South Korea: A Little Bit of Seoul

  • The busy intersection in front of Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel.

    The busy intersection in front of Itaewon’s Hamilton Hotel.

  • Pointing the way to My Thai-China restaurant.

    Pointing the way to My Thai-China restaurant.

  • The Seoul Central Mosque.

    The Seoul Central Mosque.

  • Santino Sortino.

    Santino Sortino.

  • The lounge at Villa Sortino.

    The lounge at Villa Sortino.

  • Outside Bon et Beau.

    Outside Bon et Beau.

  • Paris-trained chef Lee Hyung-jun.

    Paris-trained chef Lee Hyung-jun.

  • Itaewon caters to all shapes and sizes.

    Itaewon caters to all shapes and sizes.

  • Smart establishments like this are luring customers from across the city.

    Smart establishments like this are luring customers from across the city.

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Most of the fighting now, Dorscher says, is among the booming number of restaurants and bars vying for won from an increasingly affluent clientele. “I see more expatriates, and a lot more Koreans coming—I don’t know if it’s because the base is supposed to be moving or if they just want to practice English, but it’s become a much more multicultural place.”

At the vanguard of the change was probably Seoul’s largest assortment of foreign (or foreign-educated) chefs and restaurateurs. Italian native Santino Sortino may have paved the way when, in the wake of the 2002 World Cup, he set up a stylish Sicilian trattoria in the gutted remains of a nightclub on the nearly abandoned eastern end of the Itaewon strip. “People said I was out of my mind,” he laughs. “But every time I came to this area, I saw a lot of high-end people looking curious and hanging out, even though it had a seedy image. They were looking for something foreign and upscale. I saw the potential, and there was nothing here.”

The chef’s hunch has proven a sound one. His original restaurant is now so busy that he’s supplemented it with an even more refined alternative across the street, Villa Sortino, where patrons peruse a sommelier-designed wine list and nibble on wild boar sausage, saffron risotto, or blood-orange sorbets in an earthy-yet-elegant sanctuary of imported Tuscan wood and black marble. ­Sortino’s success has not gone unnoticed. Nearby, a more casual affair called the Macaroni Market recently opened, and draws its own crowds with a whimsical menu that includes banana-and-maple-syrup ciabattas and an exceptionally rich macaroni and cheese.

Farther east, in the shadows of the towering Cheil Building, a young Paris-trained chef named Lee Hyung-jun holds court at Bon et Beau. While the setting—all brushed aluminum and bare concrete—borders on austere, the food brought to table by impeccably attired waiters is anything but: generous cuts of rosemary-flecked lamb, platters of couscous, rich Lebanese soups. Or head west to the bustling lane directly behind the Hamilton Hotel. Here, Hong Seok-cheon, South Korea’s first openly gay actor, has opened a fusion eatery called My Thai-China, just a few doors down from the Caribbean-themed Bungalow cocktail bar and the congenial 3 Alley Pub.

Of course, an entertainment district can’t survive on food and drink alone. Don Urban, the director of Seoul’s leading event promoter, Urban Events, says the city’s electronic music scene remains “very much rooted south of the Han River” in the affluent Gangnam district, but that some venues in Itaewon are beginning to give Gangnam a run for its money. Volume, a relatively new two-story club attached to the Capital Hotel, recently played host to top-ranked global deejay Tiësto. Club Pulse, a lively spot that attracts mainly gay revelers, is “testament to the diversity of the area,” says Urban, who believes that Itaewon is on its way to becoming something more than a “warm-up place or after-hours haunt.”

There have been a few more straitlaced additions to the neighborhood’s palette. In 2006, the mammoth Yongsan International School was unveiled on Itaewon’s eastern boundary to cater to Seoul’s growing expat population. Across the street from the Hamilton Hotel, the Seoul Central Mosque has loomed for decades over the salacious incline referred to by just about everyone as “Hooker Hill,” but has visibly expanded its influence of late, fostering a widening ring of Islamic butchers, book vendors, and markets. Hassan, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker who journeys here from the satellite city of Ansan each weekend to mingle and worship, is philosophical about the mosque’s location in a district better known for more corporeal pursuits. “I guess it’s a bit strange that the mosque is here,” he shrugs, “but in some ways, maybe it couldn’t be anywhere else.”

It’s this unlikely mélange of cultures—of the spiritual, secular, and just plain strange—that has lent Itaewon its reputation for tolerance, a quality shared by the growing number of young locals exploring the area. “It does have a bad reputation for being dangerous among Koreans, and still feels a bit wild,” admits Kim Jung-hyun, a university student who frequently visits Itaewon with her friends. “But they have food here you can’t get anywhere else—Mexican, Indian, Turkish, Thai. It’s exotic.”

In many respects, the way forward for Itaewon remains uncertain. No one seems to be able to say for sure when (or if) Yongsan Garrison will close its doors for good, taking away what has traditionally been the area’s main pool of customers. Bureaucrats regularly unveil grandiose plans to gentrify Itaewon by declaring car-free streets, erecting sparkling new condos, evicting street vendors, or inviting in more five-star hotels. Yet every night, amid the tinkle of wine glasses and loops of salsa music that leak onto the sidewalk, one still hears the entreaties of souvenir hawkers, the catcalls of hostesses, and the stiff march of the army’s “courtesy patrols.” It is the soundtrack to a place that, much like South Korea itself, uneasily straddles past and future.

Address Book:

  • Bon et Beau
    686–1 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2/3785-3330
  • Club Pulse
    132–16 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu; no telephone
  • Club Volume
    34–69 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2/1544-2635
  • Macaroni Market
    2/F, Hannam Bldg., 737–50, Hannam 1-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2/749-9181
  • My THAI-China
    118–20 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2/749-3336
  • 3 Alley Pub
    116–15 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2/749-3336
  • Villa Sortino
    124–12 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2/553-9000

Originally appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine ( “A Little Bit of Seoul”)

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