its patrons carry on as we once did—ranting about the perils of tech, settling farther into a booth as the night wears on. Most are unaware of how unlikely it is that Decibel is still here after all these years, and how such a place almost surely could never come into existence again. The New York of 2019, the eminently predictable one that has birthed a place like Hudson Yards, simply would not allow it.

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