The Art of Pub Crawling: Be Sure to Bring Along a Compass

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The Art of Pub Crawling: Be Sure to Bring Along a Compass

The Han River divides Seoul more than just geographically. The styles and attitudes of people on either side of the Han are also different. That in turn expresses itself in a deeper culture, in the most important part of people's lives - where they drink.

Wherever you go, you are certain to find an odd layering of Western and Korean influences that are pretty much impossible to sort out. North of the river, in Gangbuk, people prefer what is known as "American California-style beer bars." South of the river, in Gangnam, it is "New York-style foreign liquor bars." In either location, New Yorkers and Californians both would be hard-pressed to find anything they recognized, but that is beside the point.

Okay, maybe it is the point. But however you label it, north and south are quite different.

The mainstream in Gangbuk is noisy and busy - the Western-style or "stand" bar, with interiors decorated with knickknacks and paraphernalia from all aspects of real American life - also known as "junk." Barstools are the norm in Gangbuk, with customers lined up in a row at the bar, unable to make eye contact; but when your eyes are bloodshot from drinking until 4 or 5 a.m., perhaps that is for the best.

Every night in downtown Jongno, western Sinchon and eastern Daehangno, bars with names like Mafia, Ska and Penthouse are typically crowded with college kids and white-collar workers in their twenties and thirties.

These bars often feature many different beers from all over the world, with exotic offerings that range from tasteless, colorless Korean Budweiser to imported Budweiser, which some say is no better than Korea's.

Actually, these days there are more international beers available in Korea than ever. The black froth of Guinness, the freshness of Heineken and the soft taste of Sapporo are all commonly available, usually for prices up to 10,000 won (about $7.80). For people without bottomless wallets, Korea's Hite Breweries now offers its own dark beer, called "Stout;" no, it is not really a stout, but it is dark, reasonably flavorful, and costs a fraction of imports like Guinness.

The bartenders and waiters are more than just servers - they are entertainers, there to please the customers. Which in Gangbuk means "make a lot of noise and do your best imitation of the movie 'Cocktail' on steroids."

At Ska, a popular bar in Jongno, Pak Yeong-kuk, a 30-year-old student, said, "I prefer this part of town because I don't have to drink a lot, but still I can enjoy the mood and talk as much as I like."

In Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam, where cutting-edge fashion prevails, bars aim for the sophisticated, "semi-classic" look. Bars like 74, Womb and O Bar offer cool designs, mellow vibes and ambiance out the wazoo. Of course, "wazoo" is a word too declasse to be used south of the river.

In Gangnam, tequila, Absolut vodka and Ballantine's 17-year-old whiskey are the drinks of choice. If you want to see a table of friends using a bottle of Macallan for boilermakers, this is this place.

Unlike the north, drinkers in Gangnam enjoy their privacy (which is only sensible, who wants to be public about abusing Macallan for boilermakers?) and prefer to sit around tables. Another difference from Gangbuk is that the bartenders and waiters in Gangnam are more reserved and tend to leave customers alone. A freelancer, Lee Jae-man, 28, explained, "I prefer the bars in Cheongdam-dong because the privacy here is very attractive."

Both north and south of the Han River, there is an upswing in Western-style bars. Song Byeong-guen of Dasool, an online liquor company, said, "Just as there was a boom of karaoke rooms and dakgalbi jip (barbeque chicken restaurants) a couple of years ago, now bars are in vogue."

by Yoo Jee-sang

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