ST. PETERSBURG — It doesn’t matter if the lights are on at the little blue house — if the crate of sake bottles is on the front porch, you know you’re in the right place.
News of a Tokyo-style listening bar in St. Petersburg had been percolating for some time when our arts and music writer Maggie Duffy and food and dining critic Helen Freund decided it was time to go check it out. What follows is a summary of their experience at the space during two visits.
But first: What is a Tokyo-style listening bar?
In Japan, record bars and jazz cafes with high-end audio equipment have existed since the 1950s. They feature intimate spaces designed for listening, rather than socializing. Over the past few years, the trend caught on in the United States, and listening bars with a vinyl record focus have launched in cities like New York and Los Angeles.
Nothing of the sort existed in Florida, let alone in the Tampa Bay area. Zach Ashton and Elio Marini, who met in St. Petersburg and worked together on film projects in Japan, wanted to change that.
Inspired by their love of vinyl and sake culture, they opened In Between Days (named for the Cure song of the same name) inside a small blue house on First Avenue S in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District.
Since opening, the duo have hosted the occasional sake tasting with visiting sake sommeliers, and said they plan on expanding their menu as the bar grows.
While full sides of vinyl records are the focus here, Ashton said streaming music services will be featured occasionally, too.
“If there are 70 million songs at your fingertips, we’d be fools not to take advantage of that,” Ashton said.
Maggie: I was expecting something totally different, like the karaoke bar from the movie Lost in Translation, with neon, glass and black lights. Not at all. Instead, it’s all warm wood and dim lighting — more minimal than I expected, but very sophisticated.
The inviting bar area shares space with shelving for the stereo system and vinyl. Soundproofing is discreetly placed and is effective because you can’t hear anything from outside.
Since they don’t take reservations and the space only has a few tables, it’s a first-come, first-served situation. For a small place, the staff handles the flow of people filing in rather well. On both occasions, I noticed how seamlessly people were seated at the tiny tables. My favorite spot is the high-top in the bar area because it’s closer to the music.
Helen: Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place. The sake crate tipped me off, but without any sign to speak of I was definitely second-guessing myself. Do I knock? Do I just walk in? I felt like I was about to barge into someone’s living room unannounced.
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I loved the sultry lighting, the dark corner nooks and all that light wood. It has a super intimate, cozy feel — the kind of place where you can spend hours lost in conversation and lose track of time.
The old cassette tapes lining the bathroom walls are a super cool touch, too — Madonna’s Bedroom Stories, Roxette’s Joyride. It could have been my teenage tape collection.
Maggie: It’s all about vinyl and a sweet stereo system. The turntable is a vintage Pioneer, the speakers are Klipsch La Scalas, the amp is a vintage Sansui and the cartridge is a Nagaoka.
I love the eclectic music selection. On our first visit, there was lots of downtempo and acid jazz — I remember hearing Jamiroquai. Ashton was letting entire sides of albums play rather than a DJ-type situation. He displays the album’s cover while it’s playing. It was nice background music played at a volume that didn’t interfere with people’s conversation.
On our second visit, Steel Pulse was playing softly — you could barely hear it when we first walked in. Then, when we moved to the back, the music started getting louder and switched up more often than before. One standout was an album by Boule Noire (the stage name of Canadian artist Georges Thurston). I’d never heard him before and really dug the funky sound and French lyrics.
All of a sudden, Ashton put on Billy Idol’s Eyes Without a Face, cranked it up really loud and said, “You have to reset the room sometimes.”
Helen: I was so in awe of everything that was unfolding on our first visit that it took me a second to take in the music. I don’t think I was the only person having that experience — there are definitely spots in the room where you feel more a part of the listening experience than others. Toward the front, and depending on how crowded it is, the buzz of all the people around you can mute everything else.
Maggie: Everything is really tasty. It’s small plates of Asian-inspired cuisine, perfect for sharing. The crunchy bean salad ($9) with snap peas, haricots verts, a scattering of crushed cashews and garlic vinaigrette was a surprising and delicious take on beans. The cold soba noodles ($12) with velvety soft-boiled eggs are crave-worthy — I couldn’t stop thinking about them after.
Helen: I was completely wowed by the dishes we got here. Frankly, I had no idea it was going to be a restaurant of this caliber. They’re limited to what they can do in that space, but the plates we sampled were all impressive. The restaurant’s executive chef, Amber Blawn, has worked at restaurants in New York and several spots in Tampa, including the Epicurean Hotel, Tampa Club and Hotel Haya. She is a chef to watch.
I particularly loved the savory melon salad ($9), which coupled juicy hunks of watermelon and honeydew with crunchy snap peas, sesame seeds and crispy onion and garlic bits. That dish has since been replaced by a fresh smashed cucumber and seaweed salad ($9), which is also very good. The shiitake and savoy cabbage dumplings ($12) were delicious and included a flavorful mix of leek, gochujang, sambal oelek and sweet chili sauce all served in a flavorful mushroom and spring onion broth.
Dishes like the yukke-style beef carpaccio ($18) and the snapper crudo with whipped avocado and sesame ($16) presented unique spins on classic dishes. And the raspberry wasabi truffle served on a shiso leaf ($3) was such a cool way to cap a meal here — sweet, savory and a little spicy all at once.
I also really loved those velvety soba noodles — I’d eat those any day of the week.
Maggie: Marini and Ashton took the time to really explain (and let us sample) the different sakes, but the only one I can remember was the Happy Owl ($14). The sake cocktails were nice, especially The Shiso ($10), which had shiso, elderflower cordial and lemon. On the second visit, the Haru Punch was refreshing with a cherry flavor that bordered on sour — great for me because I hate sweet drinks.
Helen: I really liked the Fuku Chitose “Happy Owl” as well. The Kameizumi Namazake “Ancient Shrine” ($16) was really interesting and had these super pronounced flavors I’d never tasted in sake before — light and zingy but also yeasty and bready at the same time.
I also really liked the cocktail selection — there’s no liquor served here, so all the drinks are sake- or wine-based. The Ginza ($10), a blend of lemon, pineapple, apricot and sake, reminded me of tart, summery lemon curd pie.
I realize water might not be the most exciting thing to gush about, but I love that they serve Vichy Catalan, maybe my favorite sparkling water ever. It’s from Spain and features a high mineral content so the water is just the slightest bit salty and super bubbly.
Maggie: This place is incredibly hip — but that’s not to say it’s only for young people. It has a laid-back vibe that is popular with a wide age range.
It’s a place where you can be casual and enjoy conversation with friends, but it’s also special enough to dress up for a date night. Ashton and Marini are really attentive to the customers, creating a welcoming environment.
It’s definitely a place you’ll want to visit often. Getting a table may require some patience as the word spreads.
Helen: “Am I really in St. Petersburg right now?” I kept asking myself that question on our first visit here.
There were moments where I would forget, if just for a second. It could so easily have been a tiny underground bar in Paris, Tokyo, London or New York — but the ‘burg? The concept is so unique for the area, a rarity, really, when so many places seem obsessed with hanging onto whatever the next cool (or tired) trend might be.
The overall approach feels effortlessly cool without coming off as pretentious — finessed but still casual, of-the-moment but also retro.
And depending on what you’re in the mood for, there are a few different ways to make an evening of it — an early dinner or a late and (slightly) raucous nightcap. Or maybe, just a place to sit and listen for a while.
In any case, I can’t wait to go back.
In Between Days is open 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. 2340 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. inbetweendays.co.