What Bars Play The Best Music: Zig Zag Cafe, Sportsman's Club

Jim Meehan's top bars where music is mixed as well as the drinks

June is Music + Food Month on Tasting Table.

In the days before my palate dictated my choice of watering hole, I went to bars for the music. I would sit, coyly observing the room through the mirror behind the bar with a cold glass perspiring in my palm, a kaleidoscope of aromas emanating from a roomful of patrons wafted through my nose as I savored my drink and tapped my toe on the sticky tile floor.

When I started in the industry, most of the bars I tended (and drank in) had a jukebox filled with CDs. I cannot tell you how many times I was besieged by Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," cursing life as I fielded orders for howling gaggles of coeds. As soon as I became the boss, a handful of music-minded colleagues and I performed surgery on our jukebox, and bartending became much more enjoyable. In those days, piracy was for seafarers, and I spent a quarter of my income in the local record shops.

I moved to New York City in 2002, armed with more than 1,500 albums on CD and vinyl, two Technics turntables, a Rane mixer and some lofty ideas about DJing. But those aspirations shrank after discovering what they were paid and watching DJ after DJ lug his gear into venues. Of course, I had also started to prosper behind the bar with little more than a wine key. Having never spun a set, I still take pride in my mixes, which started as tape recordings on my boom box in the late 80s and continue today on iTunes.

So you can only imagine the horror that washed over me when I heard the first Pandora ad play during service at my bar, PDT. Despite bestowing my staff with the privilege of playing their own music, perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me. Nearly every record store in the East Village has closed under the pressure of mounting rents and plummeting sales—after all, music is free! Or at least nearly free, thanks to subscription services such as Spotify, which claim they saved the music industry from the likes of Napster and its ilk. It's understandable that so many bars would use those services—but disappointing that music has become an afterthought, when it's such an integral part of the bar-going experience.

Before bitters—let's call it "BB" to demarcate the era—I read the newspaper, went to shows when my favorite bands were in town and knew the names of every sales clerk in the local record store, because I filled my bar with happy customers based on what was in my head not my hands. Thankfully, there are still bars and bartenders whose dedication to the music they play during service parallels their passion for each element that shapes a guest's experience.

I've spun together four bars where you'll go for the drinks but stay for the music. Cue my greatest hits:

Zig Zag Café, Seattle, Washington
Owner Ben Dougherty assembled and digitized a massive collection of bebop, which features horns that play at a much higher frequency than the human voice and percussion that facilitates a lively vibe. Two years ago, he installed discrete acoustic panels throughout the bar, which not only help customers hear the music, they help them hear each other!

Expatriate, Portland, Oregon

Kyle Webster and his team rely on an eclectic mix of vinyl ranging from Duke Ellington and Grace Jones to Graham Nash and Jon Hopkins, which the staff cues up behind the bar. Along with your next drink, bartenders are always thinking about what's next in the song lineup, which forces them to remain in tune with the customers and the atmosphere.

The Silver Dollar and El Camino, Louisville, Kentucky

Larry Rice has intertwined the identities of his bars around Bakersfield sound at Silver Dollar, and anything influenced by Dicky Dale at El Camino. At both spots, they play at least one side of the record before changing it, which encourages guests to listen to the record the way the artist had intended, instead of letting it drown out as background music.

Sportsman's Club, Chicago, Illinois

Sportsman's Club partners Wade McElroy and Jeff Donahue cohost a monthly event with Uncanned Music called Wheel-to-Reel, where some of Chicago's most decorated DJs eternalize their sets on a three-hour, 4-track tape. They've made 25 tapes so far, which they broadcast through vintage speakers that preserve each recording's distinctive sound and character.