A new listening bar is now serving cocktails and snacks while playing records in South Austin as of this month. Equipment Room opened within the Hotel Magdalena at 1101 Music Lane in Travis Heights on March 3.
Equipment Room’s partners are Amar Lalvani (the executive chairman of Hotel Magdalena’s parent company Bunkhouse and Standard International), James Moody (owner of music venue Mohawk and co-founder of the Hot Luck Festival), Josh LaRue and Gabe Vaughn (co-owners of Breakaway Records), and generally the Bunkhouse Group.
Moody and Lalvani had been talking about opening a bar like Equipment Room for a while, based on their shared interests in Japanese listening bars. Also known as jazz kissas (cafes) or record bars, these were very popular in Japan in the 1950s, where guests would listen to imported records in shared spaces on high-quality stereo equipment. American iterations of these bars are called hi-fi (high-fidelity sound reproduction) bars.
Moody was particularly taken with Tokyo’s JBS. “It was like a quiet, confident, focused art curator managing a very deliberate and special collection inside a cool museum with whiskey,” he writes to Eater. “People were talking, but they were actually listening too — something I rarely see even at the most intimate live shows in Austin.” And he wanted to try to recreate that in Texas. Moody envisioned it as “a hi-fi sanctuary for people that really care about this stuff to pay respects and be respected in equal measure.”
Lalvani wanted to create a calmer space on the drastically changing South Congress: “As the neighborhood continues to evolve and get more and more bustling,” he writes to Eater, there was “a selfish desire to have a relaxed, classic, timeless sanctuary that we could enjoy spending time in with friends.”
Two years ago, after Hotel Magdalena was open for six months, the two were at the hotel wondering if there was a space within the building for this bar. Along with Tenaya Hills, Bunkhouse’s senior vice president of design and development, they realized there was a storage room on Music Lane that would be perfect.
Even before starting the logistical planning of building out the bar, the group started by building the record collection. Musically, Moody wanted to make sure that Equipment Room “widened to tell the story of how Austin and Texas sounds came to be, and their connections to blues, jazz, and soul,” he writes. They tapped Breakaway Records’s La Rue and Vaughn because, as Moody explains, they’re “the dudes that have been trying to tell this story for years by quietly playing and selling the best records in Austin.”
Equipment Room doesn’t use the term DJs to describe the people who will spin records. Rather, they are “guest selectors” who will play vinyl all the way through (or at least a full side). La Rue and Vaughn will often do this themselves. And an important factor to note: guests can’t request songs.
For the physical venue, Bunkhouse, Hills, and architecture firm Rios created a space that feels like a retro basement bar from the 1970s and 1980s. Or, as Lalvani describes, “where you would sneak down and play records on analog hi-fi equipment and raid the parents’ liquor cabinet while they were out.” High-end speaker company Klipsch built out the sound system with vintage hi-fi equipment, aided by LaRue and Vaughn. The space also features rare concert posters from Austin venues from the partners’ personal collections (BB King and Bobby “Blue” Bland at Antone’s, the Pointer Sisters at Armadillo, Roky Erickson at Liberty Lunch, the Vandal’s at Emo’s, Bo Diddley at Ritz Theatre) and concert photography.
Overseeing the cocktails is Austin bar expert Robert Björn Taylor, who is Equipment Room’s official mixologist and beverage consultant. In tribute to the ethos of the bar, the cocktail menu has two sections, A Sides (with classics) and B Sides (with house drinks invented by Taylor and the team), where each drink has a corresponding drink on the other side. It was designed this way “in the hopes that you could find things you know made my favorite way but also push your boundaries in a new way with creations,” writes Taylor.
The B Sides section references musical genres, albums, and songs. There’s the All Tomorrow’s Parties (the Velvet Underground & Nico song where the album cover features the iconic banana) that comes with French banana liqueur, rum, Batavia arrack, and Cynar; its A Side counterpart is the Boulevardier. There are also non-alcoholic cocktails made with boozeless spirits.
Taylor wanted to join the team because one of his first Austin bartending gigs when he moved here from Houston was at the Mohawk and at the epic but gone music festival Fun Fun Fun Fest (which Moody co-founded). Moody approached him about developing the cocktail menu at Equipment Room years later, and Taylor was in.
And then Hotel Magdalena’s executive chef Jeffrey Hundelt developed the food menu. “We took some of our favorite bar snacks into consideration,” he writes, “while also inventing a couple of our own along the way.” His favorite is the chile lime peanuts; there are two onigiris, one with spicy tuna and a pickled plum and cucumber one; and the caramelized puffed cheese corn — a “sweet, salty, cheesy” snack, as he describes.
Hundelt is excited for guests to try the tinned seafood board, which comes with a baguette from Sour Duck, crackers, and saffron aioli, plus charred/marinated baby tomatoes, and pickled vegetables. At this time, the tinned fishes are Spanish octopus and wild-caught mackerel in olive oil.
Equipment Room is open from 5 p.m. to midnight Tuesday through Thursday, and then from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations are recommended, and it accepts walk-ins.