The Soundtrack to New York’s Accidental Record Bars

From a craft beer spot offering deep soul cuts to a cocktail bar serving up ’90s-era hip-hop, a look at four of New York’s most unique record bars, and the playlists that define them.

We drink at live shows; we shove dollar bills into jukeboxes to help kick up a night out at the pub; we raise our pint glasses and sing along to some ancient standard with a rousing hook. Music and drinking are symbiotic, not only in the sentiments of song but how they coexist in our outgoing life. And now, taking cues from the record bars of Tokyo, American bars are ushering this one step further by making in-house, curated collections of vinyl records crucial to the identity of their venues. It’s an intuitive return to something that feels like the days of the pre-algorithm-picked Spotify playlist.

As a window into this growing movement, we descended on New York, where several establishments are dropping the needle on everything from jazz and funk to indie rock and reggae.

Gold Star Beer Counter NYC

Gold Star Beer Counter

Husband-and-wife duo Joshua and Maria Van Horn opened this oasis in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood in July of 2015. Gold Star quickly gained favor among locals as a uniquely warming (Josh’s green thumb is evident in the plant life within its walls) rat-race respite, offering both rotating craft drafts and bottles to go. But it’s the Van Horns’ handpicked vinyl discs—skewing decidedly toward indie rock/singer-songwriter mellowness—that evoke the feeling that you’re lounging in a good friend’s den. Although Josh Van Horn notes, “I didn’t think necessarily, ‘I’m opening a record bar.’”

Total No. of Records: “Around 150 to 200 at any given time,” says Van Horn. “It grows and shrinks.” He does his best to swap out what’s been overplayed, adding, “When you have that small number, I try to rotate it all the time. We don’t want our customers to come in twice in a row and have the same record playing.”
Personal Favorite:: BadBadNotGood’s entry in the LateNightTales series, which he says “is a true Gold Star classic, and I don’t think it’s ever gonna get taken off the shelf.”
Most-Played: “Whoever’s bartending gets to feel what they’re playing,” he says. “Right now there’s this album a lot of our main clientele’s been liking by this guy Chris Crofton, called Hello It’s Me, so that’s been a more frequently played album right now.”
Do They Take Requests? “We’re always open to requests,” he encourages, before cautioning, “We just generally don’t have the capacity or amount of records to fulfill them.”

Analogue Bar NYC

Analogue

As co-owner Jared Gordon says, his five-year-old, West Village bar “came about not simply as it relates to vinyl, but as it relates to the experience as a whole.” The goal was to seduce patrons away from their digital screens and “turn that on its ear.” The bar’s stately wood-and-leather interior and classic cocktail menu marry aptly with a record collection that lingers on jazz long players but detours readily into bossa nova and even first-generation hip-hop and ethereal new wave.

Total No. of Records: Gordon pegs the total at approximately 800, though he acknowledges that “it always grows” and the albums “have a way of multiplying without you even noticing.”
Personal Favorite: Depends on the time of day. “Earlier in the evening, when it’s a little quieter and people are in for a glass of wine after work, I like Bill Evans a lot,” says Gordon, who prefers the late pianist’s Spring Leaves and Portrait in Jazz LPs. But later in the night, he enjoys a good swerve à la the original German-language version of Nena’s ‘80s hit “99 Luftballoons,” an example of “music that engages without overwhelming.”
Most-Played: “We end up playing a fair amount of Curtis Mayfield,” he says.
Do They Take Requests? “We don’t get a lot of requests,” he concedes, owing in his mind to the lack of an ostentatious DJ booth and generally being understated about their assimilation of music into Analogue’s atmosphere. Customers, he says, “are more focused on their drinks, their friends, their evening, which is exactly what we want.”

VNYL Bar NYC

The VNYL

Two years into its run, this monolithic East Village food-and-drink destination-meets-record store has at least outlasted HBO’s same-named (minus the deliberately errant spelling) drama. Ironically, its LP stock (think classic rock, pop, punk and hip-hop from the past half-century) was initially culled by former HBO golden boy/Entourage lead Adrian Grenier, who’s also VNYL’s in-house music director. As director of operations Jake Riley explains, there are outside DJs some nights and an occasional Spotify playlist for low-key late afternoons, but Grenier’s library gets plenty of play inside the bar.

Total No. of Records:  About 1,000, though they tend to keep a couple hundred out for playing and perusing at any one time, rotating by genre and era.
Personal Favorite: Stevie Wonder’s Looking Back, which Riley characterizes as ideally “chill, light and airy.” (He says that a busier weekend night might command something a bit more up-tempo.)
Most-Played: Tracks off Blood Orange’s Coastal Grooves, The Fugees’ The Score and Diana Ross’ Diana frequently make the cut.
Do They Take Requests? “It would seem like most of the time, people would be annoyed by requests,” says Riley. “But if you’re not a DJ and somebody’s saying, ‘Oh, play this,’ it makes it easier for you.”

 Bierwax Bar NYC

BierWax

Owner Chris Maestro’s Brooklyn joint, which opened its doors last winter, is as dead serious about beats and brass as it is about beer. Jazz, soul, funk and hip-hop are the collective audible raison d’être. “I’ve been a DJ and record collector since my late teens, and then eventually got into craft beer very seriously,” says Maestro. “So it was a way to combine those elements under one roof.” As for the sudden preponderance of like-minded establishments, Maestro didn’t time the launch of BierWax to coincide, but in his view, “To have good analog music and great craft beer or cocktails, the more the merrier.”

Total No. of Records: Maestro pegs the current tally at about 6,000, up from 5,000 when they first opened. “I’d love for it to expand, but now we’re going to be selective, just because of space.” (Plus, he plans to begin selling some of the collection out of BierWax soon.)
Personal Favorite :
Cymande’s self-titled 1972 debut, known for its song “Dove,” later sampled by The Fugees, or any of Texan trio Khruangbin’s string of EPs, dating back to 2010.
Most-Played: Budos Band gets plenty of love, and Maestro confesses that he “had to hide” Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which gets repeated spins from male and female bartenders alike.
Do They Take Requests? A no-requests sign on the premises makes their stance pretty plain. “It’s coming from a DJ mentality,” says Maestro. “You want the customer to be there for the ride and trust the expertise of the folks providing the music and the beer to take you through a guided experience.”

Related Articles