Characterized by vinyl and cigarette smoke, Bar Martha has a cult-like appeal. You will either love or hate it. Either way, the feelings will be as strong as the drinks.
Written by Corinne Osnos
ucked away in an unassuming alleyway, an illuminated sign in black capital letters reads “BAR.” A succession of propped-up record covers, including Donny Hathaway, Revolver and Ella Gerschwin housed in cinder block behind glass mark the entryway through a nondescript wooden door with panels fading grey.
Don’t fall for the intentionally misleading marketing: Bar Martha is not your average dive, and it’s not everyone’s vibe. Parsing Trip Advisor or Yelp reviews makes this clear enough, but the three-star rating suggests a place that’s just average. This equally inoffensive and uninspiring rating results from a multitude of visitors leaving either one or five stars, scathing diatribes or emphatic exaltations.
In spite of this, Bar Martha effuses a metallic cool. Most patrons arrive in pairs and it is a sexy spot for a date night. Silhouettes illuminated by screens of cigarette smoke sip specialty cocktails in the dim light.
For travelers who appreciate the eclectic, and are seeking an authentic vibe, here are some best practices for navigating the scene at one of Tokyo’s famous listening bars.
PEOPLE & PLACE
The Ebisu neighborhood in which Bar Martha resides is manicured yet hip, akin to New York City’s East Village but with hills like San Francisco’s Marina district. Almost every other place in trendy Ebisu, which is part of the larger Shibuya area, is a boutique or bar.
Tokyo comes alive after dark. The under-40 crowd comes out to play in Shibuya, witness to top-notch, quintessential Tokyo fashion and a handful of expats ditching Roppongi for the night.
Bar Martha is removed from the activity of the main drag of bars and restaurants it sits behind. If the Google Maps directs you to a newer wine bar on the main drag, turn around and walk as if you are searching for the back entrance. Wander down one of Tokyo’s notorious alleys until the “BAR” is located.
Inside Bar Martha, dimly lit overhead lights have been strung together so they hang from the ceiling like lanterns. The spacious venue supports the diffusion of instrumentals.
The dress code is ostensibly casual, but it would behoove you to dress up. Especially if you’re a foreigner. One Trip Advisor review suggests items like birkenstocks are a liability at Bar Martha. Keep those toes covered.
Patrons smoke, mingle and snack as they wait for a table in a cuckolded area in the front of the bar framed by thousands of vintage records and magazines. If you’re a tourist and do not speak Japanese, your wait time may be longer than expected…
VOWS & VICTUALS
There are only two official house rules, but they are strictly enforced. No photos and no speaking loudly. If you do not look Japanese, the host will assume you don’t speak it, either. He hands over a menu open to the rules page–the only section printed in English–as way of greeting. “No photos,” he repeats. His vexed expression reinforces the skepticism in his tone.
There is also, one unforgivable faux pas. Request a song and you will be chastised. This is a listening bar, not a karaoke bar. The owner curates the evening from his selection of thousands of records. Expect the unfamiliar laced with early Beatles and Stones albums and an interspersion of Bill Withers. There’s a method to the madness, and infringement by outsiders is not welcome.
There is a strict standard for what constitutes being noisy. Prepare to be scolded for speaking at a volume that the next table over could hear. This is not the place for a birthday celebration or reunion between old friends.
Inside the bar, records play loud enough that conversation is secondary. No one sways along to the sound, but it curates the scene from above like an omniscient narrator. RCA vacuum tubes and customer speakers produce a clear and compelling sound.
A surprise twist: there are free, all-you-can-eat snacks.
An assortment of mason jars at the hoststand, which doubles as a table for waiting customers, contains chocolate-covered espresso beans, wasabi peas, banana chips and nuts.
Do not expect an English version of the menu, which resembles a tan briefcase full of laminated pages. A word to the wise: keep the order simple. Order a Japanese whisky (pronounced the same as American whiskey) on the rocks for 800 yen, which is the equivalent of $8. The staff is unlikely to guide you through the menu or explain differences between drinks.
SMOKE & SOUND
Tokyo’s intrigue is, at times, captured by its micro-hypocrisies: a focus on health and cleanliness, for example, doesn’t interfere with an embrace of cigarette culture. There’s an ashtray on every table and no trash cans on the street; patrons are expected to carry their trash, then discard it, once they have reached their destination.
The city’s fixation with futurism, from Akihabara’s flashing lights to its embrace of robots, at times clashes with its desire to retain aspects of traditionalism. This dichotomy is apparent in attitudes towards foreigners, like the micro-hostility experienced at Bar Martha. But for culture aficionados and audiophiles, it’s worth every disdainful stare.
Tokyo is a service-oriented city with fixed expectations about what constitutes respect and politeness. Encountering staff with unapologetically rude demeanors feels peculiar and unpleasant to the average Western tourist. Bar Martha’s authenticity is retained through its resistance to conform to negative feedback and outside influence.
There are plenty of other hole-in-the-wall spots in Shibuya where records play and the staff speaks English and appreciates foreign visitors. Bar Martha’s sister bar, Track, is a seven-minute walk away, or adventure deeper into Shibuya to check out the underground jazz bar, JBS.
It’s up to you to decide what kind of tourist you want to be in Tokyo.