Karaoke Joints Are Evolving with Elaborate Menus and Craft Cocktails
Dives are the cradle of karaoke, but bars and restaurants across the country are leveling up with craft cocktails and fine foods.
“What’s your karaoke song?” A question for the ages, the answer can reveal a lot about your taste in music and your innermost personality traits.
Where you perform can be telling, too. Are you surrounded by strangers in a barebones bar with neon signs, draft beer, and some chicken wings if you need a bite between acts? Or, would you rather sing your heart out in a private room with only your closest friends and shots of shochu to hear you?
Perhaps you’re among those embracing a new style of bars and restaurants, where karaoke is one of several features of the experience.
“We’re not a karaoke bar, per se,” says Yong Shin, Chef and Partner at Insa, a Korean BBQ and karaoke joint in Brooklyn, New York. “The way that we deliver the experience differently is that we have top quality food there, good cocktails, very good wine lists, soju, and sake. Everything is just a more premium experience without being too stuffy. It’s letting your hair down and just kind of letting loose. That’s what it’s all about.”
Insa is one of several destinations expanding the karaoke concept far beyond a mic and screen. These bars and restaurants offer omakase-style dining, farm-to-table dining, expertly made drinks, and more. Spaces include private rooms, destination cocktail bars, and sprawling multifunctional spaces.
“You could literally spend six to eight hours here in one night, and I think that’s pretty special,” says Shin. “You might start your evening at six at the bar with a couple of snacks and cocktails, then sit at a table for a two-hour-long feast. Then, after dinner, you get up and go into a karaoke room.”
Private Rooms, Major Menus
If your ideal karaoke experience includes a small audience and expansive menu, consider New York City newcomer Congee Dim Sum House, the latest addition to father-son pair Peter and Ricky Liang’s growing congee empire. In addition to iterations of classic congee, this location offers dim sum feasts and has three private karaoke rooms for dinner and a show.
In Los Angeles, noraebang-style karaoke rooms are a mainstay along K-Town’s vibrant stretch of Sixth Street. One block away, on Wilshire, lies The Venue, a restaurant that serves menu items like truffle mac and cheese and $55 prime rib, and offers 13 private rooms where guests can karaoke their hearts out.
Another sprawling model is in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood. The 10,000-square-foot 1-800-Lucky has vendors selling ramen, bao buns, and Taiyaki ice cream, among other delicacies, plus two full bars and a karaoke lounge where private rooms can be booked in advance.
Public karaoke might be a nightmare to some, but others love how it connects them to a crowd and taps into communal energy. Such is the case on the second floor of Zeppelin, an omakase spot in Washington DC where sushi and singing go hand-in-hand. A selection of nigiri and Japanese whisky cocktails from a Suntory Highball Machine set the stage for a list of 30,000 karaoke titles available in both English and Japanese.
“We designed Zeppelin as an airship sushi supper club with cocktail parties and a nod to rock ‘n’ roll,” says owner Micah Wilder. “Karaoke has the fun factor we needed to complete the vision.
“I don’t think upscale concepts and karaoke support each other unless you make a conscious effort to pivot to a lively atmosphere after dining hours, and Zeppelin is a chameleon concept that pivots perfectly.”
Other bars and restaurants complement their menus with occasional or after-hours karaoke. At Chino Grande in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, guests can enjoy dishes like chilled scallops and a whole lobster au poivre. After dinner service, starting at around 10 pm on most nights, they can sign up to belt out their favorite Beyoncé songs until 1 am (or 2 am on Fridays and Saturdays).
Los Angeles’ R Bar offers karaoke with a speakeasy twist. Found in the city’s Koreatown neighborhood, just one large ‘R’ in Gothic lettering lets you know you’ve found the right place, though a secret password is no longer required to enter. On Thursday and Saturday nights, and during Sunday brunch, the sweet sounds of karaoke reverberates through the tavern-like space.
While waiting their turn to take the mic, diners sample an American comfort food menu that includes pulled pork sandwiches, soyrizo nachos, and “thicc” cheese sticks, as well a rotating menu of craft cocktails, beer and wine.
“One moment you’re in the audience, applauding someone’s performance, and the next moment you’re the star,” says owner Laura Ramirez. “Many times the audience spontaneously joins in, electrifying the room. It can very much be a group effort, and magic happens all the time.”
Public performances are an integral part of the experience at Silver Cloud, a longstanding establishment on San Francisco’s Lombard Street.
“Silver Cloud-style karaoke has a stage in the center of the restaurant facing the bar where customers can sing to a crowd, engaging other customers and getting the whole bar involved,” says owner Tom Dougherty. “There is a sense of community we build with karaoke by karaoke lovers.”
Silver Cloud has offered karaoke for more than 30 years, but has only served drinks for the last decade or so. In 2021, however, after a Covid-19-era pivot, Silver Cloud relaunched as a full-service restaurant. Now, while patrons peruse the encyclopedic songbook, they can enjoy creative “California cuisine” like Brussels sprouts with macadamia nuts and lime caramel, an organic brick chicken with creamy polenta and seasonal vegetables, or classic pub grub.
“Karaoke is all about having fun and making friends,” says Dougherty. “Singing with strangers and supporting each other can get out of your shell and be a star. We love how many regulars we have built up over the years who now feel like family. Our favorite thing is how karaoke allows people from all walks of life to come together and bond over music.”