Inside Look: Bar Shiru, Oakland - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

For Bar Shiru owners Daniel Gahr and Shirin Raza, the inspiration for the Oakland record bar came from one fateful night in Tokyo. They walked down an unassuming alley and into the nondescript building that housed Bar Martha. “Bar Martha kind of blew our minds,” Daniel recalls. “There were records playing on an exceptional hi-fi sound system, inexpensive Japanese whiskies (that were hard to come by in the U.S.), and a hushed, reverent atmosphere where people seemed to really listen and care about the music. We just sat there taking it all in, struck by the attention to detail and the quality of the music.”

Then they returned to San Francisco, where they lived and worked at the time. Shirin was an attorney at YouTube and Daniel a creative director at Pandora. But they couldn’t shake the impression Bar Martha left. “We had always talked about collaborating on a business and/or a passion project together. Frankly, we had both reached the conclusion that we no longer wanted to work tirelessly on other peoples’ ideas and we wanted to do something together, something that could be ours,” Daniel says.

“Music is such an enormous part of our lives and our relationship that the more we talked about the possibility of creating our own hi-fi listening bar, the more it seemed like a perfect opportunity to combine our collective passions.”

A year after that visit to Tokyo, Shirin left her job. And for the next several years, they worked on conceptualizing and building out Bar Shiru. It opened for business in February of 2019.

Traditional record bars, aka listening bars, date back to post-WWII in Japan. The cafés called “jazz kissa” offered locals a place to sip coffee or tea while listening to jazz records. Eventually, this model evolved into the bar world. Today, Tokyo offers plenty of options for visitors who want to listen to music while enjoying a highball or beer. Unlike in America, Japanese record bars and listening bars spotlight the music and not the drinks or socializing. Many often prohibit photography, too. “At many jazz kissa and hi-fi bars in Japan, you will get shushed if you talk too loud,” Daniel explains. “Like, SHUSHED! I love it, but we knew that type of strict noise control wouldn’t work [in America].”

For Oakland, Daniel and Shirin created a welcoming and inclusive space. But the music—typically jazz, soul, and Afro-beat—remains a focal point. “A space where you can really hear and focus on the music but also have a conversation with your friend(s) without screaming at each other,” he says. “We also limit our capacity, are 95% seated only, and don’t allow groups larger than six people. All in the name of maintaining the best acoustic environment possible and creating a unique and enjoyable experience for every guest.”

For the architecture and interior design, they worked closely with Keith Morris and Marites Abueg from StudioKDA in Berkeley. The existing space was minimal, a “raw concrete box with high ceilings,” Daniel says. “Not exactly what you think of when you think of great acoustics.” But they loved the industrial feeling. And they knew they could create a sophisticated yet unpretentious place while keeping some of the raw details intact. The final design features lots of wood and soft, amber-colored lighting, and an impressive wall of records.

“It’s a space where you can really hear and focus on the music but also have a conversation with your friend(s) without screaming at each other.”

To impart an intimate feel, the bar is carved into several zones. Each zone has its own set of speakers. Wooden screens and oversized portraits of jazz artists from the past—Grant Green, Billie Holiday, Clifford Brown, Hank Mobley, and Nina Simone—divide the individual seating areas. “The screens work to create that sense of both connectivity and privacy. They allow light and sound to pass through them but also create that feeling of warmth and coziness,” Daniel says. “The portraits are printed on acoustic fabric and mounted on acoustic panels that help attenuate reverberation in the space. So not only do these beautiful portraits allow us to pay homage to some of our all-time favorite artists, they are functional, too.”

In true American fashion, cocktails are also a part of the experience. Drinks such as the Live Wire encompass the house ethos. Made with a split base of rye and bourbon, a housemade coffee-infused vermouth blend, Demerara syrup, and absinthe, the cocktail is a gussied-up version of the classic Sazerac. Its name pays homage to a track by one of Daniel’s favorite New Orleans bands, the Meters. “Everyone loves creative cocktails. But we did not want a menu that was full of obscure, unpronounceable ingredients and cocktails that take 10 minutes to make. So we focus on riffs on classics and do our best to have a five-ingredient limit,” he says. They named house cocktails after songs or albums that align with the vibe of the drink.

To keep the program referencing its Japanese inspiration, there’s an extensive whisky list, with some rarities to the Bay Area. An offering of sake, beer, wine, and a robust alcohol-free cocktail list ensures no one goes thirsty. “Since we are a music-focused establishment and lots of people don’t drink alcohol (for myriad reasons), we want everyone to feel included in the experience, regardless of whether or not you are currently boozing.”

For insight into the musical stylings of Bar Shiru, check out our playlist series.

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