Dignified summit restaurant offers taste of an earlier time
That establishment was in the hotel run by the German Ms. Sontag, sister-in-law of the Russian Minister to Korea. Ms. Sontag cooked for the royal court and also catered to Seoul’s miniscule foreign community at the turn of the 19th century. Her menus featured bread rolls, borscht (beetroot soup), beef steaks, schnitzel-style cutlets and coffee ― a beverage she introduced to King Gojong.
While Russian influence over Korea was short-lived as the nation fell under the shadow of Japan, and later the wings of America, Ms. Sontag’s culinary influence, Dr. Lankov explained, persisted. Until well into the 1980s, Seoul’s “Western restaurants” served set meals of bread rolls, borscht, cutlets or steaks and coffee.
Interesting enough, you say ― but in today’s era of fast food, family diners and an Italian eatery on every corner, do any of these “early” Western restaurants still exist?
Close to the summit of the Bugak Skyway is the Bear House Restaurant. Since 1968 it has stood in its spectacular plot of gardens overlooking the city ― over the floodlit city walls snaking over Mt Inwhang and across the miniature central business district, to Namsan Tower. The outdoor seating here offers, for my money, better vistas than any other bar or restaurant in Seoul. Not the Hyatt’s Paris Grill, nor even the cocktail bar atop Yeouido’s 63 Building, can compete. (My wife noticed a gentleman at the desk asking to buy part of the property, probably worth tens of millions of dollars. His offer was very politely declined.)
The restaurant itself is a venerable, cabin-style building, all dark wood and windows ― though with a sharply angled roof that recalls traditional Korean roofs. Inside, there are dark beams and a dark brick fireplace. The stuffed bears and deer mounted, trophy style, recall an earlier era, and I wonder whether the huge tea urn in the corner is related, in some way, to Ms. Sontag’s samovar.
By the way, the lateness of the evening and the dark hues make it hell for interior photography.
The waiters impress. All are gents in their 60s, formally attired in silver waistcoats and dickie bows. And all are quiet, professional and courteous.
I was expecting the clientele to be ajoshis in golf clothes, but in fact, most tables were occupied by young couples. The music was pre-”Sex Bomb” Tom Jones played at a low volume: this is a commendably calm, quiet restaurant. I was anticipating kitsch, but Bear Town actually offered an ambience of quiet, if dated, dignity.
The tables are set with silver cutlery ― a refugee from the 1970s, when American influence predominated. In any other eatery, a green, plastic tub of Kraft parmesan cheese would have me sneering, but here there is no pretense of Cheongdam-dong style sophistication, making it oddly fitting.
The menu selection does not disappoint. We started with a rather good bread basket: warm rolls and toasted garlic bread. Then it was Escargots (12,000 won), French Onion Soup (6,000 won) and Vegetable Soup (5,000 won).
The snails were virtually tasteless ― which was odd, given that they were served in garlic butter. The onion soup was watery; rather like beef consomme (also on the menu), though with onions added. The veggie soup offered plenty of chopped vegetables and a thick, tomatoey taste. My daughter loved it. Is this a distant descendent of Ms. Sontag’s borscht, with the beetroot replaced by tomato?
For mains, we ordered Pepper Steak (38,000 won) and Beef Cutlet (25,000 won). The steak was sprinkled with crushed pepper corns, rather than coming in a cream and peppercorn sauce. It was a nice piece of meat, though, served rare as requested. Not bad. The beef cutlet came with melted cheese on top and a thick brown gravy; this is real, old-style donkass. Both mains came with a roast spud, a mound of rice, a sprig of broccoli and some canned, creamed sweet corn.
There is a wine list, but given the food prices, we stuck to the constantly replenished glasses of iced water. Coffee or tea was offered at the meal end, but we were in a hurry, so declined.
So, how have things changed?
“The menu is all the same,” the manager, Mr Park, 60, said. “The only thing that has changed is the price!” (A masterly understatement there, I can’t help thinking.)
Have any of the great and good dined here?
Oh yes. President Park Chung-hee ate here (“many times!”), as did King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, not to mention “American politicians too numerous to mention.”
We leave, feeling rather like an English family who have happened upon a restaurant serving kitschy 1970s classics such as prawn cocktail, steak and chips and black forest gateau, or Americans who came across a 1960s-style diner.
Verdict: An experience. The hefty prices are a downer, but the views are superb and Bear Town is one of the last living examples of Korean-style Western cuisine from the old days. Ms Sontag’s ghost, I suspect, hovers happily among the rafters.
Even so, Bear House is not the oldest Western restaurant in Seoul. For that ― watch this space!
English: on the menu
Address: 5-1, Seongbuk Dong,
Hours: 12:00 noon - 10 p.m., 7 days
Dress: Smart casual or business
by Andrew Salmon