Seoul is a drinker’s mecca. The city abounds with bars of all sorts—LP request bars where you choose the music, swanky and expensive cocktail lounges, traditional “hofs” (Seoul’s beer hall) with rows of long booths and menus of canned peaches and squid, “booking clubs” where waiters play matchmaker, and soju tents for drinking under canvas in the open air. Though beer and soju—a half-proof spirit similar to vodka—are the most popular drinks, these days you can get pretty much anything you want, by the glass or bottle, in this city of lushes.
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1. Bar Da
Up a narrow and steep flight of stairs is the black-panelled, dimly lit Bar Da, one of Seoul's most iconic bars. It has an old-fashioned divey feel to it, with a piano in the back, pictures and postcards tacked to the walls, and in one section, a collage of patrons passed out in the bar—a common occurrence in this hard working, hard playing country. The music is ambient and dim, and on each table is a very Korean small plate of peanuts and dried anchovies for snacking.
Da also has one of the city's best (and most reasonably-priced) scotch and whiskey lists, and a decent selection of cocktails. And if it's too busy on the main floor, you can climb the rickety fire escape upstairs, where they will be happy to satiate your thirst.
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2. Suzie Q
Suzie Q is one of Hongdae's great basement dives. It's an LP request bar, which used to be all over the city and were often named after classic rock bands. Many are gone now, but Suzie Q plows on, and in grand fashion.
DJ Mr. Cho will play almost anything you'd like to hear from the stacks and stacks of vinyl behind him, or from the laptop next to the turntables—just scratch down your request on the little rectangles of white paper they have on every table. Led Zeppelin, New Order, Olivia Newton John, REO Speedwagon, Boney M, and Stevie Wonder—that's just a smattering of what you might hear during an evening at Suzie Q. The bar has a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere, and the free cheese puffs and popcorn are a bonus. Just don't throw them into the tea-lights—the staff hates that.
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3. Pojangmacha (Soju tents)
Pojangmacha are a dying breed in Seoul. Considered by government officials to be unsanitary, unregulated eyesores, the once ubiquitous soju tents are being shut down one by one throughout the city. Made of tarps over steel tent frames, a single soju tent can pack in up to 50 people, depending on its size. Inside, the owner will serve soju and beer, as well as anju (drinking food) like chicken gizzards, soondae (blood sausage), jeyuk bokem (fried pork), odeng (boiled fish cakes), or jeon (pancakes).
Many of the remaining soju tents are in the central neighborhood of Jongno. You'll find one just outside the YBM language school and some behind Jongno 3-ga's Nagwon Arcade. Get there soon, though—there's no telling how much life these have left. Remember, there are usually no credit cards, bathrooms, or English.
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In the last 15 years, the foreigner district of Itaewon has transformed from a sleazy U.S. Army neighborhood to an uber-gentrified entertainment hub. Venue/ is a small basement club somewhat reminiscent of a cheap old-timey jazz club with its sticky black tables, tea lights, and long vinyl couches.
No jazz here though; Saturday nights it's "Deep' n' Down" house music, and on Fridays it's hip-hop, R&B, and funk. They advertise themselves as "Small Club, Big Sound." It is so dimly lit it's almost impossible to see in front of you, but that gives it a friendly vibe, albeit a little creepy. The venue (pun intended) attracts locals and foreigners alike, probably because bottle service is cheap before midnight, and a rotating roster of DJs and parties keeps things interesting.
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5. Moloko Plus
At the top of the aptly yet irreverently named Homo Hill, is Moloko Plus, Seoul's most fascinating LGBT club. Modeled after the "milk bar" in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Moloko Plus is small, dark, and surreal, with naked, milk-white mannequins in brightly colored wigs seated throughout the bar. There is a door to a second room in the back, modeled as a closet you can literally come out of. Feel free to kick around the beach ball while you're there too, if there's space.
The clientele, like much of Homo Hill, consists of mostly foreign men, swaying to loud dance music frequently played by Heezy Yang, one of Korea's most talented and outrageous young gay artists.