Saturday, April 11, 2015

Taxonomy of Korean Drinking Places

Dear Korean,

I recently stayed in Seoul for a while and was looking for a place to have some wine. However, my Korean friend told me I should careful about where I step into, because there are many different kinds of 'clubs' - there's the normal dance clubs for young people, and then there's hostess clubs/ host clubs, there are dallan jujeom  for businessmen only, then there's all the "bangs," like noraebang, PC bang, DVD bang. Could you give me a glossary of the different kinds of 'clubs' or 'bars' that's available in Korea, so I don't wander in by mistake? I saw a shop named "Bacchus" and wanted to go in for wine till my friend told me that it was "errm... for guys.... to sleep....."

Wandering Female in Seoul

What better way to come back after two weeks than talking about drinking?! 

Let's get right into it. Koreans drink, and they drink in all kinds of places. Here is a taxonomy of places where you can enjoy adult beverage in Korea. Like every attempt to categorize human society, the categories below are not hard-and-fast but are generalized groups.

Tier 1:  Hangouts with Alcohol

There are places in Korea where one can drink, but alcohol is not the main attraction. For example:

- Restaurants:  Nearly every restaurant in Korea sells alcohol, although one would primarily visit a restaurant to have a meal. The selections are usually soju and beer, and sometimes makgeolli. This is a very broad category that is particularly susceptible to a sliding scale. That is--some restaurants are closer to eating places, while other restaurants are closer to drinking places. Where a restaurant falls on that scale depends largely on the types of food it serves. Seafood restaurants, for example, would fall closer to the "drinking place" end of the scale.

- Convenience Store:  Korea does not have the silly public drunkenness laws that most places in the U.S. has, which means it is possible to drink virtually anywhere in Korea. One of the popular hangouts is the plastic table/bench in front of a convenience store. You simply purchase your choice of alcohol and food from the store, and plop your butt down on them chairs. Most convenience stores, in fact, sell packaged foods that are popular with drinkers.

Just like this.
Certain parts of Korea (e.g. Jeolla-do, or southwestern Korea) takes this concept to an entirely new level. Not only can one drink in front of storefronts, one can even order relatively high-quality cooked food. 

- Outdoors:  Outdoors? Yes, outdoors. TK means it: you can really drink just about anywhere in Korea. At the beach? Yes. On the river bank? Yes. While hiking on a mountain? Hell yes. In fact, if the weather is warm enough, there will be mobile vendors selling drinks while walking around those places.

- Sports Venues:  Simple enough. Baseball, soccer, bowling, pool--none of these places would be as fun as they are without alcohol.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Tier 2:  You Go Here to Drink

And then there are places where alcohol is the main attraction. 

- Street Carts [포장마차]:  Drinking in Korea does not get much more fun than drinking at a street cart. Along with alcohol, a typical street cart would sell noodles, dumplings, fish cakes, sausages, chicken gizzards, etc. 

Be sure to note the type of street cart, however--like restaurants, there are many different types of street carts, and only a certain type caters to the drinking crowd.

- Bars: Yes, Korea has regular bars, like the kind one could see in the U.S. There are far too many different types of bars to generalize--there is wine bar, soju bar, microbreweries, makgeolli bar, sake bar, you name it. If all you wanted to do is to chill out while having a drink, and you rear is too precious for a plastic chair, you would go to a bar.

On average, bars in Korean tend to be closer to "lounges" in the U.S.--slightly quiet with low music, which is conducive to talking within your table. Many bars, in fact, have separate rooms for each party. Dancing and/or randomly meeting members of the opposite sex do not usually happen at a bar. (Those things happen at a club.)

- Clubs:  If you feel like drinking and dancing, you would go to a club. There are two types of clubs: a "dance club" and a "booking club." Both feature drinking and dancing, with DJs mixing music. "Dance club" is essentially the same as a club in the U.S.; a "booking club," however, has an additional element. At a booking club, the waiter shuffles the lady guests to tables and rooms occupied by men guest like speed dating. Ladies may choose to hang out with the men, or decide to move on.

Tier 3:  Adult Establishment with Alcohol

Finally, we have places where alcohol is a sideshow like Tier 1, but for a different reason. The classification of the establishments below are extremely fluid. Some places are relatively innocuous places to hang out with (almost always) scantily clad women, like a strip club in the U.S. Some places are merely preludes to prostitution, like a strip club in the U.S.

- Noraebang with "Helpers":  There are two kinds of noraebang, or karaoke. The majority of them, in fact, fall under Tier 1--you go and sing, and have a drink or two as you go on. But a smaller subset of karaokes involve "helpers" [도우미]--usually women, scantily dressed, who hang out and drink with you. When you are going for a karaoke, double check to make sure you are not walking into the wrong kind.

- Male- or Female-only Bar:  There is a big range within this category. Some are called "Talking Bars"--where attractive women (usually, but a man sometimes) sit and chat with your party while having drinks. Some are called "Host/Hostess Bar", in which a strip tease goes on. The unifying factor in this category is that the bar space is open, and other patrons are visible--which tends to limit the more risque stuff.

Inside of a "Talking Bar"
- Room Salon:  A classic Konglish that repeats two words that mean the same thing. This is a straight-up, dirty-old-men place that is, at a minimum, a strip club with touching. As the name implies, you would be sitting in a room, which brings the level of "adultness" to another level. If you are not interested in this type of establishment, good news--it is nearly impossible to accidentally walk into this type of place, as they rarely rely on the business coming from a random passer-by.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Aren't room salons primarily for Koreans only? I've been told this is not the type of entertainment typically available for foreign guests unless it's a special circumstance, or your with the right people and you went to the right place. I know in some room salons they even have a different price structure for the escalated level of entertainment for Koreans (700,000 won) vs. non-Koreans (900,000 won). To me room salons have always been one of those things Koreans in general prefer not to talk about with non-Koreans, sort of like eating dog meat. We all know it's prevalent and its nothing unusual to Korean men, but we just prefer to keep that one to ourselves. Also, by calling it a "straight-up, dirty-old-men" establishment, isn't that casting judgement? Plenty of young men (is late 20s / early 30s considered old?) frequent these places for "work reasons". And don't feel bad for them working girls either. One told me she clears about $150,000 USD net annually! I'm sure she's on the far extreme but $150K in a country where the avg income is about $35K is nothing to sneeze at, especially if you don't have any dependents.

    I'm trying hard not to view the world as a right or wrong world, but rather a same or different world.

  2. While hiking around Seoul on a weekend I have hiked to the top of the hill and saw old women selling soju and snacks (it was not later than 09:30 in the morning by then) and actually lots of people were purchasing these items and sit and rest under the trees looking at the view. My utter surprise at this caused me to stop and stare and I guess the rudeness was forgiven due to my being an obvious tourist since one of these ajumma and ajusshi groups started talking to me and as soon as they realised they have actually been to my home country they very nicely invited me in and we conversed without understanding eachother and them consuming soju like it was vitamin water or something. I have provided their entertainment that morning and we parted amiably but I keep thinking how these old couples wearing hi tech and probably expensive hiking gear (poles and all) were all sitting there enjoying soju and snacks on a hike in the MORNING! And no one else saw anything weird in that. Korea rocks!


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