Creating Seoul’s food mecca step by stepYears from now, future Itaewon historians will look back to the early 2000s to chart how Itaewon came to be Seoul’s restaurant mecca. And they’ll marvel at the accomplishments of Lee Tayeon.
Ms. Lee has owned one Itaewon establishment or another since the late 1980s, and now runs the two classiest eateries in town, the Italian and French restaurants La Tavola and La Cigale Monmartre, and the newest, hippest lounge, The Bungalow. And she also has a little baguette shop, Au Petit Marche. By February, she’ll open another place, a wine bar/creperie called Arvorig. And she’s got more on the way.
Ms. Lee is building her own little restaurant empire not only for the money, she says, but for people like you and me, whose non-Korean dining-out options used to be limited to little more than Whoppers and Big Macs.
“I do this,” she said, “because I want to provide really good and interesting food not just for foreigners, but for Koreans, and not imitated tastes, but real tastes.”
A Seoul native born in Gangnam (“back when it was just grass fields”), Ms. Lee got her first taste of Itaewon in 1988 when, as a favor for a friend, she worked a sidewalk stall hawking T-shirts for the Seoul Olympics.
She then worked for a year at the Lotte World theme park as one of those mascots in the funny suits. “That was exhausting,” she said. “It was just too hot in those costumes. People used to faint in them.”
Seeing the light (with the mask off), Ms. Lee returned to Itaewon and started working as a bartender. Eventually her business instincts kicked in and she bought her own place ― East of Eden, just south of Burger King.
Hitherto a dud, the bar became a hit under Ms. Lee, especially with foreigners. “We made it really fun,” Ms. Lee said. “On St. Patrick’s Day we’d serve green chili with green beer, stuff like that.”
In 1994, Ms. Lee moved the fun to the top floor of a building on the main drag, opening the Hollywood bar. In time she expanded it to the second floor below, where La Tavola is now, then opened a dance club in the basement, now the Spy Club. Only the ground floor was left, so that’s where La Cigale Montmartre went.
The new lounge, The Bungalow, is highly recommended. It’s in the alley behind the Hamilton Hotel, where the tea house Chez Vous used to be. Ms. Lee gave the space a great makeover, with a beach-house-at-midnight theme, complete with white-sand floors, low-slung chairs, soft lights and transcendent tunes. It’s easily Itaewon’s newest best place for a date, as long as you don’t mind emptying the sand from your shoes when you get home.
So is Ms. Lee done building her empire? No. She has more plans, but she’s not letting on what. “They’re too big and complicated to explain,” she said. To find out what she means, check back with this column in a decade or two.
by Mike Ferrin
More in Features
In the homoerotic world of K-pop fan fiction, how far is too far?
Sculptor Joo Hoo-sik finds inspiration in the Year of the Cow
Nothing's fair in love and Covid
Top culture stories of the year
[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument