Heart of SEOUL

by Julian Ryall
Heart of Seoul

photo by Robert Gilhooly

Gentrifying the capital’s streets of shame

The Itaewon district of downtown Seoul is shedding its sleaze to become a chic destination for locals and visitors alike. Girlie bars, long associated with brawling US soldiers based at the nearby Yongsan Garrison, are being bulldozed and replaced by classy eateries, while Paris-esque pavement cafes are taking over the down-at-heel knick-knack shops.

Itaewon’s nightlife has not disappeared — it has just evolved.

Imperial Palace Boutique Hotel

photo by Robert Gilhooly

Arguably the clearest sign of the gentrification of Itaewon was the opening in March of the area’s first boutique hotel — a far cry from the short-time knocking shops synonymous with this side of the tracks. The Imperial Palace Boutique Hotel quickly catches the eye, its facade of numerous brightly lit panels by day — clashing yellows, blues and reds — becoming tasteful neon at night. The lobby is equally fun: green swings are suspended by rope from the ceiling in front of a series of angled mirrors, while a high-backed velvet sofa looks like a scene from Alice in Wonderland, and the decor around the elevators recreates a classical suitcase with oversized locks and straps.

The hotel has 132 interestingly appointed guest rooms with free Internet access and iPod stations, while the bathroom soaps and shampoos are by Bulgari. As well as a banquet room, gym and business center, the hotel has a rooftop pool, restaurants and the Cafe Amiga with the perfect spot for people watching on the tree-lined boulevard. Indeed, it is the sudden proliferation of pavement cafes that have led Itaewon’s renaissance. A short stroll from the hotel is Spiro Luca, an Italian art display space with an attached restaurant and bar that spills out onto the sidewalk, while Between is a stylish lounge bar — all chrome and glass with the frontage opening onto the street. Between only opened in early June, but has already earned a reputation for excellent food — the tapas are impressively authentic — and an unusually well stocked bar.

But long-time visitors say it is refreshing to see that not everything has changed: the Koreana Folkcraft shop is still a cluttered collection of reproduction classical-style furniture, with stepped tansu chests alongside medicine chests that have tiny drawers bearing Chinese characters to identify their contents.

Between café

photo by Robert Gilhooly

The real thing, however, is now available a few doors down, with Royal Antique stocking furniture that would have decorated wealthy Koreans’ homes more than a century ago. The price is, of course, commensurate with their age and the fine workmanship of yesteryear.

Down the hill and past Itaewon subway station  — completed in 2002 — there are still plenty of bars, fast-food joints and tourist shops in the back-alleys. Increasingly, though, these places are being squeezed out by the brash new facades of Calvin Klein, Adidas, North Face, Nike, Cold Stone Creamery and Reebok, plus a number of smart coffee shops.

Itaewon’s nightlife has not disappeared — it has just evolved. Five years ago, the narrow alleyway that runs parallel to the main road behind the Hamilton Hotel was a shadowy and grubby thoroughfare with a single bar. The Three Alleys Pub is still there, but it has been joined by a number of bars and eateries serving some of the best fare from around the world — appropriately being renamed International Restaurant Street.

The Bliss dining lounge has a prime location on the corner of the road and serves up Euro-fusion food — from salmon steak through risotto di fungi and proscuttio pizza — on its raised terrace. Upstairs, Buddha’s Belly serves Thai, while the top floor of the building is a Halal restaurant. Next door, Guga Galbi is a Korean barbecue joint while above is the Izakaya En, Japan’s contribution.

Korean barbecue

photo by Robert Gilhooly

At First Sight is a classy cocktail lounge that stands beside the Cucina Acca trattoria, which has the Copa Cabana Brazilian Steak House upstairs.

I sit at the open frontage of Gecko’s Bonji — the third Gecko’s outlet in Itaewon and clearly as popular as its two predecessors, Gecko’s Terrace and Gecko’s Garden — and watch the colorful procession of people in front of me. There are stylish young South Koreans mingling with football fans bedecked in the shirts of their national teams. A gaggle of overly tall and slender blonde women sashay past, almost certainly a part of the growing fashion scene here, followed by a slightly bemused looking Russian family.

The bar has an excellent selection of beers, including Ediger Weissbrau and Paulaner Munchen, but there is always another place to try. Next door, My Chelsea Brunch is a New York-style dining experience; the Loco Loca Latino bar is playing loud salsa music and serving up margheritas beneath its impressive chandeliers, while Zelen is for Bulgarian cuisine.

One of the favorites for locals is Le Saint-Ex, an authentic French wine bar and bistro that transports diners to the other side of the world. While the wine list is impressively long, the staff have immaculate long white aprons and corkscrews close to hand, and advertising plaques for Pernod dot the wall.

Fans of British pubs and US sports bar are not neglected, either, thanks to The Scrooge, The Dickens Lounge, The Baby Guinness Bar or Sam Ryan’s Sports Bar.

With all that entertainment, critics might still charge that Itaewon is still more than a little short on cultural attractions. Not so. The Samsung Museum of Art has an impressive permanent collection of traditional Korean and modern art, as well as regular visiting exhibitions. And that might signal the final nail in the coffin of Itaewon’s best forgotten and quickly disappearing reputation.

The Imperial Palace Boutique Hotel
737-32 Hannam-Dong, Yongsan-Gu, Seoul
Tel: 82-2-6266-8000

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
747-18 Hannam-Dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Tel. 82-2-2014-6901

Royal Antique
736-9 Hannam-Dong, Yongsan-Gu, Seoul
Tel: 82-2-797-8637

Food & drink:
124-7 Hannam-Dong, Yongasn-Gu, Seoul
Tel: 82-2-795-6164

119-7 Itaewon, Yongsan-Gu, Seoul
Tel: 82-2-798-1125

Gecko’s Bonji
116-7 Itaewon, Yongsan-Gu, Seoul
Tel: 82-2-795-9656

Le Saint-Ex
119-28 Itaewon, Yongsan-Gu, Seoul
Tel: 82-2-795-2465

Sources: For more information on photojournalist Robert Gilhooly, please see: www.japanphotojournalist.com