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Staff picks: Best bars in Seoul
Snazzy makgeolli and soju-based drinks at our favorite bars in the city
In Korea drinking and eating go together like gin and tonic. Sure, you can have gin straight up. But it's so much better with some tonic water. At least, that's our explanation of Korean drinking culture, which almost always involves food.
In that sense, some of the bars on our list may not seem typical as they pay equal (if not more) attention to the food as they do to the drinks. But that's not to say the drinks aren't delicious.
With bartenders getting creative and winning awards with cocktails based on traditional Korean alcohol such as makgeolli (a milky-white Korean rice wine traditionally consumed by farmers) and soju (a spirit traditionally made with rice -- although nowadays manufacturers use other starches like potatoes or barley) Seoul's best bars are home to some unusual and delectable drinks you can't get anywhere else in the world. Here are some of our favorites.
For all its emphasis on organically and locally brewed brown rice makgeolli, Hongdae's Taste of the Moon (or Wolhyang, as it's called in Korean) is neither overpriced, hyped-up gimmick nor a greener-than-thou hippie watering hole.
Wolhyang is pleasantly unpretentious and sweet -- just like its drinks, which range from makgeolli of various proofs (anything up to 15 percent) and flavors (everything from the standard apple and peach to the more unconventional citrus and tomato).
"Although the organic thing is often emphasized, it's far from being the selling point," says Violet Kim, frequent CNNGo Seoul contributor.
"Sure, there may be something to be said about feeling virtuous and healthy while you're getting drunk, even if it's through delicate sips from what look like little cereal bowls. But Wolhyang's selling point is taste and comfort, which is what true urban hedonism should be about."
Like any popular bar, Wolhyang is busy on Friday nights, but it's busy in a cozy way. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable. And most importantly, the cream-colored makgeolli goes down smooth and easy like honey.
Speaking of honey, they also have a mixed makgeolli drink that contains honey.
"Some of our older regulars prefer the traditional brews," says Hwang Yu-na, a Wolhyang staff member. "And the younger customers usually go with the makgeolli cocktails."
Wolhyang also breaks the cardinal rule of trendy bar management with its reasonably priced drinks. Taking away can knock the price even further down, at ₩4,000 for each bottle.
Violet claims that nothing beats the regular makgeolli, but urges newcomers to try a cocktail for the sake of novelty. "The honey is not overbearingly sweet, and doesn't alter the flavor dramatically. It just tweaks the aftertaste faintly -- makes it taste richer somehow."
335-5 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu (마포구 335-5서교동); +82 2 332 9202; Monday-Wednesday, noon-4 a.m., Thursday-Saturday, noon-1 a.m.
Posh Cheongdam-dong wine bar Vinga opened in 2005, and it has become a favorite among both Seoul's insatiable wine lovers.
"I especially love the atmosphere -- it's casual but still classy and the interior makes it feel like you are inside either an ancient Greek castle or a rusty old wine cellar," says CNNGo editor Rachel Han.
The name "Vinga" is derived from French and Chinese: "vin" meaning wine in French, and "ga" meaning house in Chinese.
According to Vinga's sommelier Lilly Lee, Vinga houses some 800 different types of wine which are stored in three separate cellars depending on their characteristics.
"Wine Spectator magazine gave us the 'Best Award of Excellence' in 2010 and 2011," says the sommelier. " Vinga was the first to receive the title for two consecutive years."
The bar also offers a menu of various side dishes and meals, which are, like the wine, impeccable.
The crispy chicken thigh with mashed potato and grape (₩30,000) is delightful and comes in surprisingly generous helpings, while the seared sea bass with sweet corn and sauce diable (₩29,000) is a simple, classic dish.
Another attraction of the wine bar is the live music which kicks off every evening at 7:30 p.m.
"If you love wine and a classy environment, Vinga is a must," says Rachel. "But one reminder. There is a mini stream that runs through in the middle of the bar, so don't get drunk and fall in."
B1 Podo Plaza, 634-1 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; +82 2 516 1761; Monday-Saturday 6 p.m.-2 a.m. closed Sunday; www.vinga.co.kr
Bar Da, Hongdae
“Finding a suitable dive bar can make all the difference,” says CNNGo Seoul contributor Maxwell Coll, who recently wrote about the best sports bars in Seoul. “You won’t find ₩1,000-cans of Schlitz here, but drinks are reasonably priced and generously potent.”
Tucked away on the second and third floors of an inconspicuous building down one of Hongdae’s back alleys, Bar Da offers a laid-back escape from the scene’s many Ho Bars and jam-packed clubs.
With a Western-style bar, an interesting, hospitable staff, a smoker-friendly deck and a collection of instruments in the back corner, this dimly lit, funky joint is a solid choice for anyone looking to kick back some whiskey and converse with strangers.
“It can be difficult to have substantive conversations at the clubs, and you often run into the same crowds in Hongdae,” says Maxwell. “Bar Da draws interesting characters and if it’s a dead night, the bartenders are always up for conversation.”
2/F, Mapo-gu, Seogyo-dong, 365-12 (마포구 서교동 365-12 2층); +82 2 334 5572; open daily 6 p.m.-4 a.m.
Vinyl "street bar," Hongdae
"In Korea, I quickly came to realize that a lot of important socializing takes place at bars," says fellow CNNGo Seoul contributor Jack Ackerman.
"That’s all well and good -- except that I’m not a huge drinker and I don’t like sitting around for a long time. So I needed to find somewhere that still had good drinks but was unconventional enough to keep my interest and had more to offer than the typical bar atmosphere."
With its colorful, portable drinks that come IV-bag style, Hongdae’s Vinyl Bar is Jack's favorite haunt, and was thus included in his article on 10 creative date ideas in Seoul.
Priced around ₩5,000 won per bag, Vinyl's drinks are affordable, yet tasty, and their presentation gives patrons more to talk about than just the alcohol.
While customers can put their feet up in the cozy seating area and choose from a number of options, if they get the urge to go somewhere else, they can simply take their beverage with them -- and look trendy while doing so. (Vinyl’s colorful concoctions sure beat that crumpled brown paper bag.)
Hongdae, of course, offers plenty to do, drink in hard, from simply wandering the streets to perusing the shops. Most shop owners don’t mind the bagged drinks and are in fact, used to them.
411-1, Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu. (마포구 서교동 411-1); Subway: Sangsu (Line 6); Monday-Thursday 4 p.m.-3 a.m., Friday-Saturday 4 a.m.-5 a.m., closed Sunday.
The Flower Shop That Sells Alcohol (술을파는 꽃집), Hongdae
Quaint and lively, this flower shop-themed bar sells deliciously flavored soju cocktails for a very reasonable price, and features a wide array of drinks from common cocktails to sangria soju.
"One pitcher of sangria soju easily feeds four people, and the taste is light and refreshing," says California native and CNNGo Seoul contributor Heidi Chung.
As it gets extremely busy on weekends, bigger parties should arrive early in order to snag a spot. Ordering anju (side dishes priced between ₩10,000-₩20,000) is also required.Due to the bar's excellent service and calming, feminine interior, women in their 20s are the main customers.
"I've been frequenting this place since my freshman year in college and it's a convenient place to come and relax with your friends while sipping on some soju cocktails," says Violet Kim, who is also a fan.
358-51 Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, Korea (서울특별시 마포구 서교동 358-51) +82 2 336 5406; Monday-Thursday 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Friday-Saturday 6 p.m.-4 a.m.; closed Sunday.
Party Station, Hannam-dong
Run by singer Lim Byeong-soo, who debuted in the 1980s and still acts as mentor on music programs such as "Immortal Song 2" (불후의명곡2), Party Station is a small but well-stocked "live music bar" located in the quiet but quirky neighborhood of Hannam-dong's U.N. Village.
A nondescript street entrance leads to a subterranean world of dark marble-topped tables and fine whiskey, where guests can sing karaoke or watch the owner perform rousing renditions of his old songs.
"I like it because it's cozy and comfortable," says Ron Lee, head of Turner Entertainment Networks Korea. "And it's always fun when Lim Byeong-soo joins the party and starts singing because he has an unbelievable voice. The night turns into a private concert."
As the tiny bar only accepts up to two parties per night, be sure to call in advance for a reservation.
Yongsan-gu Hannam-dong 28-12 (용산구 한남동 28-12); +82 2 518 9090
The Timber House, Park Hyatt Seoul
While the aesthetic of The Timber House may look distinctly modern with its large mirrors and elegant lighting, the interior of the Park Hyatt’s lower level bar and restaurant is actually based on an old wooden hanok.
The traditional design concept is made more apparent upon a closer look. Details include Korean roof tiles, papered and patterned wooden sliding doors and traditional urns scattered throughout the bar.
“A lot of my friends like to come here for the cigars,” says Frances Cha, Seoul City Editor of CNNGo. “But it’s my favorite bar because of the cocktails –- I usually just stick to the regular drinks you can get anywhere else, but recently I tried their soju-based cocktails and they wereamazing. The 'Love in Sky' is now my favorite drink.”
Made with Hwayo 41 (soju), schnapps, omiza syrup and iced raspberry tea, The Timber House's "Love in Sky" (하늘연애, ₩20,000) took home top honors at the Authoritative Korean Bartender Championship in 2011, along with the "Pine Crane," another signature soju cocktail made from Dam Soul soju, Benedicttine D.O.M, schnapps, yooja marmalade and pine needles.
The bar hosts live performances on Monday through Saturday from 8:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
995-14, Daechi 3-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 대치 3동 995-14, 135-502); 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; seoul.park.hyatt.com
More on CNNGo: 30 of the world's best hotel bars