Japanese-style hi-fi listening bars are officially a Bay Area obsession.
Beginning in the 1960s, a new form of bar-cafe hit the streets of Tokyo.
At jazz kissas, or listening bars, Japanese audiophiles found a warm, welcoming place for checking out imported records that were too elusive or expensive to buy themselves. The popular lounges tended towards the intimate, with an underground feel dominated by the sounds of a vinyl hi-fi system, not the chatter of patrons.
Although in recent years Tokyo’s original jazz kissas have been supplanted by louder, music-streaming spaces, the listening bar concept is finding new life in the U.S. Starting with Bar Shiru, which opened in Uptown Oakland in 2019, the Bay Area has been especially taken by the hi-fi kissa. There are now five bars and restaurants that draw inspiration from the originals, with more on their way.
From Harlan Records to the upcoming Yokai, here’s where to get a listen in San Francisco and the East Bay.
Uptown Oakland’s Bar Shiru is the godfather of the Bay Area’s Japanese hi-fi movement. The sleek, acoustically primed jazz kissa is modeled on the Tokyo originals, with an impressive analog sound system and a jazz- and soul-centric library. Pull up a stool at the clean-lined, wood-topped bar under the black-and-white gaze of early musical legends or snag a first come, first served table in front of the towering record shelf (they cap parties at six so the bar doesn’t get too raucous to hear the music). Adhering to the country of its inspiration, the cocktail menu leans heavily towards Japanese whiskies, highballs, and classic cocktails, as well as sake and local beer and wine. Interesting low- and zero-ABV cocktails like the Channel Orange (fino sherry, Aperol, lemon, Scotch, and demerara syrup) are also on order. // 1611 Telegraph Ave, Ste. 100 (Oakland), barshiru.com
Off the beaten path down a Union Square alley, Harlan Records nails the dim lighting and intimate digs of a Japanese kissa. With slate blue benches huddled under record shelves against one wall, and a cozy wood-paneled back room, the bar feels mid-century and modern all at once. The vinyl playlist here ranges from '50s jazz to '70s funk to '80s new wave, while the cocktails nod to the lyrics (the Gin and Juice is made with gin, pomelo liqueur, orgeat, and lime) and artists (the Dylan, made with gin, Campari, amaro, and egg white) under the needle. Open from 2pm till “late” seven nights a week (Sundays they open at 4pm), any time is the right time to stop in for a listen. // 18 Harlan Pl. (Union Square), harlanrecords.com
Le Fantastique transformed the kissa concept from cocktail lounge to restaurant and no one, it seems, can get enough of chef Robbie Wilson’s Herculean effort. Esquire, Michelin, the SF Chronicle, Robb Report, and the James Beard Foundation have all called out the seafood and wine spot among 2022’s best. Along with caviar eclairs, raw bites like brook trout with pine nut milk, dill, and tangerine, and mains like maitake mushrooms with squid garum and brown butter, Le Fantastique has an impressive, mostly French and entirely white wine list. And then there’s the music, classic records played on a ‘70s-era turntable, vintage McIntosh sound system, and oversized speakers. Get up close to the action at the curvaceous chef’s counter, book a table at the Parisian-inspired bistro tables in the main dining room, or go all out in the private “record room” where Wilson’s favorite tunes provide the soundtrack. // 22 Franklin St. (Hayes Valley), le-fantastique.com
Star chef Dominique Crenn’s Bar Crenn has gone hi-fi with a gorgeous overhaul by production designer Ethan Tobman (also of The Menu). The pair drew inspiration from the 1950s-era Tokyo jazz kissa, turning the new space into a puzzle of wood-paneled geometric shapes, distressed Moroccan-style rugs, and a textured gold ceiling. A vintage turntable spins tunes from the wall of records for the lounge’s five tables. A new snack menu and an intimate six-course pescatarian meal, called Le Comptoir at Bar Crenn, will pair with a unique set of cocktails, spirits, and wine starting this month. // 3131 Fillmore St. (Cow Hollow), barcrenn.com
We don’t know yet exactly what form chef Mark Zimmerman’s new Japanese restaurant and hi-fi bar Yokai will take, but we expect big things. The SoMa space, which is set to open this spring, will take inspiration from the Tokyo-style listening bar in its design and sound. But in addition to a vintage McIntosh sound system and an expansive vinyl collection, Yokai will focus on family-style plates, charcoal-cooked yakitori skewers, and produce from Tenbrink Farms. While you wait for the real deal to arrive, get on the waitlist for a preview of Yokai’s offerings at the Stick Bar pop-up, at Zimmerman’s nearby steakhouse Gozu (201 Spear St., SoMA). // 545 Mission St. (SoMa)