Behind the world of Hi-Fi record bars
Hi-fi bar: A sensorial paradise for cocktail and record lovers
Words— Kate Dingwall
For the jet setter, soaking in the local music scene is a requisite. Music and drinking go hand in hand, and while we're all for tipping a buck to a sidewalk minstrel or clinking beers with the band at the bar, some of the coolest new bars in the world aren't raucous concert halls: they're hushed listening bars.
The record bar, or kissatan, is a Tokyo tradition: "jazz kissas" started opening in 1950’s post-war Japan as a cafe, where music lovers could congregate to hear imported or hard-to-find records. Many would gather, of all ages and backgrounds, to watch with excited eyes as the bartender dropped the needle on a freshly pressed record, snuck in on a supply ship from the other side of the world. They were temples for audiophiles, places where music lovers could seek refuge and discuss thoughts.
Many were members-only, and that exclusive feel still stands when you stumble upon one today. And stumble often feels like the correct word for discovering a record bar. Record bars are historically impromptu: they can pop up in whatever space available, from an old office building to a shopping mall to tucked away under a restaurant. One common thread across all of them? Hi-Fi Bars (as they were dubbed) always became a place for excellent libations. Some of the top record bars today in Tokyo double as bonafide cocktail-lover paradises. Ice is cut to order and Highballs and Sidecars crafted with the meticulousness of a surgeon. There are just as many bars happy to slide a cheap beer your way as well, if that’s your cup of tea.
What started as a way to hear clandestine records has snowballed into a global movement of tiny, tucked-away bars spinning hard-to-find records and pouring excellent cocktails. Tokyo is still the mecca for these bars, but a presence of Hi-Fi bars can be found in New York, Toronto, Los Angeles and Paris.
In Sheep’s Clothing, Los Angeles
Skirt through an unmarked door behind Lupetti Pizza and you’ve found your way to In Sheep's Clothing. Drinkers here—of coffee or something stronger, as the spot is open during the day—sit in pew-like seats while a barista/DJ/bartender spins one of 600 records, curated to the time of day or mood of the space. The mid-century modern space was designed to act as a sanctuary to sound: photos are discouraged, and a sign asks visitors to "Please keep your conversations below the music." Cocktails nod to Japanese ingredients (like a white rum paired with nettle tea) and coasters list off the AV equipment used, to remind you that they mean business.
Tokyo Record Bar, New York
Slip through the back of Air’s Champagne Parlor (see a theme here?) in New York’s West Village and down a flight of stairs to get to Tokyo Record Bar. The underground omakase joint lets diners pick a song to play during their tasting menu-themed dinner. Expect everything from caviar sandwiches to inventive nigiri, all enjoyed under a canopy of cherry blossoms. After ten pm, the spot opens up to walk-ins, where cocktails and selections from the judicious sake list flow freely, as bartenders bounce new tracks onto the bartop turntable.
Paris' Frequence, home to a dizzying 1,000 LPs, is one of the coolest bars in Le Marais, though the midcentury modern decor and the high-brow cocktail menu definitely aid that title. Unlike some of the other spots on this list, secret isn’t part of the bar’s MO: large windows that face the street have drinkers and dancers spilling onto the street. Owner Guillaume Quenza has carefully curated the cocktails to match the over 1000 LPs that grace the back bar, and he’ll be happy to concoct you a drink based on your favourite tunes.
The Little Jerry, Toronto
A new audiophile addition to Toronto’s late-night scene is Little Jerry: a natural wine bar along College Street. Natural wine is a focal point here and records are spun constantly by either one of the staff, or a host of rotating local DJs in an effort to promote the sounds of the community.
And of course, Tokyo
There is no shortage of Hi-Fi bars in Tokyo. They occupy winding backstreets, vacant basements and chic hotel lobbies. You can find some that specialize in acid jazz, or regular jazz, classic rock or hair metal. Most, will have an excellent range of beverages, though a classic Highball is the When-in-Rome move here. Slip into Shinjuku’s Bar Baobab for vintage reggae and a vast selection of rum, or Dogenzaka Rock, a rock-a-billy spot with a whisky list that flirts with both Japanese whisky and American bourbon. At the latter, guests can request songs from a massive catalog, and the DJ will follow up with a similar piece.