When it comes to South Korean culture, the best-known imports this decade have been K-pop music acts like BTS, BLACKPINK and PSY who seem to love ALL CAPS as much as your anger-issues uncle on Facebook. Still, they aren’t the only global trend coming out of Seoul right now. The capital city with the hair-challenged neighbor to the north has become a hot spot for food, style and beauty.
Most people traditionally stay in central Seoul, where underground nightlife scenes can be found in expat neighborhoods like Itaewon and college-centric districts like Hongdae. These places are worth visiting for modern art galleries, streetwear shops and clubs like Cakeshop, Contra and Soap, while Myeongdong is a shopping district with countless beauty stores like Nature Republic, Innisfree and Too Cool For School. Still, the most famous spot is Gangnam, an affluent district located south of the Han River and immortalized by the K-pop hit “Gangnam Style.”
Gangnam is the place to go for progressive gastronomy, luxury fashion stores like Beaker and rooftop bars like KLOUD and Hotel Cappuccino’s gintoneria. People have called it the “mecca of plastic surgery” and Seoul’s answer to Beverly Hills (redundant, I know), and the see-and-be-seen vibe makes Gangnam the right place to break out those designer threads. Other neighborhoods might have more to offer in terms of museums and traditional culture, but those who want to eat, drink and party like a LMFAO video will find their buzz in Gangnam. The following are PRØ tips for doing so.
Fast-Rising Food Scene in Asia
When most people think of culinary hot spots in Asia, places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Osaka and Tokyo all come to mind, but the hottest under-the-radar food scene can be found in Seoul (with Taipei deserving an honorable mention). The cuisine, which borrows elements of Chinese and Japanese gastronomy, has developed its own distinct identity that often features balanced contrast (e.g., salty and bitter, sweet and sour), communal sharing and more sides dishes than a Thanksgiving feast. Anyone worth their weight in table salt knows about Korean BBQ and street food, but the fine dining scene is on point with 26 restaurants receiving one or more stars in the 2019 Michelin Guide.
Now before discussing the fine-dining scene, the elephant in the room is the controversy surrounding the Michelin Guide, which published its first edition for Seoul in 2017. So far, Korean-language editions reportedly contained spelling mistakes and factual errors, and the media has criticized its three-star designations as real WTFs. One headline read, “Michelin Guide Accused of Selling Out to South Korean Government.” A local publicist even told PRØHBTD, “There were many eyebrows raised when [La Yeon] was immediately awarded three stars. It’s owned by the Shilla Group, under Samsung. Honestly, I think the Seoul Michelin Guide is a bit of a shambles.”
La Yeon, interestingly enough, is one of the few fine-dining establishments not located in Gangnam. Just as the street food options might be better across the Han River in the city center, the most progressive restaurants are typically found in Gangnam, starting with the city’s unrivaled star, Mingles (image above). Mingoo Kang, a young chef who helped run the Olympic torch across the country for the 2018 Winter Olympics, elevates and modernizes Korean cuisine with insanely good mashups like a crème brûlée ice cream sundae.
Another exceptional choice is Ryunique (image below), helmed by chef Tae Hwan Ryu, who expresses his love of art and storytelling through visually stunning cuisine rich in French and Japanese craftsmanship combined with Korean culture and products. The dinners typically exceed 20 courses and come with a map that details where he sourced the ingredients and a one-page comic about the experience. The chef, who spoke with PRØHBTD last year, agreed that an item in his chocolate forest dessert looks just like a magic mushroom.
Mingles and Ryunique feel more young and hip, while Kwon Sook Soo feels far more conservative, but don’t let that stop you from visiting the fourth-floor restaurant. With service more reminiscent of Japanese fine dining, the restaurant serves highly elevated cuisine that, quite frankly, sounds a bit underwhelming on the menu. For example, the cold pine nut soup with blossom flower and shrimp might not sound like a showstopper, but it’s arguably one of the best dishes in the city.
Finally, many New Yorkers might recognize Jungsik from its sister location in NYC, and the Gangnam original certainly does deliver perfectly executed dishes, but they’re often too straightforward in a city whose culinary creativity is exploding right now. Don’t prioritize a visit.
Of course, no discussion of Korean cuisine is complete without talking barbeque, and Gangnam is home to one of the best BBQ joints in the entire city. Saebyukjib is a relaxed, casual, walk-in only restaurant that’s open 24 hours, making it a late-night destination on the weekends, yet the prices are on the heftier side. The money that clearly doesn’t go into the decor and ambiance does make its way into the quality of ingredients as Saebyukjib offers some of the best meat in town. Daredevil diners might want to open with the surprisingly good yook-hwe bibimbap (raw beef salad), but the ribeye is the must-try headliner. Yes, you do cook the meat yourself, and yes, it does come with about two dozen accompaniments.
Amazing street food can be found throughout the city, but consider traveling outside Gangnam to popular places in the heart of the city like the Gwangjang (est. 1905), Tonjin (founded by the Japanese during World War II) and Dongdaemun night (more touristy) markets. For elevated street-style food, head across the Yeongdong bridge from Gangnam to a large container complex called Common Ground, which houses everything from emerging streetwear fashions to a food truck courtyard.
Korean cosmetics date back centuries, but the industry reportedly got a boost in the early 1960s when the government temporarily banned outside products and again in the 1980s when a handful of French brands outsourced their production to South Korea. An emerging entertainment industry fueled the growth of the fashion and beauty markets, and homegrown brands began to establish themselves in the early 2000s. MISSHA (now Able C&C), for example, opened the country’s first major cosmetics brand shop in 2001, and countless other brands followed, in some cases taking over the former facilities of French brands.
Many would argue that modern Korean cosmetics now rival the iconic French brands, and beauty-related tourism is now a thing in cities like Seoul where tourists come for snail-mucin serums and procedures like wrinkle-banishing laser treatments.
Major beauty companies like Nature Republic and Innisfree will seem ubiquitous, but many of the best luxury brands are found in Gangnam. 3CE Cinema‘s movie-themed flagship store seems especially popular with in-the-know locals, while the flagship Sulwhasoo store also offers facials and other beauty services in its onsite spa. Chaun, meanwhile, might be the top medical spa with every imaginable type of service, including DNA analysis. Gangnam is also home to Village 11 Factory (go for the sheet masks) and the art-inspired Jung Saem Mool (go for the Essential Star-cealer Foundation). The latter is the namesake brand for one of the country’s most famous makeupartists.
South Korea is the first Asian country to legalize medical cannabis, though it’s the U.S.-based expats who are leading the way with K-beauty x CBD formulations. Dr. Jenelle Kim (JBK Wellness Labs), an expert in skincare and traditional medicine, launched Cannabis Beauty Defined in 2012, while Janice Buu introduced her own CBD-infused Korean-style beauty products in 2015 with Los Angeles-based Kana Skincare. More recently, Colorado-based Folium Biosciences partnered with a South Korean cosmetic manufacturer to create a line of hemp-based “cosmeceuticals.”
For K-beauty in general, the Soko Glam blog is a good place to keep up with the latest trends.
Stay in Style
Gangnam is home to many of Seoul’s most luxurious hotels, including the Park Hyatt and Imperial Palace, but travelers wishing to balance budget and beauty should head to Hotel ENTRA. The ultra-sleek hotel features a modern design with massive windows and gorgeous views, and if the weather is right, the 21st-floor Secret Garden opens up on the rooftop. Nightly rates at the 92-room hotel start at around $100 in low season.
Unfortunately, the amazing public transit system does a better job connecting the international airport to the city center (via an express train) than it does to Gangnam, so most travelers will need a subway transfer if they want to take public transit. However, a 15,000-won ticket (approximately $12.50) for Bus 6006 will get travelers to the Prima Hotel (fourth stop), and the ENTRA is only a few minutes away walking east on Dosan-daero. (Click here for more information on Gangnam-bound buses in English.)
Gangnam is home to the EDM-heavy Octagon, which DJ Mag currently ranks No. 7 in the world and once ranked No. 1 in Asia. The media site describes the 3,000-person club as “the jewel in the crown of Seoul’s vibrant nightlife” with state-of-the-art tech located in what feels like an illegal ’90s warehouse rave. The all-night party starts at midnight and doesn’t end until daylight.
Soju is a popular Korean spirit that’s comparable to a light vodka. The clear and odorless spirit is typically consumed neat, but some mix it with beer to create what locals call a somaek or blend it with fruit for a Korean-style alcoholic shake.
Gyeongbokgung is the most impressive palace in Seoul, though other popular options include Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeonghuigung and Bongeunsa. Only the latter, Bongeunsa (image above), is located in Gangnam.
Women wishing to bring back some South Korean style should pick up a Gu De handbag, while golf apparel brand Mark & Lona collaborated with acclaimed Los Angeles artist Tommii Lim on a must-have line (image below) of shirts, shorts, sneakers, hats and accessories. Meanwhile, those who want to arrive with a bit of Seoul style should check out the U.S.-based streetwear/cannabis brand Sundae School.
Speaking of cannabis, the Korea Customs Service (KCS) has warned expats not to consume it overseas, noting that cannabis use is still illegal for Korean citizens even if it occurs in a place like Canada that legalized it. Per the KCS, “Koreans who return here after using the drug could face criminal charges.”
That’s what you might call some serious K-bullshit, but it makes a point about how serious the country takes its prohibition. South Korea did legalize medical cannabis, but getting caught with recreational cannabis can result in up to five years in prison or a $40,000+ fine. Worse still, police officers reportedly have the right to check people at will, often testing hair follicles, so consider dialing back on the dab rig before hopping on that flight across the Pacific.
Black and white photos by Anton Strogonoff/Flickr. Tommii Lim shoes image courtesy of Mark & Lona.