The underground Tokyo Record Bar in Greenwich Village asks its diners to set the night’s vibe, with each evening’s soundtrack chosen by the guests themselves.
On a recent visit, we encountered a DJ booth and shelves of records stacked in a crowded yet vibrant basement, downstairs from sister venue Airs Champagne bar. We were asked to select our playlist for the evening, with all guests in the 22-seat room choosing one song from a booklet labeled “Vinyl Jukebox.” The nearby DJ would play the crowd-curated playlist throughout the omakase meal that was enjoyed in an underground space adorned with Kyoto-inspired cherry blossom stems.
Over the next three hours, we enjoyed a number of inventive dishes, ranging from fresh Hamachi sashimi to perfectly cooked beef tenderloin. Perhaps most interestingly, each of the 10 or so courses was prepared in a kitchen that has not even so much as an oven to its name. Instead, Chefs Zach Fabian and Josh Resnick use tools right out of the average college dorm room, like hot plates and toasters. The gastronomic innovations were served to the tune of The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” Bob Segar’s “Night Moves,” and Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky,” and as some guests began to dance or sing along to the soundtrack, watching DJ Mandy Manders juggle her collection of LPs and delicately place the needle on each song proved entertainment enough.
Above all the delicious foods and catchy tunes, though, it was impossible not to notice the sheer symbiosis among Tokyo Record Bar’s staff. Perhaps with the exception of a few family-owned joints, it’s rare these days to find a New York restaurant where employees take on host, server, and even marketing jobs interchangeably and where everyone is there not because they have to be but because they actually want to be.
While the restaurant was inspired by and erected in the shadow of the vinyl bars ubiquitous to Japan, it interestingly ditches the traditionally minimal server-customer interaction found in the Asian country. Instead, the staff enjoy the experience as much as those paying $50 a head for it, chatting with customers, singing along to the music, and sharing their thoughts on a new dish. Unlike at many other restaurants, especially those that serve prix fixe, multicourse meals, the stresses of timing and curation, although both perfectly executed at the Greenwich Village spot, don’t seem to get to Tokyo Record Bar’s team. The staff’s laidback, cool attitudes and engaging exchanges with diners make patrons feel like they’re already a part of the gang, and the small but open kitchen, topped with ongoing dialogue with the chefs, break down the final barriers of conventional dining.
The restaurant officially opened its doors in August 2017, but the concept for Tokyo Record Bar was years in the making. A DJ-ed champagne omakase was a weekly occurrence at the restaurant’s predecessor, Riddling Widow, as an homage to Japanese record bars. When Riddling Widow closed in May 2017, Ariel Arce entertained various ideas for the space’s second life but kept coming back to the Tokyo Record Bar idea.
As Arce’s brainchild was further developed, she brought in chefs Fabian and Resnick, who “worked with their past experiences and then put their twists on Japanese classics,” she notes. The restaurant’s two sittings a night, by which all diners arrive at once, was a “last-minute idea.”
“I wanted the experience to be participatory,” the owner says. She explains that when they would do the event at Riddling Widow, people always wanted to look at the records and make requests, “so I thought, how can we flip the narrative and make it where the entire experience is curated by the guests?” Arce says. She discovered that in order for each of the 22 people in the room to hear his or her requested song (each about three minutes long), the entire experience would need to be about an hour and a half. “That’s how we came up with our izakaya format. We could do seven courses in that time, and everyone would hear their requests!” Arce says.
Tokyo Record Bar began with only two people — one server and one DJ — working alongside the two chefs five nights a week. “It then grew as we met people we liked and then those people would recommend their friends,” says Arce. “We now haven’t hired anyone new in over a year,” perhaps explaining the staff’s familial vibes.
All appear to be friends both inside and outside the restaurant, as evidenced by the slew of photos posted on Tokyo Record Bar’s Instagram (yep, they do the restaurant’s social media, too), and Chef Fabian and Amanda, the cheery hostess-slash-waitress who welcomed us to the bar, are even engaged.
While Tokyo Record Bar’s scrumptious menu and impossible-not-to-sing-along-to set lists change with each and every seating, customers can always count on an unending stream of participation, banter and fun from the restaurant’s family (and a certain yummy final course) every single night.