Austin’s Equipment Room Pays Homage To Japanese Vinyl Bars

Food & Drink

In the basement beneath Hotel Magdalena, in Downtown Austin, Texas, Equipment Room is a space dedicated to the art of listening. Inspired by Japanese jazz kissas — spaces where patrons can quietly enjoy a drink while listening to records played through a professional-grade sound system — the bar is a collaboration between prominent local entrepreneurs with the ultimate goal of appreciating and showing reverence for music.

In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, kissas were popular in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto as hideaway clubs where music enthusiasts could share their vinyl collections as a cost-effective way to hear the newest music. The venues were intimate and quiet (some prohibited talking altogether) and each record was chosen by the kissa’s “master,” who was often the owner. The number of jazz kissas across Japan has dwindled since their heyday, but many remain open in Tokyo.

James Moody, owner of Austin’s music venue Mohawk and co-founder of Hot Luck Fest, found himself in one on a visit to the city and became enamored with the concept. The intimate venue, the reverence with which each record was chosen, the attention guests paid to the music, and the drinks made the experience something he wanted to replicate in his home city.

“When I was at JBS (Jazz, Blues, Soul) kissa in Tokyo, I was surrounded by people who were really paying attention to what was playing,” says Moody. “Each record (and whiskey) was selected with such care, and patrons were there to listen and learn — no matter what was playing. I wanted to see if we could bring a piece of that experience to Austin, in our own way.”

Moody reached out to Josh LaRue and Gabe Vaughn of indie record shop Breakaway Records, and Amar Lalvan, executive chairman of boutique hotel chain Bunkhouse, to bring the concept to the heart of South Congress. The dream became a reality in April of 2023.

The entrance to Equipment Room is an unassuming door set back in an alcove. Once inside, guests are led down a dimly lit hallway illuminated by a floor-to-ceiling stained glass window and padded with acoustic foam. The foam dampens outside noise and creates a stark contrast between the quiet hallway and the sound-saturated room.

Once an actual music equipment room, the acoustics of the space presented a challenge. To transform it into a high-fidelity haven, it was outfitted with a sound system designed by Klipsch that accounts for every aspect of sound within the perfect dynamic range.

The star of the show is a collection of 1,200 records displayed alongside bottles of Japanese spirits behind the bar. It’s a highly curated mix that mostly contains vinyl from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. And despite being jazz kissa-inspired, it features a variety of genres including soul, punk, and hip-hop. From open ‘til close, an expert “selector” remains at the booth to select LPs to spin and artists to highlight.

The inviting living room style design is meant to let guests get comfortable and enjoy the music. For an even more intimate experience, the space is outfitted with over-the-ear headphone sets, intentionally placed at single seats.

“We wanted Equipment Room to feel authentic to the eras of the music we play,” says Moody. “The vintage pieces gave it some pedigree, but also made the design stand out. It doesn’t look or feel like any other bar because frankly we weren’t designing a bar – we were trying to build out your weird friends rad basement from 1978.”

While music may come first, the drinks are just as important. The cocktail menu has two sections, aptly named “A-side” and “B-side.” A-side cocktails are classic favorites like cosmopolitan, Manhattan, penicillin, and espresso martini, while B-side cocktails are developed in house by the expert bar team.

These cocktails are mixed with Japanese ingredients like Honjonzo sake, Roku gin, and Asian pear, and are named after popular songs like “When Doves Cry,” “Bad Moon Rising,” and “Return of the Mack” by Mark Morrison. Non-alcoholic cocktails include “Like a Virgin”and “Punching in a Dream.” The bar also pours a nice selection of sake and Japanese whiskys.

“People come to Equipment Room for the music, but the drinks elevate the experience,” says Moody. “A lot of cocktails we now consider to be classics, like the cosmopolitan and espresso martini, were invented between the 1960s and the 1980s, so we knew we had to include those on the menu. But we also wanted to do a take that paid homage to Japanese drinks and kissa culture, so we made the A-side and B-side menu. It’s fitting because the B-side on a record has lesser-known songs, but often they’re some of the best if you just give ’em a try.”

A small menu of snacky items is also available, and while maybe not substantial enough for a full dinner, it is perfect to accompany pre-dinner drinks or happy hour. Think chicken karaage with pickled garlic, fresh herbs and kewpie mayo; a fantastic jumbo crab toast on an herbed English muffin, or an ice cream sundae topped with miso caramel, cherries, and whipped cream. Like the drinks, the snacks were created to pay homage to Japanese flavors and ingredients.

Equipment Room is a place where artistry is quietly appreciated and celebrated. All the elements create a space that is a unique combination of Japanese kissa and Texas sensibilities. It welcomes all audiophiles to kick back, enjoy a drink and snack, and really listen to music – it’s meant to be heard.

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