“How did you get in? Did you just jump the door?” a waitress asked as we stepped into Tokyo Record Bar. Tucked discreetly under Air’s Champagne Parlor, it seats only at 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm before a la carte options at 10:30 at night and isn’t open on Sundays or Mondays. Its website says it’s “under the red light,” so we found an unlit red bulb with a door next to it, tried the door and stumbled into the choose-your-own-vinyl izakaya’s basement boite. It’s reservation-only and was half-empty.
All of the pretense is designed, ostensibly, to suggest cool splendor and a sexy secret. But it’s more hit-or-miss than himitsu (“secret”). Years from now, when its foxes-in-kimonos mural fades and its sakura-blossom ceiling is a bit tattier, it’ll be a great dive bar. Such longevity may be ambitious or even fanciful, but the venue clearly believes in its own long future. The menu includes a section called “Sake Explained,” followed only by the text “Coming soon….” Indeed.
Among smart snacks—togarashi popcorn and nori Chex, for the win—the star food order is a $20 caviar sandwich in which a too-thin layer of caviar is spackled onto too-thick toasted brioche and served inconsistently. It’s as much fun and flavor as you can have within the confines of disappointment. The cocktail menu has a smart light-to-full and rich-to-dry Cartesian grid upon which it lays out its sakes’ flavor profiles. Try the “Chanterelles” sake; it’s one of the few that delivers. But the names assigned to its nigori (unfiltered sake, misspelled on their menu) selection are confusing at best, misleading at worst: “Honey yogurt” and “toasted marshmallow” are abstractions of flavor notes, but few pair well with their descriptions. The Miso Dark and Stormy is an inspired take, but its miso-yuzu roller coaster flattens with the dawning awareness that the cocktail uses five ingredients to re-create the taste of basic grapefruit juice, albeit an alcoholic version.
Worse, the staff is, as they say in Japan, chūto hanpa (“half-assed,” roughly). Although, to their credit, at times they were total asses–from their brusque greeting to their rushed service.
Tokyo Record Bar is billed as “an homage to the jewel boxes of vinyl in Japan,” but it’s more of a shoebox stuffed with #trending concepts. Its music, which twirls effortlessly from the Beastie Boys to Marvin Gaye, is far and away the venue’s best feature. Too bad you can’t eat or drink music. A night here could foreseeably stretch into an epic nijikai (“after-party”), but we didn’t have the chance to find out. Staff were putting up the chairs by midnight. Sayonara to all that.