Austin’s Equipment Room Revives a Century-Old Japanese Bar Concept

The team behind the "hi-fi vinyl sanctuary" chats about what to expect, from the music selection to the cocktail menu

April 11, 2023 6:44 am
The lush Equipment Room, a new vinyl bar in Austin, Texas in the basement of the Hotel Magdalena
Equipment Room is more like the living room of your dreams.
Nick Simonite

The roots of the “jazz kissa” extend back to 1920s Japan, where they were popular in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. These were gathering spaces where patrons could listen — really listen — to high-fidelity music on good systems, share records and sip drinks. Unsurprisingly, the concept remains popular today, both in Japan and elsewhere. Now you can do that a lot closer to home, thanks to Austin’s Equipment Room.

Equipment Room is located inside a former storage space in the basement of Hotel Magdalena — so, a literal equipment room — and sits on the aptly named Music Lane. It’s a collaboration between Amar Lalvani (the executive chairman of Standard International and Bunkhouse, which owns Hotel Magdalena and other hotels and restaurants across Texas) and James Moody (owner of downtown music venue Mohawk), as well as Josh LaRue and Gabe Vaughn, co-owners of Breakaway Records

“Equipment Room really starts with the music and more specifically the record collection,” Moody tells InsideHook. Years ago, he went to JBS in Tokyo, a small bar dedicated to jazz, blues and soul, and was inspired by the bar’s record collection and how the owner handled the music. “I know there are a lot of people out there that focus on the ‘DJ’ aspect of record playing, but this was not that. It was like a quiet, confident, focused art curator managing a very deliberate and special collection inside a cool museum with whiskey. People were talking, but they were actually listening, too.”

This resonated with Moody, who notes that he rarely sees such captive attention even at the most intimate live shows in Austin. He wanted to create a version of this for Texas: a hi-fi sanctuary for people who really care about music. “A place to listen and think about how it all came to be,” he says, “to hang out and to appreciate records as they were actually intended to be heard.”

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The record collection at Equipment Room spans 1,200 LPs across a wide variety of genres. There’s jazz, blues and soul, but also rock, folk, hip-hop and country, and a Texas through line that examines where Texas artists fit into the broader picture.

“We thought about many factors, the most important ones being the quality of the music, the quality of the record itself and the overall scope of the collection,” says LaRue. “We want to have great music obviously, and while we do have lots of ‘classics’ or ‘essentials,’ we wanted the collection to be diverse, to represent our tastes and to have a personality of its own.”

Vaughn adds that jazz is the thread that sews everything together. You’ll hear it every night, but not all night. “We always start with jazz and use it as the baseline for the evening, but will then reach out to shape a vibe that is unique to each night. The specific choices vary, but the constant theme is to keep it cohesive, sophisticated and sonically impressive, no matter which directions we might pivot to and from.”

Technically, there are no DJs at Equipment Room. Instead they bring in “guest selectors” to spin records from front to back, or play at minimum a full side. And occasionally the Breakaway Records guys will come in to select the evening’s soundtrack.

Cocktails at Equipment Room, a new vinyl bar in Austin, Texas at the Hotel Magdalena
Classic cocktails and records are paired with underrated LPs and newfangled recipes.
Jessica Attie

The room itself is a looker. Its outfitted with lots of high-quality speakers and audio equipment, vintage art, cozy couches, sound-absorbing acoustic panels and stained-glass accents to evoke the spiritual experience of listening. Lalvani says they wanted to respect the talent of everyone involved, from the artists who created the music and the engineers who built the equipment to the chefs and bartenders providing the food and drinks.

“I really want people to take a moment to slow down and appreciate the music, the company and the conversation,” says Lalvani. “To really savor the moment, almost to the point where it feels like time has somehow stopped. It should be the kind of place you might walk out of and somehow the sun is rising and you have no idea how that happened. And it’s because you were so fully immersed in it all.” 

Part of that savoring comes via the drinks and snacks available within. The cocktail menu was developed by local mixologist Robert Björn Taylor, who’s worked at beloved Austin bars like Péché, Otoko and Emmer & Rye. The menu is broken into an A-Side and B-Side, with the former featuring classics like the martini, Manhattan and Oaxacan old fashioned, and the latter composed of lesser-known drinks and riffs on classics, like the Rikuo, with sesame-washed sake, Grand Marnier, lemon juice, orgeat and furikake dust. The full bar also includes a selection of beer, wine, Champagne, sake and several non-alcoholic options, and the food comes from Hotel Magdalena executive chef Jeffrey Hundelt, who’s making snacks like caramel puffed cheese corn, a tinned seafood board, tomato toast and tuna onigiri.

Visiting Equipment Room is an easy way to take advantage of great music and high-quality equipment, especially for those who don’t have the desire or ability to build a collection themselves. But for those with an interest, LaRue and Vaughn shared some curation tips.

First thing to know: Take your time. Collecting records can be a lifetime process, so be patient and persistent, and pick up a couple here and there at record stores, online and when you travel. Browsing through a selection in person and talking to other fans and collectors are two great ways to discover music you didn’t know you wanted. Have an open mind, and you’ll find weird offshoots of your favorite genres and discover lesser-known artists. Pay attention to labels and producers to connect the dots and find new things to love and be excited about. And lastly, if you really want a record — or a big stack of records — just go for it. 

“You’ll always regret the records you didn’t buy way more than anything you did buy,” LaRue says. “Buy quality copies whenever you can, but keep in mind you may see a better copy down the road, and you can trade the other copy in or give it to a friend. Records (and music) are for sharing.”


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