“When you put 20 strangers in a tiny room, it’s potentially incredible and it’s potentially very strange,” says Ariel Arce. She’s talking about Tokyo Record Bar, her Greenwich Village saké destination and the downstairs neighbor of Air’s Champagne Parlor, one of this year’s Imbibe 75 Places to Watch.
The subterranean bar is at once cozy and energetic. “It almost feels like you’re walking into someone’s private party,” Arce says. Paper cherry blossoms bloom from the bar’s ceiling and the bustling open kitchen is cordoned off by lightweight shoji screens that add to the coziness of the small room. On the back wall, a colorful mural depicting a misty mountain scene strikingly contrasts the wooden furniture’s neutral tones.
The bar is a 20-seat space devoted to vinyl records coupled with a seven-course izakaya-style prix fixe menu. Sound like a strange mix? After opening last August, reservations were quickly snatched up, and nearly six months later the bar’s books remain full. One of the main attractions is the fact that guests have a say in the music selection. “I felt like in New York, and in general, there weren’t a lot of spaces that tie together the experiences of listening to music, drinking and eating food, and enjoying company without going to a live jazz show,” says Arce, a native New Yorker.
Upon arrival, visitors receive a complementary glass of saké and a list of vinyl records ranging from Aretha Franklin to Snoop Dogg. Then they’re each invited to pick one song. Those selections are methodically compiled into a playlist that helps shape the evening’s direction. “The vibe in the room affects absolutely everything,” says Arce, who often plays DJ during the bar’s two seatings six nights a week. “The music really does help bring people out of their shells. You see people instantly relax, connect and open up.”
The initial idea was sparked while Arce was working at the now-shuttered Riddling Widow (the former occupant of Tokyo Record Bar’s underground abode). A well-traveled friend who frequented Japan noted the similarities between the basement space and Japan’s tiny vinyl bars. Arce began experimenting with a DJ night once a week, drawing inspiration from Tokyo’s music-centric bars. The concept quickly took shape and Arce added her own flair, sourcing records from her personal collection. “It ended up being up one of our most turned-out-for nights,” she says.
When Riddling Widow closed Arce secured the space and expanded the night to full-time, pairing vinyl with Champagne omakase and snacks like oysters dressed with shiso and Asian pear, and Chex seasoned with dried seaweed. Even Sony Music jumped on board, donating their back catalog to the bar. “We wanted to take away this idea that you had to sit there and let us put the experience on you,” Arce says. “It’s such an intimate space and it needed to feel inclusive, slightly theatrical, fun and authentic to who we are.”
Want to take a cue from Arce for your next dinner party? “You want to play to your crowd, so it’s really important to suss out who that is,” she says. “It’s very important to build a playlist like you would build an evening: set the tone and the mood by gradually building and then working your way back down. What I always find really fun is to juxtapose different genres and styles of music that have a similar through-line or beat. When I make a playlist I’ll put Kanye West next to Dolly Parton because they’re actually similar rhythmically despite being from very different genres and time periods. For hits, you can never go wrong with the music that people’s parents listened to, so I play a good amount of old soul and funk. There’s a lot of Lee Fields, and I love throwing Jimmy Cliff in a playlist.”
Mix up one of the bar’s Saké Mojitos, and then jump-start your own playlist with these selections from Arce.