A little bit of Japan joins Seoul bar sceneIt used to be that soju and Korean bacon were the most popular combination of side dishes when Korean office workers went drinking after work. Then came fried chicken and draft beers in humble drinking joints called “hofs.”
Now, a new kind of bar has emerged: the izakaya, a Japanese-style drinking establishment where you can order appetizers and light meals with warm sake, or rice wine.
In Japan, izakaya are where office workers hang out after their day is done. People can order a few appetizers and sake at an izakaya without having to spend more than they would at beer hofs or soju joints, although plenty of expensive izakaya do exist.
Yamashita Taiji, a Japanese businessman who has been living in Korea for 10 years, is fond of visiting izakaya.
“Seoul is now full of izakaya-style bars, indicated by red paper lanterns on the door,” says Mr. Yamashita. “They offer sake, a traditional atmosphere and a large sign that has a list of menu items written with ink brushstrokes. But if you open the menu, many of them are excruciatingly expensive, both the appetizers and alcohol.”
Mr. Yamashita believes that the ideal izakaya shouldn’t cost more than 30,000 won ($26) for two people. So he recommends six izakaya in Seoul that offer the same atmosphere and menu as traditional Japanese bars.
Haikaraya, a Japanese franchise in Seoul, is at the top of Mr. Yamashita’s list. He says the Insa-dong eatery’s prices are about half the prices at other izakaya, but offers a cozier and friendlier atmosphere than other restaurants in Seoul.
Haikaraya offers more than 200 menu items including roasted fish, grilled vegetables and meat, a wide range of rare plates and drinks.
It’s cheap, too. Two pieces of roasted sea smelts cost only 800 won, while five pieces of fried chicken wings prepared Japanese style cost 2,800 won.
Soju and sake are some of the common drinks people order here. But other drinks invented by the restaurant owner, such as a grapefruit cocktail (5,300 won) made from freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, are also popular.
Compared to the price of appetizers, drinks aren’t cheap. There is also a separate service charge of 2,000 won a person. Seats are hard to find if you don’t make a reservation. The bar is open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m daily.
This place is more popularly known as a Japanese restaurant specializing in rice served in a hot pot. But because of the wide selection of appetizers offered, customers from all over Seoul visit the Samcheong-dong izakaya.
For light meals, try beef dadaki, lightly smoked meat marinated in a special sauce. Roasted potato mixed with cheese and caviar for 13,000 won is also a popular item here.
If you are lucky enough to secure window seats, you’ll get the full effect of the romantic street atmosphere of Samcheong-dong, near the Blue House. Lamama is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Genpai is a Japanese restaurant located in Daehangno. The menu offers typical Japanese meals such as curry rice, ramen, udon, pork cutlets and beef on rice; most items pair well with beer and sake.
For those on a diet, try stir-fried vegetables called yasai tame (8,000 won). Tuna sashimi is served for 10,000 won; more than 50 types of fried eggs mixed in sweet sauce are available for 6,000 won.
Ganpai doesn’t offer a typical bar atmosphere, but it’s good for a drink before you head home after work. The second floor has private booths for clients who want a more discreet setting. Open daily from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m.
One of the few Japanese izakaya with a Korean name, Dongari means “a meeting of the people who share a similar spirit.” According to the owner, the restaurant started out as a meeting place for students in cultural exchange programs between Japan and Korea.
The most popular dish here is okonomi yaki (12,000 won), a patty mixed with pork and seafood. For an additional 2,000 won, you can also order a special okonomi yaki with shrimp.
Cucumber salad mixed with seaweed is available for 5,000 won, and clams steamed in wine sauce is 7,000 won.
This place is frequented by Japanese students learning Korean and Korean students learning Japanese. It’s closed on Sundays, but open other days from 5 to 11 p.m.
Kitaro looks like a traditional izakaya from the outside, complete with the red paper lantern. But once you step inside, the interior is similar to the other chic restaurants near Sinsa Station (line No. 3) in southern Seoul.
One of the most popular dishes here is miso ramen (7,000 won), Japanese hand-made noodles in a miso-based soup.
If you are hungry, start with yaki gyoza (5,000 won), pan-fried dumplings, or seafood salad, which contains salmon and squid. Roasted mackerel (6,000 won) is also an alternative.
Kitaro is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and is closed Sundays.
This restaurant in Yeoksam-dong specializes in cold buckwheat noodles, but for dinner, it also offers udon and pork cutlets.
A large bottle of sake (720 milliliters) is 50,000 won. It goes best with assorted grilled items (15,000 won). The eatery is closed every Sunday; open from 5 to 10 p.m. on other days.
by Yu Ji-sang