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[On the Radar]: Root Down

Japanese style vinyl bar serving up signature cocktails to record-loving audiophiles.
2021-02-24 12:00:00
Photos: Brandon McGhee
On the Radar is a SmartShanghai column profiling new restaurants, bars, and other new places we find interesting. Sometimes we stumble upon these places, and sometimes we are invited, but in both cases, we are never paid to write an opinion, rather, these are our honest first impressions, and not a formal review.

What It Is: Listening bars, also known as vinyl bars, got popular in Japan during the 1950s. It was a place for people to congregate and listen to records on hi-fi systems while enjoying what the bar has to offer. The concept has had a surge of popularity as of late, and has been popping up in major cities around the globe. It's not the type of bar where you are expected to socialize, nor are you discouraged to. It's a place to wind down and let you be you, whatever mood you may be in while taking in some quality acoustic music with booze.

Root Down follows that philosophy in spirit, but has classed up the concept for the modern Shanghai drinking crowd. The proprietor is Shanghai native Gary Wang, you might know him as DJ VNutz, formerly of The Shelter and The Grumpy Pig. The many years Gary spent living in Japan and working as a DJ shaped his vision for the music at Root Down, exclusively playing Jazz and Funk from the late 60's to early 70's. Root Down is the name of the live jazz album recorded by Jimmy Smith in 1972.

Opened late last November, this is firmly a Covid-era baby. They had to hustle to get the paperwork in order for bartender/mixologist Masato "Martsu" Hika to make it over in time from Japan for the unveiling.

Area: About a block away South from the mega Muji store on Huaihai Lu, tucked into Nanchang Lu. Nearby drinking holes are Tap That and Sober Company. Access is quite convenient through various metro lines.

Atmosphere: There is no signage on the matcha green and paneled façade. Just a small courtyard with a tasteful ridged glass and wood-paneled entranceway. The bar is long and deep in shape, with slanted ceilings and seating for 40; the space used to be an antique furniture shop that was perpetually void of customers.

A long wooden bar anchors the left side, with rows of vinyl records on display in the rear corner; the bottom three rows of records are available for purchase. Reminds me of the late El Coctel, where the décor works harmoniously within the space and instantly makes you feel at home with a yearning to nestle in.

The design element that really stands out are these two imposing, yet elegant, speakers that sit on either side of the DJ booth. The décor is warm and inviting in a slightly bohemian way with accents of soothing green tones, while retaining that modern swanky feel you'd expect from a bar charging 100rmb+ for a drink.

The lighting isn't too dim, and the music isn't intrusive to a participant's experience; you could easily hold a conversation here (more on that later). And the bathrooms, two stalls, immaculate and number two worthy. Two thumbs up for clean bathrooms.

The Sound: Talking about the music system was when Gary really perked up. The speakers are Tannoy GRF Memory HW from the early 1980's. These British speakers are cult items in Japan and would have been incredibly hard to find, and even harder to come to terms with in regard to how much the previous owner wanted to part for them. When Gary saw a set for sale on the Xianyu app, he pounced and even got a great price on them. Lucky man. The solid walnut casing and saran net boards are all original, and in immaculate condition; they have been treated with TLC for the past 40 years.

What really sets these speakers apart is the dual concentric design, where the tweeter horn is in the center cone of the woofer as opposed to separate units within the speaker's enclosure. This delivers a vivid and seamless midrange while being mellow and not too shouty. You can hold a conversation standing right next to them, yet the music fills the entire space with equal authority. It is an appropriate way to experience the genre of music Gary prefers for this venue. And no, they don't take record requests.

The Drinks: There are highballs, a few wine and champagne by the glass or bottle, but the focus is firmly on the signature and classic cocktails, price ranging from 95 – 135rmb. I sampled most of the signature drinks, and some classics to boot (don't tell my sponsor). More hits than misses, but that comes down to personal preference.

Tripping Champs-Elysees for 135rmb
Dainty Parisian gin, floral nose from elderflower liquor, slight citrus tartness from the Cocchi Americano. Pretty to look at and delicious, if I could date a drink this would be it.

Old Fancy Dog for 125rmb
Peddlers gin, grapefruit & saltwater, grapefruit granite. Photogenic, but tasted predominately of grapefruit and gin.

Piquant Mezcalita for 115rmb
Coconut infused Mezcal, lime juice, agave nectar, basil, firewater tincture. It was akin to a complex strong margarita where all the elements worked harmoniously.

Chicano Negroni for 120rmb
Mezcal, bitter aperitif, sweet vermouth, bitters. Monogrammed ice cube is a nice touch, smoky and bold. Mellows out a tad after the ice melts a bit.

The Food: There are four snack options, a pâté plate (80rmb), roasted pork sandwich (58rmb), xiaolongbao (38rmb), and Shanghai wontons (38rmb). Their kitchen is tiny, so not much maneuvering space to do more. Some items on the menu were unavailable on my two visits.

Pate Plates: 80rmb Duck Rillettes, smoked salmon pâté, bread and sausage slices

Roasted Pork Sandwich: 58rmb Roasted pork shoulder, caramelized onion, butter, arugula and peppers on hotdog bun

Of the bunch, the wontons were fairly good, reminiscent of the over-stuffed dumplings they used to serve at The Grumpy Pig, and I dug those. Don't count on a well-rounded meal here, more to pad the stomach lining if planning on getting savage on the libations.

Shanghai Wonton: 38rmb Pork and green veggie or pork and mushroom with homemade dark vinegar based chili sauce

First Impressions: Martsu is a solid mixologist. He works with efficiency and BDE. The music is well-curated and compliments the feel of the venue well. I dig the vinyl bar vibe and those speakers really tied the room together. It appears already to be quite popular, as reservations are recommended. By 8pm on a Saturday night, the bar was already full of patrons, most looking to be the age of someone who has already paid off their student loans. Starting early March, they will begin daytime operation to serve coffee, taking advantage of the daylight the front courtyard delivers. It's comfortable, tasteful, a good date spot. I would come back.


If interested in knowing more about cocktail bars in Shanghai, click here for our Cocktail Listings on the Nightlife Directory Page