Sake Bar Decibel claims to be the first sake bar in NYC, founded in 1993. But that’s not what should draw you to Decibel. A simple wooden sign marks the exterior. An obscure (if you don’t know why its there) illuminated “On Air” sign beckons you to a staircase leading to a basement on a side street in the East Village. Steps from 2nd Avenue, this Japanese speakeasy is easy to miss.
You step into a small bar area and are transported into Tokyo’s Golden Gai district, except not. The small bar (6-8 stools?) is much better equipped than anything you’ll find in Golden Gai. A row of sake bottles beckons you to imbibe. A closer look also reveals shochu, Japanese whiskey, and other drinks. An even closer look shows that you’re not in the only room in the place. A hemp rope blocks access to the back area where a host takes names from the people invariably crowded into a foyer separated from the bar by a head-high wooden panel.
The back room transports you into an izakaya. Small tables, small booths, and another larger bar. Dark, lit almost exclusively by two large aka-chochin (red paper lanterns) on either end of the bar, this room feels intimate yet has enough space for a fair number of patrons. The menu can be hard to read in the semi-darkness, but it’s worth the inconvenience for the atmosphere that hasn’t been replicated elsewhere in New York City.
The drinks are clearly the stars of Decibel, even calling itself a sake bar in the name. Approximately 100 sakes await those interested in that brew. The shochu list has grown to over a dozen – a fair selection of shochu given the sake focus. They also stock a full bar, though their hard liquor options are limited. The highlights are 12 year old Yamazaki and 12 year old Hibiki Japanese whiskeys. Very good choices if that’s your preferred tipple. A few modest Japanese beers round out the drink list. House specialty cocktails are also available, though we admit ignorance on their quality.
A modest menu is also available. The minimal food selections range from a few raw fish dishes to bowls of noodles or rice. Perhaps what is striking about the menu is that it’s overwhelmingly focused on snacks. Things that taste good while drinking. Small savory bits such as shrimp chips (think shrimp flavored cheetos) make for an easy nibble. Getting more adventurous, Decibel serves both tako wasa (wasabi marinated octopus sashimi) and Ei No Hire (dried grilled skate fin). If this food review seems brief, it is, because the menu is brief. And the food is clearly not the focus at Sake Bar Decibel.
The Verdict: Recommended
For us, this isn’t a place you come to eat. You order food here to keep your hard-to-get seats when you get hungry. You’re really here to try a wide variety of sake (or a lesser variety though still worthwhile list of shochus) in a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere. You also come here to go somewhere secret in the heart of the East Village. Most people who walk down 9th Street have no idea they could step into another world by descending that staircase. That perhaps makes Decibel a spot we enjoy, someplace worth visiting, and if you find a preferred drink, a place to return to when you’re just in the mood for that drink. And snack a little so you don’t lose your seat.