Reservation required: For the hip, walk-in is out
The facility, it seems, is one part gallery, one part social experiment.
Visitors must pass through a residential area loosely dotted with fancy villas and embassy residences in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Seoul. They then go through the iron gate of a white mansion. After passing a long stairway, they stop in front of a small room. Once the sliding door closes, they’re on their own, staring at “I Never Read Wittgenstein,” a video installation by Paik Nam-june in a white room surrounded by blissful silence.
The experience is subliminal, and strangely evocative.
The gallery, a three-story edifice in Hannam-dong owned by a local collector, houses a wide range of contemporary art, from paintings to a multimedia installation. There is no admission fee. There’s only one major difference between this place and other contemporary art galleries in Seoul: It serves one group at a time, on appointment only.
Perhaps because of their strict rules on accommodation, the gallery, which opened in 2002, is not well known by people outside of the industry.
“We are gradually trying to make it more accessible to the public,” said Paik Hae-young, the gallery’s director. “But so far, our main visitors have artists, critics and curators, perhaps because the place is secluded geographically.”
But geographical seclusion often becomes an emotional one, as well. Obviously the more secluded a place is, the fewer people there are. Yet for some owners and directors, it is a strategy to attract a greater share of high-end patrons by eschewing a more popular approach.
For years, appointments have been optional for social affairs in Korea. Demanding an appointment has been seen as overly harsh, since the culture emphasizes hospitality, particularly feeding one’s guests. Yet an increasing number of shops, restaurants and galleries here nowadays are playing “hard-to-get” in order to keep their private atmosphere and core clientele.
The place is out of sight from the main road that leads to Jahamun Tunnel in northern Seoul. Finding the bistro involves some tricky road maneuvering. In fact, the restaurant, which is cozily built into a traditional Korean house past a modest butcher shop and grungy beef soup restaurant in a random alley, is so pleasant it can be surprising.
But unless you’ve booked a table, don’t plan on eating.
Steaks need to be ordered at least two hours in advance. Dinner courses need a day of advance notice so that the course can be marinated. Everything from the wine to the salad and the main course must be ordered over the phone.
The payoff is worth it, though.
The chefs serve appetizers to suit the choice of wine before meals are served; they decorate your table with candles and colorful napkins for anniversaries; almost anything needed to impress your dining partner can be requested. The idea overall is to make the space private and cozy.
In fact, the place is so cozy diners can even see the amount of salt tossed by the chefs in the open kitchen from their seats.
“We like the style in which the business is currently run,” said Shin Gyeong-suk, the chef and owner of Recipe. “It caters to a small group of eager patrons. People usually find out about us through word of mouth. It’s good, because the setting often gives us the freedom to play around with the menu. It’s flexible enough to be changed every season.”
An increasing number of Korean restaurants, shops, theaters and even galleries are run on appointment basis nowadays, something that strikes more than a few people as snobby.
CGV, a multiplex chain, recently announced that it will set up a “private cinema” in its I Park Mall location in Yongsan, central Seoul, with two screens ― one with six and another eight seats ― on reserve for private groups next month.
“It took a good two years for people to get used to the system,” says Lee Kyung-ok, a public relations officer at Leeum, a corporate museum with one of the largest collections in Korea. Since it opened in 2004, visitors have been required to make a reservation. “Our main motive was to create an agreeable environment for visitors to appreciate art, but there have been more complaints than you can imagine.”
Visitors to Leeum are required to make reservations two weeks in advance. Currently, the museum accepts 60 people every half hour, for up to 720 visitors a day. The figure is based on the museum’s service team, who figured visitors would start to feel crowded among more than 800 people, given the scale of the museum.
Appointments are a requirement for many retail businesses, as well.
Vera Wang, an American designer brand for bridal gowns, which opened a local branch last year, locks its shop in the Lotte Avenuel Department Store when its has an appointment with a client. Shopaholic, a shop with mostly imported designer goods, requires appointments so that its limited number of assistants can better assist visitors.
Another example is the restaurant “In New York,” which has only one table, and sits tucked away in a corner of Dosan Park in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul. No reservation, no table. The place is, apparently, seen as one of the most romantic places around in which to propose marriage.
(Its chef, Choi Na-eun, says she’s been asked to step outside the restaurant until the visitors finish their meals so as to avoid overhearing proposals from behind the curtain that separates the kitchen from the dining room. But she added that she once saw a young man bring a wash basin with him to wash his girlfriend’s feet before proposing.)
“Consumers impulsively tend to like items that are rare and exclusive,” says Jeong So-yeon, a marketing consultant at Solution, which promotes membership magazines and luxury brands such as “Le Plus,” a jewelry shop that runs strictly on appointments. “There are people who insist on putting their names on the mailing list for our membership magazines when they are not members. We tell them it’s for members only, but they insist on buying the magazine.”
by Park Soo-mee