It’s a tale as old as 2019. On a Friday night, your friends invite you to the trendy new bar in your neighborhood. It has high, exposed ceilings, mid-century modern furniture, potted snake plants, and minimalist wooden surfaces. Oh, and cocktails are $15.
You were looking forward to a night of catching up with your pals, but you can’t hear a single word they say in the packed bar. You shout over the cacophony until a throbbing ache emerges in the space between your ears, then order too many craft cocktails to dull the pain.
“The growing trend in bars and restaurants just being really loud is something a lot of people can relate to,” said Daniel Gahr.
Gahr and Shirin Raza, who are married, own Bar Shiru, a hi-fi vinyl listening bar in Uptown Oakland.
“If you look at the aesthetics of where we are currently in architecture and interior design, it’s a lot of hard surfaces, glass and materials that don’t necessarily make for the best acoustic environments,” Gahr continued.
The couple opened Bar Shiru in February this year as an antidote to the bad acoustics in restaurants that are rampant in coastal cities nowadays. On a trip to Tokyo in 2015, they were enthralled by the city’s popular jazz listening bars. Gahr and Raza were inspired to bring the concept back home — but as more of a loose interpretation, rather than a faithful recreation.
“We didn’t want to bring that exact thing here because the U.S. audience and American bar culture is quite different from what it is in Japan,” explained Gahr. “We were really intent on building something that was to our vision and for the Oakland community.”
In Tokyo, hi-fi vinyl bar owners are known to be strict at times, even shushing customers for chatting. Bar Shiru, conversely, encourages a social atmosphere while still offering a fully analog, high-quality sound system.
It even still looks like your quintessential trendy bar of the moment: high ceilings, concrete, Eames-style chairs, wooden tables, and a lot more square footage than you would typically find in a Japanese listening bar.
To keep it from getting too loud, Gahr and Raza discourage large groups and maintain a strict capacity. When I stopped by on a busy Friday night, walk-ins were designated to an open seating area at the front of the bar, while those with reservations were seated at small wooden tables in front of a floor-to-ceiling collection of vinyl and huge speakers.
“We wanted this to be a place that balances intentional listening and the ability to hear the music really well, but also at a volume that allows for conversation as opposed to yelling,” said Gahr.
In the clamor of a busy weekend evening, some of the bar’s music focus was lost. As one might expect, people get chatty — and loud — when packed together in a bar setting, no matter the original intent of the space. The volume never got overpowering, though — it was just a little hard to make out what record was playing over the hubbub.
However, on a second visit on a quiet Sunday evening, the Bar Shiru the owners had envisioned came into clearer view. Old friends caught up over beers, occasionally bobbing their heads to the Pat Martino record playing. When the bartender changed records, everyone had to sit with the staticky silence for a moment — a refreshing moment of mindfulness in the often overstimulating bar environment.
Bar Shiru isn’t the only bar in the Bay Area to start paying more attention to its acoustics. North Light, a cafe, bar, bookstore, and record shop all in one, opened in Oakland’s Temescal district earlier this year.
“If we’re on a commute or at home, we really care about what we’re hearing,” said Dan Stone, who co-owns the North Oakland spot with concert promoter Lee Smith. “We care about it then, so why wouldn’t we want that with the places we patronize and spend our time?”
North Light plays tunes via turntable, paying careful attention to which records are being played at which times of day.
“We play music without English language lyrics during the day, such as mariachi, flamenco, and jazz.
“Then it converts to a bar vibe around 5,” explained Stone. This allows artists, writers, and musicians to use the cafe as a peaceful home office during the day before the energy picks up at night — no headphones to drown out distracting top 40 radio required.