Prior to the pandemic, Japanese-style “listening bars” had a moment. Modeled after a bar style popularized in Japan following the Second World War, these establishments prioritized listening to vinyl records, often via stellar sound systems. They weren’t all hushed experiences—as anyone who ever visited NYC’s lively Tokyo Record Bar can attest—but it was definitely all about the sound, often accompanied by creative drink and food offerings.
After a pandemic-induced hiatus, bars centered on vinyl experiences are back. Many are decidedly less formal, and they’re certainly not all “listening bars.” But they’re all welcoming spaces to enjoy music, drink in hand.
“The vinyl market has gone up exponentially,” explains Zach Ashton, co-owner of In Between Days, a saké-focused listening bar that opened in August 2021 in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a breezy blue shack. “People are talking more about vinyl than they have in the last five years,” particularly Millennials who have nostalgic memories of their parents’ collections and Gen Zers getting back in touch with the analog format.
Part of the appeal is the sound. When the pandemic put concerts on pause, many turned to the “warmer” sound of vinyl, while others appreciated the tactile nature of albums—a far cry from Spotify.
“Globally, people are attracted to the concept of going out and listening to vinyl and being able to talk about it with strangers or your friends,” Ashton notes.
Just like music, the style of these spaces varies widely. Consider BierWax, a pair of casual beer bars in Brooklyn and Queens with copious shelves of albums in place of a traditional backbar (the Queens outpost opened in February 2022); Dante’s HiFi, in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, which offers individual listening rooms and where DJ and hip-hop educator Rich Medina serves as music director (opened September 2021); or the petite midcentury-style listening room off the bar at San Francisco restaurant and wine bar Le Fantastique (opened late 2021), where vinyl can be enjoyed on a vintage sound system with a side of crudo and Champagne.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s Eavesdrop opened in March 2022, with a full menu of natural wine, local beer and signature cocktails. Here, the DJs often mix vinyl and digital playlists, but co-owner Dan Wissinger notes the “distinctive character to the sound of vinyl” appeals to many listeners, and the vibe is “more like a living room than a nightclub.”
Elsewhere, Philadelphia’s Milkcrate Cafe, a longtime record store and café, added alcoholic beverages to an existing vinyl-heavy backdrop, when a restaurant closure nearby made a liquor license available for the space.
In April 2022, a cocktail program co-created by André Darlington and Kevin Lundell brought drinks like a miso-infused espresso martini riff to happy hour and brunch, to enjoy while “all kinds of rock, from psychedelic to punk” plays on 1970s-style DJ turntables. “The cocktails were built to complement the whole music vibe we’re putting down,” says owner Adam Porter.
He likens record lovers to those who cherish physical books: “People want the experience,” he explains. “After all these years of MP3s and streaming, we’re many generations removed from touching things. It’s not data: Vinyl is a labor of love.”
As such, enjoying these albums in a public space where guests are meant to linger, whether over coffee or cocktails, makes sense, Porter concludes: “Music is just meant to be shared.”
Sip and Spin
What’s playing and what do the bars recommend drinking while listening to it?
Eavesdrop, Brooklyn, NY
Listen to: “Knuddelmaus” by Ulrich Schnauss
While drinking: Moonstruck (Rye, fernet, pineapple, lemon and mint)
Le Fantastique, San Francisco, CA
Listen to: “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by The Police
While drinking: PYCM (Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey 2012 Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot 1er Cru)
In Between Days, St. Petersburg, FL
Listen to: “Les Bateaux” by Pépite
While drinking: Dewazakura Dewasansan Namagenshu Saké
Milkcrate Cafe, Philadelphia, PA
Listen to: “Give Me the Sunshine” by Leo’s Sunshipp
While drinking: City Pop (Bubbles, fresh-squeezed OJ, Galliano, miso, vodka)
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!