Home Japanese warriors The latest Bay Area sensation is hushed Japanese jazz bars

The latest Bay Area sensation is hushed Japanese jazz bars

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The main thing you notice when sitting at Bar Shiru is that it’s quiet.

It’s not that the Oakland bar is quiet — music is playing, people are talking and cocktails are shaking. But there’s an unusually quiet tone to the open room, which has high ceilings, walls lined with soft wood screens, and large windows looking out over Telegraph Avenue. You can really hear things here. Instead of the vague, diffuse din that pollutes the air in most bars, at Bar Shiru the atmosphere swells with rich, angular jazz. You can hear it the same way from any seat in the house.

Bar Shiru is a hi-fi bar – also known as a listening bar, recording bar or jazz bar kiss, as it is called in Japan, the country of origin of the genre. What mainly defines these bars is their focus on music, usually vinyl records, usually jazz, usually played on a high quality, usually vintage sound system.

Again, a lot of bars play records. What really sets a hi-fi bar like Bar Shiru apart from, say, the rowdy Café Van Kleef next door, is the contemplative, even calm, environment it cultivates. “Reverence for the act of intentional listening,” is how Daniel Gahr, who co-owns the bar with his wife, Shirin Raza, describes it. One page of the menu booklet even asks customers to keep their voices low and refrain from using phones, laptops or flash photography.

Drinks are lined up at Bar Shiru in Oakland, one of a recent cluster of Bay Area hi-fi bars. The concept of playing vinyl jazz records on high fidelity audio systems in bars originated in Japan.

Amaya Edwards / Special for The Chronicle

Given that listening bars have declined in Japan in recent years, the sudden boom in hi-fi bars here — and in other parts of the United States — is notable. Their appeal may have something to do with the growth in vinyl record sales over the past decade. Or perhaps they successfully tap into our nostalgia for early music and mid-century design aesthetics.

Or maybe it has something to do with this particular moment in time as we struggle to emerge from the pandemic and break free from the habits it spawned while we were confined at home. Selling an experience you can’t get at home, hi-fi bars offer an escape. You can make yourself a cocktail in your kitchen, of course. But you probably don’t have a sound system like this, which costs tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars. You certainly don’t have such an extensive record collection. And the harmonious quality of hi-fi bar sound systems provides a smooth return to the noise of crowded public spaces, which may seem chaotic to some of us after a few years away.

Above all, these barbells offer the sublime feeling of submitting to another person’s playlist. “Nowadays everyone is their own DJ, their own curator, and I think that can be exhausting for people,” Gahr said. “When I go out, I want to be an open listener, just to be open to the experience that’s being created for me.”


Daniel Gahr, co-owner of Bar Shiru, is changing the vinyl selection at his Oakland bar.

Daniel Gahr, co-owner of Bar Shiru, is changing the vinyl selection at his Oakland bar.

Amaya Edwards / Special for The Chronicle

The golden age of the barbell was in post-war Japan, and it settled on an American export: jazz. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, tiny bars and cafes opened up in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, offering huge collections of records from popular artists of the time like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Few people had comparable record collections at home, so they flocked to the kiss to listen to for hours. The music was the draw; the drinks were an afterthought.

As the popularity of jazz waned over the following decades and music became easier to obtain and play at home, the need for these bars and their record collections diminished. But there remains a committed core of kiss in Japan, which has inspired many new Bay Area record bar owners. For Marc Zimmerman, who opens Yokai, it was the Bar Flat in Tokyo. For Gahr and Raza, it was a place called Bar Martha.

“It left an indelible mark on our minds,” Gahr said of their 2015 visit to Bar Martha. The selection of 50s jazz records and the warmth of the sound quality from the hi-fi system were incredible, he said, an antidote to the headphones and highly compressed digital files that have become our standard listening experience. in the age of streaming.

Back in Oakland, they ditched their tech jobs — hers at Pandora, hers at YouTube, both roles in which they created “digital experiences,” Gahr said — in favor of something much more analog. . They’ve invested in a system that features several components from McIntosh, considered the benchmark for analog hi-fi gear, whose sleek black boxes are lit by sky-blue decibel displays. (The McIntosh system “looks like a sculpture,” said Fantastic owner Robbie Wilson.)

The Green Eyes cocktail at Bar Shiru in Oakland, a hi-fi bar that plays jazz records.

The Green Eyes cocktail at Bar Shiru in Oakland, a hi-fi bar that plays jazz records.

Amaya Edwards / Special for The Chronicle

Compared to the cozy and dark Japanese archetypes, Bar Shiru is huge and airy. The playlist is mostly jazz, but Gahr takes a broad view of the genre — Afrobeat, sample-based hip-hop, highlife, and soul are all in the mix. This is not a jukebox: bar staff don’t take requests. (Gahr, the music director, is proud of his curatorial abilities.)

Raza and Gahr, neither of whom are Japanese, are clear on one point: It’s a hi-fi bar, but “we definitely don’t consider it a Japanese bar,” Gahr said. Although they make several highballs, whiskeys and the like – a popular drink in Japan – most (and in fact, the best) cocktails have no recognizable Japanese influence. A spicy pepper bush gives a bright, grassy sheen to the Sidewinder, with yellow Chartreuse and Tequila; the Velvet Mood tastes like a floral, herbaceous riff on an Aviation cocktail, blending the classic recipe’s lavender syrup with crème de violette. (My favorite of the highballs, for what it’s worth, was the one made with Iwai 45 earthy whiskey.)

Like Bar Shiru, new and future hi-fi bars in the Bay Area take more or less liberties with the Japanese model. At Fantastique, which has a McIntosh sound system that Wilson says costs more than $150,000, diners in the restaurant hear the same playlist as drinkers in the more intimate Green Room, but from special speakers located on shelves in the cozy living room mean that visitors there hear the music more intensely. Only three employees, including Wilson, are allowed to choose recordings; Occasionally they’ll play a song or two from an iPad while picking up a new record, but he said 85% of what’s played is from vinyl. Rather than playing full albums, Le Fantastique tends to only play one or two songs from a record before changing it. Jazz is not a beacon: you are more likely to hear Fleetwood Mac, Heart or The Police than Chet Baker.

Bar Shiru in Oakland, where customers are asked not to speak too loudly or use their cellphones so they can listen to music.

Bar Shiru in Oakland, where customers are asked not to speak too loudly or use their cellphones so they can listen to music.

Amaya Edwards / Special for The Chronicle

Upon opening, Harlan Records will similarly deviate from the traditional record bar playbook. The bar will adopt a “mid-century” aesthetic in its furniture and music, said partner Katya Skye, playing blues and rock from the 1950s and 1960s. For drinking, the bar plans to serve riffs on popular cocktails of that time like Moscow mules and mojitos.

Yokai, which is set to open early next year, will carry recognizable Japanese influences, with dishes cooked on a Binchotan charcoal grill and an extensive selection of Japanese whiskey. But unlike Tokyo’s hi-fi haunts, which rarely serve food, Yokai will be “a restaurant first, with a hi-fi aesthetic,” said Zimmerman, the owner. To achieve this aesthetic, Zimmerman plans to purchase an audio system that will likely involve McIntosh tube amplifiers, projecting the total cost between $10,000 and $15,000.

Regardless of its idiosyncrasies, each soundbar offers an experience that seems increasingly rare these days. Unless it’s live, music in bars is almost always in the background. (The soon-to-be-closed Club Deluxe in San Francisco is a notable exception.) Even at DJ-hosted events, other activities vie for our attention: dancing, flirting, talking—more often, shouting—with friends. It may seem shocking at first to go to a bar where the menu urges you to lower your voice and put your phone away. Some of us have become uncomfortable with so much silence.

But maybe that’s why hi-fi bars are finding a receptive audience here right now: As unfamiliar as this tranquility may seem, deep down we know we need it. We know we need to take a deep breath, stop trying to think of the right thing to say. To simply listen.

Esther Mobley is the principal wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: [email protected]
Twitter:
@Esther_mobley