In February 2019, Mitchell Foster and Will Minter — the co-owners of the recently opened ESP HiFi Cafe and Bar — visited Tokyo to investigate what was then a fairly decidedly Japanese concept. Over the course of two weeks, the duo visited nearly 40 iterations of the record bar — a series of distinct, intimate spaces built around listening experiences that largely reflected the taste and personality of the proprietor. Customers came to listen, with a politeness that often bordered on reverence. Quality audio and introspection were without fail the name of the game.
Prior to the expedition, Foster — a Dallas native who previously worked in real estate and finance — had heard about these cafes from one of his friends and, seeking a career change, began considering how the idea could appropriately be adjusted to fit a generally more boisterous stateside clientele. Minter — who began a serious crate-digging journey while DJing as part of the impressive radio program at Lake Forest College — was brought aboard for his expansive musical knowledge. The record collection that lines the bar — composed largely of jazz, blues, soul, disco, boogie, funk and various electronic genres — is largely a testament to his sophistication and a clear knowledge of deeper cuts than nearly anyone in town.
The 35 seat room has been built with listening in mind. The equipment — fastidiously selected and arranged for total immersion — certainly goes a long way. But it’s Foster and Minter’s clear desire to rehumanize musical interactions that give the place much of its magic. The duo has gone to great lengths to create a space where listening sits centerstage — all other enjoyment being tangential to the immaculate sound. Requests are banned and Shazam and phone use, in general, are discouraged. “Part of what we’re offering is musical curation and when you start taking requests from people you lose that,” said Foster. “It’s nice to make it a little hard so people go out of their way to say ‘what is this?’ You can’t just give away the sauce,” he grinned. And while the place certainly has plenty of aesthetic nods to its Japanese counterparts, Foster and Minter have gone to great lengths to make sure it’s anything but derivative. Noting that the more contemplative format would simply not fit with American culture, the team has done a good job of creating a space that is full of hushed vivacity — giggles, whispers and palpable romance nicely ensconce the music, the obvious star of the show.
Carefully selected records play from early in the morning until well into the night, with what will usually be the complete single side of a record being transitioned seamlessly into whatever next suits the mood. Coffee service comes with all the usual espresso options, with a soundtrack generally suited to the tranquility of unhurried morning endeavors. As afternoon and evening hit, the climate changes to fit the cocktail crowd, always upping the energy though never teetering into the raucous. The highballs — with rye, gin, tequila, mezcal and rum variations — fit neatly with the whole experience, though it’s the four different Amari and soda options that really set folks up for hours of uninterrupted listening. The names — Afternoon, Before Dinner, After Dinner and Hair of the Dog — say it all, each one generously exemplifying its position in the routine.
With limited local precedent, ESP has been evolving. Weekly DJ sets are being added, with plans to add a small menu of bar snacks within the month.
ESP HiFi Bar and Cafe is located at 1029 Santa Fe Dr., Denver. It is open Wednesday – Sunday from 8 a.m. – 11 p.m.