The secret history of Min's Club: Imperial family estate becomes fusion restaurant
I wish Min’s Club -- which marks its 10th anniversary this year -- would serve more Korean food.
Given the cool historical background of this house-turned-restaurant, it seems only fitting that the hanbok-clad servers would bring out ornate royal cuisine like sinseollo or grilled okdom from Jeju Island.
Instead, bouillabaisse and beef tenderloin (albeit hanwoo) are served within the century-old wooden walls, which are covered with antique hand-painted screens and paintings.
A brief history
In the early 1900s, the house was owned by the family of Empress Myeongseong (명성황후) -- Min Byeong-ok, the descendent of Empress Myeongseong's nephew Min Ik-du, to be precise.
Apart from its noble ownership, the house is also known for its preeminent role in Korea's acceptance of elements of Western culture.
Built by architect Park Gil-Yong who designed the first Korean department store, the building that became Min’s Club was Korea's first modernized -- or Westernized -- hanok.
Features such as en suite bathrooms made it architecturally revolutionary for its time, and the house was designated as a Folk Cultural Property by the Seoul government for being one of the earliest examples of fusion culture in the country.
"In a way Min's Club is a meeting point between East and West," says manager Sin Yong-cheol. "So serving Western food makes sense."
It was a lived-in private hanok until 2001, when it was renovated with the assistance of the Seoul government, and opened as a restaurant in 2002.
"Another reason for the more Western menu is that because the place used to be a house, we have the kitchen of a regular lived-in house a restaurant kitchen," says Sin.
"We simply don't have the facilities to prepare anything too elaborate, in terms of traditional Korean food."
Despite the architectural milestones and the popularity of the Last Empress' tragic story (she was assassinated by the Japanese for her strong opposition to Japanese influence) in recent pop culture, the frequent patrons of Min's Club hardly go for the historical significance.
“We come here for business lunches because I like the atmosphere of the rooms,” says Baek Soo-hyun, a businessman who works in Myeongdong.
“It’s a great place to take foreign clients who appreciate the traditional setting but probably couldn’t eat traditional Korean food.”
While there are some Korean dishes on the menu, most of the options are Western, ranging from confit of duckling leg with garlic and rosemary (₩31,000) to spicy linguine pasta with mussel and shrimp (₩29,000).
The Korean options include ddukkalbi (Korean beef burger steak, ₩35,000) and hanwoo beef tenderloin with namul -- seasonal wild vegetables (₩39,000).
The main courses are the highlights of the lunch menu.
The bulgogi bibimbap hot plate is plentiful and delicious, while the bouillabaisse with abalone, basil and tomato sauce is more reminiscent of a spicy (and scrumptious) Korean tang (soup). Lunch is priced at ₩52,000, not including 10 percent tax.
For me, it seems like sacrilege to eat in such an old, beautiful building, but many of the restaurant’s patrons don’t really know -- or care -- about its history. They do however, recognize that it is a special place, if for no other reason than the relatively high price.
“It’s a little too expensive to come all the time, but I like to come for semi-special occasions that call for celebration,” says Hwang Hong-min, who works at a law firm nearby. “The hobak sikhe is my favorite dessert.”
I have to resist the urge to tell a group of study-abroad obsessed lunching ladies to keep their gossiping noise level down ("It's disrespectful to the house!") but then again, I sort of like the fact that this place isn't touristy at all.
Yeah, if people were taking photos in the halls and poring over guidebooks that led them here, no more quiet business lunches for me at Min's Club. I like my fellow patrons indifferent.
Min's Club (민가다헌), 66-7 Gyeungun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea (서울시 종로구 경운동 66-7); +82 2 733 2966; lunch: noon-2:30 p.m. dinner: 6 p.m.-9:30 p.m.; www.minsclub.co.kr
More on CNNGo: 5 reasons to stay at a hanok while traveling in Korea