As a young Korean-American college student I came to Korea in heated anticipation because I knew I could go out and party. Overseas, I had heard that the party culture in Korea was awesome. This is the Korean-(or enter which ever country you were born in here) dream to come party in a night life that is crazy. And for non-Koreans that have heard of the rumored "booking" culture this sounded like a really good idea. I have been clubbing here since 1997. Can you say Julianna's, Boss, Nyla, Ellui, Answer, NB, Circle, etc. These were (and some still are) the top clubs in Korea. Clubbing days in Seoul are somewhat limited to Friday, Saturday and to some extent Sunday. This idea definitely works with the work hard, play hard mentality that many Koreans have.
Though I prefer lounges and karaokes now. I still party sometime and if you randomly scream "Sake" at a club, you might run into me. You should totally try it, I would totally buy you a drink. But be forewarned at the risk you will look like a freak in the middle of a drinking establishment (with the exception of your local izakaya.)
Here are a list of terms you should know:
Booking - speed dating on crack with alcohol. Guys book a room or a table and the waiters are supposed to bring girls over to drink your alcohol or if they have genuine interest in you to stay and chat. This environment can be somewhat hostile to girls as waiters will wait outside of a bathroom and grab their arms and literally pull them in a direction to sit. The benefit for the ladies is that going with a group this is a cheap way to get hammered. Girl tables can order a beer and fruit set (which is less than a 80 bucks on avg.) and go be dragged around to guys trying to bribe you to stay with free alcohol. Guys beware! Girls will just come drink what you offer them and the night can get expensive if you don't know how to say "leave!!" (buying drinks for girls is not that much different from anywhere else, sometimes forcing someone to leave is.) Also, guys are supposed to buy bottles of hard liquor and better quality food. Bottles can cost between 100,000-500,000 won.
Nightclub - a place where "Booking" can happen. They have private karaoke rooms and tables with a dance floor. High rollers are supposed to be in the rooms.
Club - this is your stereotypical club. There are long bars and expensive drinks at the bar with a cover charge. Table service is possible, but a minimum order has to be placed and they will waive the cover for some people (getting a table at a club usually means free cover for up to six people, but the number changes by club and size of table). Some of these clubs do have private rooms, but sans karaoke.
No-rae-bang - this is a karaoke, expect a table with couches surrounding the table where depending on the karaoke you can order alcohol or just sing till your hearts content. Too many to list so won't even try. I can probably hit a golf ball and hit a karaoke if I wanted to.
Pub - this is your bar setting, expect English to be spoken by some of the patrons, a dart board and pool table are the occasional accessories. Drafts are able to be pulled and you can get your shot list on a few pages of menus.
Lounge - not much different from the other lounges, food, drinks, cocktails and music.
Po-cha-ma-cha - cheap drinks and eats, expect soju, makeoli, beer, and side dishes to be served usually on metal tables with plastic chairs though these days they have gotten more upscale with time.
Mul - direct translation is "water." This is a way to ask if the crowd is good or not to a waiter or people walking out? If you can't speak Korean, just put your hand up to someone walking out or a waiter and say, "Mul" and put your thumbs up or down. Door people will usually always lie and say it's good so find a good waiter and tip them and get their number.
Now for the breakdown of what is current as of the first half of 2012 of what's hot and what's not.
- Club I. That is the biggest of them all and not in it's prime to say the least. I would call a waiter there and ask what the "Mul" is. But if you really aren't that interested in the loud banging sounds and can afford to book a room, then by all means. The crowds there vary in age from mid-twenties to mid-thirties. I wouldn't recommend this for the poor college student. Though back in the day my friends and I used to "one shot" (bottoms up) a bottle of soju each before heading in and splitting the bill to make the drinking cheaper. We even went so far as to not give girls drinks if they came and decided to sit unless someone was interested in some pleasant conversation~~
Unfortunately that is pretty much the only "booking" club I can recommend though some smaller places are coming back with the "booking" concept. Also keep in mind that the night scene in Seoul is seasonal.
- Ellui. Named simply for the hotel that the club is based. It is absolutely huge. One can really get lost in there. This was the original Seoul nightclub that started the clubbing rage in Korea with Julianna's. Ellui has been remodeled more times than Sean Connery's face (anyone else notice his facial hair practically comes up to his eyes now from all the surgeries he had?). The latest remodeling to make this beast of a club was taking out the whole sauna area of the hotel and just making the club a multi-level beast. Expect horrible service (too big for people to be organized well). It is packed Friday and Saturday nights and it has a lot of techno music. This is the club that almost everyone throws their birthday parties at if they are at the age of throwing a birthday party at a club. Expect to get lost in a sea of people on most nights (though sometimes it is just too big to fill up). And take your chances when they come because if you see someone you might want to chat up, you might not see them again. Age groups will be from young 20's to late thirties here.
- Octagon. This is a smaller version of Ellui. It has better service though there are still a couple of floors and a dance floor. Generally the "mul" here is pretty good, but the age range is a little higher than Ellui. Expect mid twenties to possibly 40's here (mostly the guys for the big 4-0 range).
- JJ's. a.k.a. - JJ Mahoney's. This is probably the best option for non-Korean speakers, though if you shift you way through the first two you will be able to find a few English speakers here and there. Here there is a small dance floor, a long bar and table seating all around. This has been a draw for non-Korean speakers for a long time and still is in my opinion the reigning champion. Larger than most of the clubs you can find in Itaewon, but also a bit pricier. Age range here would be late 20's to 40's.
- Phantom. This is the hip hop club version of Octagon. You will find a decent number of English speakers here as well. Age range is the same as JJ's.
- 88. This place used to be a lot of fun before Ellui came and took a lot of it's thunder away. A smaller scale club that only has one floor, limited tables and a few rooms. Occasionally this isn't a bad alternative if you decide to be club hopping and aren't having a good time at any of the aforementioned clubs. They do have shows where half naked guys come and do a rendition of some song, and will do bar shows where they light the whole bar on fire at times.
- Answer. Circle. NB - These are the smaller clubs, and almost all dance floor and no tables. Expect bars, sweat, and people packed into relatively smaller areas. I can't pick one over the other. Some days Answer is better than Circle and visa versa, but you will find a young crowd. Expect 20's and the energy that goes along with that age.
- Itaewon, while it is a region I am going to group this in one section for their clubs. And there are a number. You will find English speakers here. Here you can get tables and sometimes just order by drink depending on the club. A quick pop in and a quick pop out or a look at the line is a good indicator of how you can possibly feel about spending your hard earned money here.
- Once in a Blue Moon. Jazz bar. I like jazz and they have live performances. So to have an overpriced double scotch on the second floor (smoking floor), first floor isn't. Is a pretty cool place to take a date. Last show ends pretty early. So get your drink on early. They serve food here, but don't go here to eat.
- T-Lund. In the vicinity of Rodeo like "Once in a Blue Moon" has an interesting concept. First floor is a wine bar. Second floor is a bar with tables. Third floor is tables and bottle service only. Fourth floor is reservation only with Karaoke. Though this place doesn't seem to get too crowded sometimes a nice get away place that has a beat since they have their DJ on the second floor and anyone on the third floor can peer down to the second floor since it has an open ceiling. Though I wish they stopped playing Victoria Secret runway shows on their large screens that project to the screens between the second and third floor.
- Itaewon, again the region I will group into one. There are a number here, all with music and bars. People here are generally friendlier in nature than either of the first two. I have bought drinks here for patrons I didn't know and got to meet a number of good people.
There are a lot of lounges so there is no way I am going to cover them all, and I haven't even listed a few that I really like. Just the interesting ones at least in terms of concept for me.
If you just want a cheap night out with friends head to your nearest po-cha-ma-cha and get your drink on with local cuisine. Menus usually come with pictures so just point and go with the thumbs up. I will update this semi frequently with the new spots if this is well received.
Now time for a bit of scotch as I got caught up in writing this and have to do real work in the morning. If someone tells me where I can get Dassai 23 (sake brand) or Born then I will go back to my sake drinking ways, but when in Korea do as Koreans do. ^^
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