Enter through a stainless steel gate, walk up the stairs, and press the buzzer and you’ll find yourself on the second floor of an East 52nd Street Midtown building, at Bar Orai, a Japanese whiskey bar decorated with mid-century furniture and shelves with more than 2,000 vinyl records. There is no website advertising the bar, only an Instagram. One night you might hear R&B like Bobby Caldwell, on another, a Japanese disco album — depending on the bartender’s preference or mood. DJs play sets that are often posted to the bar’s YouTube.
Lately, it seems like every new cocktail spot in the city wants to distinguish itself as a listening bar — not just any old bar that plays music, but with curated selections.
Over the past couple of years, a slew of bar openings from Eavesdrop in Greenpoint to Honeycomb in Park Slope and All Blues in Tribeca have touted a certain kind of experience meant to attract audiophiles and those looking for a sophisticated atmosphere. The food and drinks are designed to complement the music. Williamsburg’s new Mr. Melo for instance, serves feta brine martinis and other Greek(ish) small plates. Public Records, which opened in 2019, is known for its vegan focus, while Nightmoves can be the afterparty for a Michelin-starred meal at neighboring Four Horsemen. Lovely Day, a Thai staple of Nolita, recently converted its basement dining area into a listening bar of sorts where DJs might play Turkish psychedelic or sunny Brazilian spins — a “haven for downtown’s creative class.”
The concept of a listening bar is nothing new. It’s a distilled version of those that began to crop up all around Tokyo, these days exported all over the world. Even despite some reports that suggest that a vinyl market boom is cooling, it’s still a growing market for the music industry. Listening bars lately feel like a reaction to the homogeneity of music that’s become popular due to TikTok: at their best, they promote the chance to take a breath, get off your phone, and discover something new — although you may need Shazam to remember it. Nowhere is that more clear than in New York, where listening bars keep opening, though some of them take a looser approach in their definition.
Overall, the mood of listening bars is more mature and slowed down: part of that is because they’re mostly seated, a reflection of reservation culture, now omnipresent at bars, and by proxy since the set-up is more likely to be approved by a community board. It’s entirely distinct from a clubstaurant where the experience is often louder and rowdier. It tracks with the overall way nightlife has shifted to be more inclusive of the “sober curious.”
When Ariel Arce opened Tokyo Record Bar, in Greenwich Village, her point of inspiration was literal in name, but novel for New York in 2017.
Her subterranean restaurant has separated itself through its premise: There’s a $75 per person pre-fixe menu, but attendees become active participants in the night by writing down a vinyl song on a chopstick sleeve. “We were one of the first to incorporate a musical dining experience like this in New York, but it’s really the antithesis of a true listening room because we're taking requests; in Japan, you’re beholden to whatever someone is playing,” says Arce. “Listening bars aren’t the place where you’re knocking back vodka sodas; you’re there to have a more sophisticated experience — we get everyone from NYU kids to hi-fi nerds.”
Riding off that success, in January, she rebranded the upstairs bar area, formerly called Air’s and dedicated to Champagne, as an extended listening lounge. “There’s only so much you can do with the 20 seats downstairs,” she says. “But what I love to see in the listening room is because it is so small they do strike up a conversation — I’ve watched people on dates pour over the selections, and kids take their parents for their wedding anniversary.”
In Midtown, Bar Orai is taking it a step further in handing turntables over to customers. Owner Joseph Moon, who also owns AOI Kitchen with his wife, Yoonjin Choi, in the East Village, said he modeled Bar Orai after listening to bars he grew up going to in Seoul. When they opened over a year ago, Bar Orai began as just friends of friends. “We didn’t do any marketing to start,” he says. They were onto something anyway: Fans have flooded their DMs asking to join in. In response, Moon set up an application for customers to bring their vinyl and play an hour-long set where they can spin what they want on select days (within reason).
“Sound is so overlooked in interior design — acoustics are often off with systems producing a compressed or low-quality sound, not a warm or articulate, balanced one— so it’s nice to see that shift,” says Zoë Mowat, who co-founded Waves and Frequences, a speaker company that combines her experience with furniture design with sound engineering.
To avoid feeling pretentious, Bar Orai worked with the firm Two Point Zero, to create a space evocative of a living room, with lamps, a butter-colored couch, and blue carpeting, which also doubles as a sound barrier.
“We intentionally kept the rooms spacious — we could’ve sat more than double the amount of people here, but we didn’t want it to feel crowded,” says Moon.
Arce agrees. “My goal with our listening room is to create connection in a city where that’s fewer and far between and I think that’s something people are craving.”