In these restaurants, loud music actually makes for better conversations

Guests enjoy music by Brian Eno at one of the Monday afternoon Dedicated Listening Hours at In Sheep’s Clothing in New York.  (Wall Street Journal)
Guests enjoy music by Brian Eno at one of the Monday afternoon Dedicated Listening Hours at In Sheep’s Clothing in New York. (Wall Street Journal)

Summary

A new wave of listening bars and restaurants pair high-quality food and drink with stunning high-fidelity audio

ON A VISIT to Tokyo last spring, chef Sean Brock and his wife, Adi, had just found seats at the dimly lit, barely signposted Bar Track when the music stopped their conversation cold. It wasn’t the song (something by Cake) or the volume (modest), but the clarity and richness of the sound emanating from the speakers nestled among the albums and whiskey bottles behind the bar.

“It was three dimensional," Brock recalled. “I couldn’t think about anything else." Eventually, he asked about the gear the owners were using, “and by the time I was landing in Nashville I had already found the exact speakers and the exact amp." Barely 90 days later, his speakers—vintage Tannoys used in recording sessions with the country supergroup the Highwaymen—and an assortment of powerhouse McIntosh amplifiers were wowing customers at Bar Continental, Brock’s newly re-christened restaurant in the Grand Hyatt Nashville, along with a record collection thousands strong.

Bar Continental is among the more high-profile restaurants, bars and cafes in the U.S. that have recently put listening to music over high-fidelity sound systems at the top of the menu. Most take inspiration from Japan’s jazz kissa (cafes), largely born in the postwar years, when new records and great-sounding gear on which to play them were both rare and expensive.

Kissa proprietors would showcase record collections and the sorts of stereo systems devout home audiophiles might own, playing albums as patrons listened attentively while sipping drinks and nibbling snacks. Those that remain are often cozy, cluttered and coated with “50 years of cigarette smoke on the walls and the ceiling," said Philip Arneill, a photographer from Belfast. Arneill has visited about 200 of what he estimates to be between 500 and 600 remaining jazz kissa in Japan, documenting many in the book “Tokyo Jazz Joints."

Compared to their Japanese progenitors, American listening bars tend to emphasize food and drink more, and feature more eclectic music. They also strive to reach out beyond the stereotypical beard-stroking audiophile audience. The formula seems to be working. Online searches for listening bars jumped 306% in the past year, according to a recent report by Yelp. Bart Stephens, host of the forthcoming podcast, “American Kissa," counts about 75 such places, and will soon add to that steadily growing number with his own, as yet unnamed, opening later this year in Birmingham, Ala.

For this new audience, said Quentin Ertel, a partner in Shibuya, a listening bar that opened last year in Seattle, the experience of listening attentively to a whole album, or even just a side, “is almost like visiting a foreign country." In Shibuya’s Hi-Fi room, a dedicated listening space adjacent to the bar, “we never tell people not to talk," he said, “but everybody automatically seems to not be talking."

At Temple Records, which opened last month in Boston, chef Jamie Bissonette elected not to offer distractingly noisy shaken cocktails. The drink menu there pays tribute to the Japanese heritage of the kissa with a selection of highballs, like the Dat Dere, made with Kikori Japanese whiskey and named for a jazz song. A nod to Japan might be the common theme among listening bars. New York’s Tokyo Listening Room, the recently opened sister to Tokyo Record Bar (a pioneer when it opened in 2017), serves izakaya-style snacks, and the sips lean toward sake. Yokai in San Francisco offers skewered bites such as Hokkaido scallops, grilled over binchotan coals.

Go to the website or Instagram feed of a listening bar to scope out a menu, and you might find yourself scanning not just upcoming theme nights and listening sessions (see: “Hear Here," below), but equipment manifests as well. The Soundbar, in Oklahoma City, relies on Klipsch La Scala and Klipschorn speakers, while at the Equipment Room in Austin’s Hotel Magdalena, you’ll see more esoteric gear like a Pioneer H-R100 8-Track player and a 1975 vintage Nakamichi 600 cassette deck. Josh LaRue, a partner in the Magdalena, said, “We don’t use [it] often for nightly music service, though we have played a few special releases from artists or even a well-loved fave like the Cure’s ‘Greatest Hits’ or Willie Nelson’s ‘The Red Headed Stranger.’ "

Less discussed but just as important, said Jason Zuliani, owner of Paradiso HiFi in Burlington, Vt., is that spaces outfitted for listening are also great for quietly chatting. High efficiency speakers and sound-absorbent wood and textiles make shouting to be heard (and straining to hear) unnecessary.

The goal is harmony, not discord. “Listening to music properly and intentionally is a form of therapy," said Brock. “It has improved my quality of life so much, and that’s what I want a lot of people to experience as well."

Hear Here

While the music never stops at these hi-fi venues, certain hours are given over to deeper listening or thematic programming.

Dedicated Listening Hours at In Sheep’s Clothing, New York

Monday and Wednesday afternoons here are given over to Dedicated Listening Hours, when aficionados take seats at the bar or on the bleacher-style seating to get lost in themed sessions such as “Krautrock + the Berlin School." To keep listeners from getting too lost, the proprietors provide printed playlists, that run through explanations of why albums were chosen.

Hi-Fi Room at Shibuya, Seattle

Outfitted more like a living room than a bar, Shibuya’s Hi-Fi Room has a no-shoes, no-drinks policy designed to encourage focus and tranquility. Ticketed listening events feature albums that have included Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring," Miles Davis’s “Bitches’ Brew," Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange" and, naturally, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon."

Flight Nights at Sunday Vinyl, Denver

Wednesdays are Flight Nights at restaurateur Bobby Stuckey’s Sunday Vinyl, at Denver’s Union Station. Playlists are paired with appropriate wine selections: a night of the Beatles with older vintage pours, or “Snoop Dogg and Friends" with “Herby, Terpy Wines." The sound system, which includes a $75,000 pair of Sonus Faber Lilium speakers, is as transportive as the trains chugging into the station.

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