Cheers: A Guide for the Thirsty Night Owl

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Cheers: A Guide for the Thirsty Night Owl

When night falls on the forest of bars and clubs, the fun for drinkers begins, Koreans say. But if you're just looking for a decent place to wind down with a few drinks, it may not be all fun. If you've been here before, you may start to fret - you don't want to repeat the same mistake of paying a little over your entire monthly salary for a round of drinks.

In Korea, some places will allow you just buy a beer or two, while others will kick you out if you don't order five beers and an outrageously expensive plate of peanuts or potato chips. Distinguishing one bar from another gets tricky since there are far too many to begin with. In the downtown area alone, there are more than 600 drinking joints, and in Seoul's most congested entertainment district in the ward of Gangnam, there were 1,010 as of June 14. There are half as many crammed into Seocho-gu, the ward adjacent to Gangnam.

Koreans seem instinctively to know exactly which bar to go for a good time at the right price - whether to a pour-a-drink-yourself place with makeshift tables on a sidewalk, or a glitzy nightclub where handsome waiters in black tuxedos stand at the ready. Thus, it may be helpful to familiarize yourself with the different types of bars so you can plan ahead and choose one that best suits the occasion and the size of your wallet.

According to Kim Hyeong-yeon at the Environment and Sanitation Division in Jung-gu Ward Office, bars and restaurants are registered under different legal categories. Categorization is based on whether alcohol is served and the kind of entertainment offered, which affects taxation. The four legal categories are yuheung eupso ("entertainment enterprise"), danlan jujeom ("family bar"), ilban eumsikjeom ("general restaurant") and hyuge eumsikjeom ("resting restaurant"). All categories except for hyuge eumsikjeom (places such as coffee shops and bakeries) are allowed to sell alcoholic beverages along with food.

So, if you're looking for a drink, you can choose between the yuheung eopso or entertainment enterprise, where you can be entertained by hostesses; the danlan jujeom, or family bar, where you can drink and sing; and the ilban eumsikjeom, or general restaurant, where you can eat and drink alcohol.

Play Like a Millionaire

Nightclub, room salon, karaoke bar, cabaret, stand bar and techno bar - all fall under the category of "entertainment enterprise," but there is more to them than this legal distinction. Cultural nuances and connotations also affect what kind of establishment you'll be walking into.

If you ask a foreign businessman about Korean room salons, he will probably have much to say, both good and bad. One thing is for sure - in the Korean mindset, these places are for work and play. While business deals are closed and celebrated, many businessmen enjoy more than standard hospitality.

The room salon is a private drinking and social club (usually male guests only) where hostesses serve drinks and food and provide various entertainment. The price you pay at these private gatherings depends on what kind of "service" you get there.

Stand bar (pronounced as seutaendeu bbar in Korean) and cabaret (kyabare) target an older clientele and often tourists. They may be registered as entertainment enterprises, but it takes an understanding of Korean nightlife culture to know what these places really offer. The price of these places significantly varies depending on the location and the type of clientele. They both have a negative image of catering to lonely housewives looking for a fling with a gigolo, or Japanese tourists looking to hook up with Korean hostesses.

If you look under 25, get past the bouncer's inspection and have money to cover the outrageously expensive table cover charge, there's the night club (naiteu). You can dance on stage or sing in a private room and are asked to order a menu set of beers or whiskey and a nicely presented plate of fruit. The designated waiter - usually bearing a catchy nickname such as "Park Chanho," "Superman" or "Tom Cruise" - arranges "bookings" by bringing a number of potential dates to your seat. You need a reservation in advance. Befriending the waiter helps you get a table on busy nights.

Those who are don't make it in the front door of a naiteu, usually head for karaoke, an extremely expensive soiree for song birds. Depending on the legal status or the owner's arrangement, karaoke may or may not come with hostess service. Like night clubs, you are asked to pay a hefty "table charge" for your alcoholic beverages and anju (side dishes) or a "room charge" to use a private room. Noraebang ("singing rooms"), on the other hand, are registered simply as noraebang. The sale of alcoholic beverages here is banned.

Very affordable dancing and drinking for young people is mostly offered in what are called "techno bars," concentrated in Hongdae (the area near Hongik University). Techno bar hours vary, but they are usually open until at least 4 a.m. on weekends.

You Can Drink and Sing, but Don't

Bring the Family

The Korean word danlan comes from danlanhan gajok, meaning happy family. Danlan jujeom were initially created for those who wanted to avoid hostess service but enjoyed singing and drinking. Frequented mostly by businessmen, many danlan jujeom operate much like room salons, and going to a danlan jujeom is by no means a family affair. Among Koreans, a fancy danlan jujeom is commonly known as a less expensive version of the room salon as many places do in fact offer hostess service, which is illegal. A more humble-looking danlan jujeom is a place where you can drink and sing, so it is a cheaper version of karaoke.

The complexity of this problem of categorizing drinking establishments is largely due to an unclear legal system, by which businesses are categorized by the kind of entertainment offered inside, and cultural misconceptions. The nebulousness of these categories often results in abuse by business proprietors, resulting in consumers paying more than they should for the service they get.

Asked whether an ordinary person can distinguish what type of business he is entering, Mr. Kim at the Environment and Sanitation Division in Jung-gu Ward Office said it might be hard if, for example, it was a fancy version of a danlan jujeom illegally offered hostess service to customers. Many establishments will try to register as one kind of place but operate as another, to avoid additional taxation. For example, businesses registered as entertainment enterprises face 16 times the regular taxation rate.

"If any businesses are caught violating the law by law enforcement officers, the owner faces a heavy fine or discontinuation of business. If caught serving the underaged, the proprietor faces a permanent shut-down," Mr. Kim said.

Drink and Eat, Eat and Drink?

Popular drinking joints, such as yojung, hof, bar and sojubang are registered as "general restaurants."

If a room salon is a private party in a Western-like setting, yojung is more like traditional Korean style. The cultural notion of yojung harks back to Korea in the old days, making the place seem somewhat more special than other places because of its nostalgic allure.

To most Koreans, the yojung is a place where the older female proprietor prepares a feast of rare delicacies followed by a special entertainment by select female hostesses formerly known as giseng (the Korean equivalent of geisha). Partying at a yojung is considered not only exclusive but also extravagant in Korea. You will rarely spot a yojung as they are discreetly located and often have no signboard. Such notions of exclusivity were inflated by tales of men making decisions that shaped Korean history in the privacy of the yojung.

With regard to the legality of yojung, it depends what kind of service is actually offered to clients in private. If you are entertained or offered any service by a hostess - not just a waitress preparing the table - at a yojung, it would be illegal as most yojung are registered as regular restaurants and are banned from offering any form of entertainment or hostess service.

At hof (hopeu) and regular bars, various alcoholic beverages are served and buying snacks is usually optional. The word hof indicates the availability of draft beer. Both hof and bars are the choice spots among casual drinkers in Korea as the cost there is considered very reasonable.

Another kind of drinking den in abundance is the humble pojang macha, the ultimate form of drinking Korean-style. The pojang macha is a shabby - and likely unsanitary - joint that offers cheap furniture under an orange plastic cover. From early evening to dawn, they serve, among others, traditional Korean liquor soju and various street-style anju, which many hungry drinkers indulge in as a late-night meal. In Korea, any type of vendor on the street is illegal, though, and the city government has an active campaign to abolish pojang macha culture. Get there while you still can!

The least expensive and perhaps a legal way to enjoy drinking similar to pojang macha style - except it's indoors - is in the sojubang. Around the year, sojubang are favored by Koreans of all ages and occupations. The sojubang is the place to go to bond with your workmates. But the city authority is less than impressed. Kim Yeong-seong, a team manager at the Environment and Sanitation Division in Jung-gu Ward Office, told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, "The Korean way of drinking goes way back in history and is still deeply rooted in the culture, which makes it hard for the government vice squad and volunteer workers to crack down on illegal activities. Business owners find a way to escape legal terms and deceive customers." Mr. Kim laments that the general public does not realize most hof, bar, and even sojubang are in fact mere restaurants "disguised" as drinking joints to justify higher prices.

Here are the joys and pains of drinking culture in Korea: Mention the sojubang to your Korean friends, and see their faces light up. But notice how the sojubang owner reacts when you bluntly ask him under which legal category his business is registered.

Where do people hang out?

The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition recently asked readers where they like to go for drinks.

Lee Ki-shik, 56, dentist

"I like any restaurants that have wine and liquor. I think having drinks at room salons is inappropriate for my occupation. Hostesses there are younger than my daughter!"

Davide Scalmani, 38, cultural director at the Italian Embassy

"I go to Gekko in Itaewon. It's a cozy bar that sells beer at resonable prices. You can meet foreign friends there. I also like a bar-cum-club called Nashville, also in Itaewon, where you can request your favorite movies to watch."

Kim Young-joo, 32, financial analyst at a consulting company

"I go to American-style bars and room salons. Bars should be trendy and clean and have a casual atmosphere. My favorite place is J.J. Mahoney's at the Hyatt hotel. Room salons are mostly for business clients."

Kim Han-joo, 28, student at the Pratt Institute in New York

"I like going to Silnae Pojang Macha in Apgujeong-dong. It's a sojubang where they sell plenty of cheap food."

Brett Nicholls, 31, vice president of East Promotions

"To meet with business colleagues I go to S Bar in Apgujeog-dong because I don't like room salons. Once I kicked the woman out of the room. With my friends I hang out in Saab and Hodge Podge in Hongdae to dance all night."

Lee Hyuk-seung, 24, student in graduate school at Korea University

"Bubble in Anam-dong sells beer and cocktails at reasonable prices and the side dishes are delicious. I love to drink soju in some soju bars in Jegi market, selling odolbbyeo and gamjatang.

The places are open till very late. I've been to a room salon twice; my supervisor at a broadcasting company took me there. I didn't feel good after partying there because we paid so much money, about 500,000 won ($385), and the women were too young."

by Inēs Cho

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)