A convivial place to eat, drink and speak EnglishClick on any government Web site and count the number of messages urging foreigners to invest in “The Hub of Northeast Asia.” Dozens? Scores? Well, that’s the rhetoric. Here’s the reality.
The press complains whenever a foreign fund turns a profit and warns endlessly of the dangers of hostile foreign takeovers and the high foreign stake in the stock market. The bureaucracy, acutely sensitive to the press, reacts predictably. Foreign businessmen, meanwhile, cry into their beer.
One man who knows firsthand the tribulations of investing in Korea is 34-year-old Canadian Sean Watts, who last month became the first foreigner to open a restaurant here. This intelligence surprised me, but he insists that every other “foreign” joint here has been opened by a local investor, partner or spouse ― and he even has a government certificate to prove his claim.
It’s been tough, he says. He was told he couldn’t bring in extra capital to fund expansion. He was advised by a vice-ministerial-level civil servant that the only way to solve one problem was to visit the relevant government office and yell. And although he has been open less than a month, he has already received seven audits from various government departments.
“Business here is a challenge,” he says diplomatically. “And I like challenges.” Since he plans to open branches nationwide, and has a flagship opening up soon in Chonqjing, China, that is just as well.
His first establishment is Sinchon’s “Watts on Tap.” The concept? “I know Koreans like drinking, and like to learn English,” he says, and his business here combines these desires into a pub where clients can speak/study English with the Western bar staff.
Sounds like a no-lose concept: how’s it going? Er, not as expected. Since few Koreans understand the wordplay in the brand (“Watts means what?” “What’s a tap?”), most of the clientele is foreign.
The pub-style bar offers a gentler ambience than most of the raucous and grungy joints for which Sinchon is famed. There is also a rooftop terrace. The bar menu is extensive, offering a global range of pub grub, from burritos to curry to fish and chips.
We kick off with curry fries (6,000 won, or $6). These are large, crinkle-cut fries ― so far so good ― but the curry tastes of the local packet variety, albeit spiced up with a touch of vinegar. (Note to self: Next time, order just fries and vinegar.)
Souvlaki (12,000 won) is thick chunks of skewered pork in barbecue sauce, served with fries and rice. It looks good, but the pork is very tough. Finally, chicken pie (8,000 won). This is more like it: A homemade pie ― nice golden pastry containing piping hot chunks of bird in a mild gravy ― served with mashed potatoes and frozen peas. It reminds me of school lunches in England, but this far from home that’s a memory I don’t mind paying for.
Enough about grub: let’s talk grog. A framboise (strawberry beer, 6,000 won) proves sadly unlike the Belgian original, a mix of bitter lambic beer and fruit cordial. What we have instead is sweet Cass lager and sweeter fruit cordial. Weak and sugary; probably best suited to delicate female drinkers or boy scouts.
More recommendable is the excellent Belgian Hoegaarden white wheat beer (7,000 won, on tap). By the way, this is, I suggest, the perfect brew for spicy foods. Also terrific is the raspy and gingery German ale Diebels, which goes for 8,000 won per bottle. There is also a good range of whiskeys.
The place fills up on Friday and Saturday nights, when bands play and barmen are “auctioned” to the highest bidder (to do exactly what with, I am unclear). Alas, last week, only one of the lads got an offer ― from his own girlfriend ― while the other could find nary a buyer even after a bottle of Heineken was thrown in.
This week, I am told, women will also be sold, which could make “Watts on Tap” worth dropping into should you find yourself young, single and male.
Verdict: Great concept, pleasant bar, and a nice addition to Sinchon’s scene. Food doesn’t match pub grub in Itaewon, but if you are in Sinchon, it’s the only game in town. On weeknights, it’s a convivial little place and Wattsy himself is splendid company.
Watts On Tap
Address: 3F, Cheongcheon-dong, Seodaemun-gu
Subway: Sinchon (Five-minute walk from Exit 2)
Hours: 10 a.m. until the last guest leaves
Parking: None available
Cards Accepted: Yes
Dress: As casual as possible
by Andrew Salmon