Devotees of vinyl records often speak in superlatives. Played on the right turntable and plugged into the right sound system, LPs deliver the highest possible fidelity of any music format, they say.
Judging by the numbers, it would seem a growing number of people agree. The Recording Industry Association of America reported that revenues from US vinyl sales grew by 61% year over year in 2021, exceeding $1 billion for the first time since 1986. The music industry is even building new record-pressing plants to keep up with increased demand.
Whether there’s any objective truth to the claims that vinyl sounds better than streaming services, one thing is clear: spinning records with friends and family is a far more tactile, physical and interactive experience than scrolling through your phone and tapping on an algorithmically assembled Spotify playlist.
Running your fingers along the spines on a shelf full of weathered albums. Considering the gatefold art as you drop the record onto the platter. The distinct fizzle and pop of the stylus meeting the surface of the spinning black disc.
In San Francisco, some watering holes aim to provide their patrons with this exact experience. Read on to learn about three local bars serving drinks paired with vinyl records.
370 Grove St.
Phonobar is an audiophile’s dream. This bar describes itself on its Facebook page as a “champion of music culture in its deepest most authentic forms.” Outfitted with both state-of-the-art and refurbished vintage components, the bar’s large DJ console—custom-built for Phonobar—is the pulpit of this temple devoted strictly to vinyl records. But audio geeks are not the only people Phonobar aims to serve.
It’s finely tuned acoustics are meant to give casual customers an enjoyable auditory experience as they sip cocktails and enjoy vegan eats from Om Sabor. Phonobar is also perfectly capable of turning up, and in the evenings, as its disco ball twirls, the venue’s intimate dance floor comes to life.
3202 Mission St
Vintage is the vibe at the Royal Cuckoo, where an old Hammond organ is kept in working order and played five nights a week. On a recent evening, patrons took in a live set, listening and sipping their cocktails and beer. Regular customers happily greeted the organist with a firm handshake, tucking dollar bills into his tip jar.
First opened well over a century ago, this neighborhood watering hole has changed names and proprietors many times. The current owner, a man by the name of Paul Miller, said he likes vinyl records because they sounds “warmer”—and because they’re a lot like books.
“You have the history, the hard copy, you feel it in your hands,” Miller said of his records, which are line the shelves behind the Hammond at the back of the bar. “It’s a real object.”
When live music isn’t coursing through The Royal Cuckoo, chances are Miller, a member of his staff or perhaps a customer has put one of the bar’s many jazz, rock, psychedelic or Hawaiian vinyl records on the turntable.
3565 20th St
Enjoying a glass of pinot with friends doesn’t exactly scream “punk rock.” But 20 Spot, a Mission District wine bar located at the corner of Lexington and 20th streets, has a loud and rowdy history.
Though 20 Spot is now known for suggesting cheese pairings, it was once a place where you could go to ask for cutting edge music recommendations. The neon “Records” sign hanging above the entrance is a remnant of a punk record shop that once occupied the space.
While Bodhi Freedom, 20 Spot’s co-owner and wine director, is focused more on varietals and terroir than he is on tracking down rare B-sides, he continues to pay homage to his shops past as a magnet for music lovers. Behind the bar, he proudly displays his extensive vinyl collection.
Though it is time intensive and expensive, Freedom said growing and maintaining his record collection has been worth it. And, in a way, he views it the same way he does maintaining an impressive wine cellar: It is a labor of love.
“When you have an iPod, you can have 10,000 or 100,000 songs, and it's so easy to just have what you want.” said Freedom co-owner and wine director of 20 Spot. “But there's something to seeking out records. … I think it all comes back to vinyl being something that is beautiful and antiquated. It’s more real in a world of digital make believe.”
Nick Veronin contributed additional reporting for this story.
Questions, comments or concerns about this article may be sent to email@example.com