Over the last week or so, I’ve had the considerable pleasure of checking out some of Seoul’s quirkier bars for a story I’m writing. As usual when I actually go to the trouble of searching for new (at least for me) places, I reached the following conclusions:
1) Seoul is immeasurably more diverse than it used to be, but…
2) Have some places like this always been around, but I’ve just been too stuck in my Itaewon/Samcheong-dong rut to notice? And…
3) Why are places like this not better known among expat types?
The last point, I confess, is based only on my occasional readings of English-language papers and expat-targeted events mags, so I could be way off base. (Also, blogs like SeoulGrid are making enthusiastic efforts to address this.) But some of the places I went to didn’t have a single hit on Google in English, and weren’t known to any of my foreign friends that I asked.
Unsurprisingly, Hongdae had the best known of the more off-beat bars we were after. Nabi (left) has been around for five years and is still the laid-back, faux-Indian place I recall. Oi, which had been recommended to me by a couple of friends, was OK and certainly fit the quirky bill, but was extremely loud (even very early in the evening when I was one of the few people there) and its cave-like, self-consciously zany interior didn’t really do it for me. Vinyl, too, was pretty cool, and in going there, I found myself in the presence of greatness: The owner claims to be the first person in Korea to sell cocktails in plastic ziplock bags. In later hawking them at Pentaport and other Korean rock fests, a trend that soon caught on, this fine woman was indirectly responsible for some of my sloppiest but most joyous moments over the last five years.
Undoubtedly the best Hongdae place I popped into, however, was Gopchang Jeongol (right), a fantastic retro-styled bar at the top of a street toward the Sinchon side of the area. If you’ve spent any time at all watching Korean MTV, MNet or any of the other music channels here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Korean pop culture is a depressingly airbrushed place, occupied solely by a cast of plastic, waif-like girls and pouting, puppy-eyed guys who make British boy bands look positively nails by comparison. However, there is a heritage of more interesting stuff here and Gopchang Jeongol (the name refers to a down-home-type Korean dish that translates as the distinctly unappetising “cattle intestine stew”) plays it constantly. Encompassing Korean 60s-style psychedelia, jaunty guitar pop and heartfelt folksy ballads, the playlist here is yet another reminder that Korea has its share of cool stuff, but it just takes a bit of determination to find it sometimes.
Of the assorted other places I went to, the best were Moon Jar in Apgujeong, a makgeolli bar with an interior resembling that of a French cottage, Au Gout des Autres, a wine bar set in a very rare, Japanese-style 1950s house near Gwanghwamun, and La Cle, a welcoming little jazz bar in Samcheong-dong with the feel of an old ship’s cabin. The one I most enjoyed, though, was Rainbow. A subterranean hookah bar that requires patrons to remove their shoes and sit on the floor, Rainbow was perhaps the most pleasant surprise because it is located in the backstreets near Gangnam Station, an area I have always found peculiarly insipid and soulless. Rainbow, though, is great fun. With cushions and wine-crate tables on the floor, assorted Thai crafts and Bob Marley flags on the walls, and a fug of hookah smoke hovering just above everyone’s heads, Rainbow is a welcome dose of student commune-chic in the midst of one of Seoul’s brasher areas. The music’s charmingly odd, too: On the night of my visit, the playlist included Bob Marley, the Beach Boys and — yes! — Engelbert Humperdinck.