WASHINGTON — Outside of Songbyrd Record Café, the sound of a late afternoon thunderstorm rumbles in the distance. Inside, the only thing audible is a coffee grinder and an indie rock album playing over the speakers.
Songbyrd is one of the latest concepts to open in the evolving and eclectic neighborhood of Adams Morgan — and a welcome one for fans of both music and food.
Adams Morgan has long had a reputation for being the city’s weekend party destination. But recently, it’s seen a surge in new, or newly renovated, bars and restaurants that cater more to the local residents than the 2 a.m. crowd.
Simply put: Neon shooters and oversized slices of pizza are out; Jack Rose’s craft cocktails and escargot hushpuppies from Mintwood Place are in. And Songbyrd is contributing to the new and creative neighborhood vibe.
Co-owners Alisha Edmonson and Joe Lapan describe Songbyrd as a café for music lovers: They’re just as serious about their menu of chef-inspired sandwiches as they are about their collection of vinyl.
“The concept here, it’s not just a record store. It’s more of a social space to eat, drink, listen and sample,” Lapan says.
Songbyrd has only been open for about eight weeks, but Lapan says the idea was “a fairly long time in the making.” It was born out of his and Edmonson’s collective love of music and their appreciation for Adams Morgan (both live in the neighborhood and have for a while).
It’s a unique find — there’s no other place in the area that combines food, music and experience quite like Songbyrd.
The café: The menu at Songbyrd is filled mostly with sandwiches — although Edmonson says the gazpacho is a popular item too.
Chef Matthew Richardson is the man behind the menu. He makes everything from a vegetarian muffuletta, to a breaded chicken schnitzel sandwich with Gruyere, to a sage-turkey, bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich.
He also gives a nod to one of the neighborhood’s more famous foods: Jumbo Slice. Richardson serves his own version of the larger-than-life pizza, layering house-made ingredients on focaccia. He makes a “regular slice” and a “mumbo slice,” which has homemade mumbo sauce, pineapple, pulled pork and shaved onions. “It has this sweet and tanginess that goes with the pineapple and the pork,” Edmonson says.
The coffee is selected by Edmonson, whose family used to own a coffee roastery, and is fair-trade and organic.
The record store: The collection of records for sale at Songbyrd is small, but carefully curated.
“I feel like we’ve started to get a following of people who know that they’re very quickly going to find something,” Lapan says about the collection, which is comprised of mostly new and some used albums.
Its genres span rock, soul, hip-hop, jazz and funk, with each category limited to a handful of options. “It’s a small collection, so we really have to think about what we’re going to purchase,” Lapan says.
The interactive music experience: Lapan and Edmonson don’t just want customers to buy music — they also want them to explore it at one of the café’s listening stations.
Along the wall, customers can cozy up to a retro-looking machine (it’s an iPad in a custom case), hook up some headphones and zone out to one of the many playlists put together by Lapan, Edmonson and the Songbyrd staff. Customers can also sample the albums available for sale.
And Lapan says the musical exploration doesn’t end at the door. He hopes people follow Songbyrd’s playlists and music selections online too.
“We’re anchored in this physical space, but we can have a reach that goes beyond that,” he says.
Songbyrd also has something for those who are more interested in making music than listening to it: It’s a 1947 Voice-O-Graph — a recording booth that allows customers to make their own record.
“It’s got amazing acoustics when you walk into this tiny little box; it’s about the size of a British phone booth,” Edmonson says about the Voice-O-Graph.
“It vacuum-sucks up this uncut 45 and then drops it off. And it has a hot needle that actually records your voice directly onto it. So it’s an instant 45 that you get.”
Lapan adds: “Aside from what you can do in it, it’s this little mini visual representation of how a record is made. You can look in the window: You see the record go over, you see it cut, and you see it played back. It’s just a cool way to connect with seeing a piece of vinyl being made.”
The two co-owners purchased the piece of equipment from a man in Maryland who refurbishes and sells Voice-O-Graphs. (Jack White and Neil Young have one as well.) And while the booth is up and running at Songbyrd, it’s not quite ready for the public.
“It’s a very persnickety piece of equipment,” Edmonson says, adding that it needs further calibration before customers can make their next no. 1 single.
The next act: Readying the Voice-O-Graph for the public isn’t the only thing in the pipeline at Songbyrd. Lapan and Edmonson are taking the food and music up an octave at their soon-to-be space next door, called Songbyrd Music House.
Edmonson describes the addition as a “bistro and bar that’s music-centric.” She says expect a formal food menu and a local craft cocktail and beer program.
As far as the music goes, Lapan says, “That’s where we’ll do more robust music programming.”
Edmonson hopes Songbyrd Record Café and Songbyrd Music House offer the neighborhood two new and unique ways to consume music and food.
“I think Adams Morgan is evolving into a pretty eclectic food and drinking scene — not just what it’s known for on Friday and Saturday nights,” she says.
Lapan agrees. “There’s always been a lot of residential density around here and there’s more coming, so I think it’s as desirable of a neighborhood to live as it’s ever been. I think Adams Morgan is headed in a good direction, honestly.”
Edmonson and Lapan don’t have an exact opening date for Songbyrd Music House, but say it’s “very soon.”