Chuseok week has finally begun. As most of the city streams out of the metropolis into small towns, the beaches of Busan and the volcanic hills of Jeju Island, we find ourselves in a much less crowded city.
We headed to Hyehwa, a neighbourhood in the northern reaches of Seoul, for dinner. After another satisfying barbecue of beef Galbi, our group starts to wonder where we should go next in this young, vibrant section of the city. We wander for a bit until Sandi remembers a small cocktail bar that she had visited once before.
Down a side alley of an unnamed Korean street it is quiet. The night is dark, lit by now-familiar explosions of vibrant neon signs with scribbled Hangul characters. Most of the shops are closed down this street, and my skepticism begins to creep in. I couldn’t be more wrong. A doorway sits wedged between two closed stores. The sign is barely readable, partly due to some strange Korean typeface and partly due to the darkness in this odd diversion. Up a sharp, narrow set of wooden stairs and we find ourselves immersed in an entirely different world.
We are guided into the bar and my mind immediately echoes a single Korean word. 묵시, apocalypse. The room is dim, almost entirely lit by candlelight, walls plastered with scribbled fragments of notes and letters pinned against the salvaged wood walls. The small eclectic room is cozy, warm and inviting, yet it bears the onus of foreshadowing a world after some violent catastrophic scenario. We have found the cocktail bar at the end of the universe.
The tables are horizontal pillars of wood, resting as if exhausted from years of upright resistance. They are dark, aged and laden with wax spatters in the style of a Jackson Pollock painting. Smiling Korean women bring our drinks and offerings of peanuts, cheese and crackers, and dried corn snacks. Quietly, a man emerges from the back of the restaurant.
He turns out to be, in my determination, the most interesting man in Korea.
He struts in the room with the demeanor of a man who never hurries for anything. It is obvious that this is his establishment, that he has spent years building this space. It is his vision, or hallucination, of another world. The man calmly strides over to the table, grey hair flopping over sullen, knowing eyes. He is perhaps in his thirties, but dresses as though he has just left college, with torn jeans and a loose, earth-tone sweatshirt. In a combination of simple Korean phrases and short bursts of English he asks us about the cheese. It is soft, lemon and dill flavoured rarity and we tell him that it is excellent. He smiles and puts his hands together, explaining that he makes the cheese himself. Through the night his hospitality is endless as he brings several rounds of complimentary snacks, including fruit, commonly known to be horribly expensive in Korea. As we eat he moves from table to table to check on all his guests, and, satisfied that all are taken care of, returns to the yellow glow of the bar to smoke a cigarette at the end of a long Audrey Hepburn style holder.
When we have finally had our fill of sangria and snacks, hours have passed. Our hosts have made no effort to move us along or hurry us out of our table for another round of customers. Just smiles and spatters of conversation, a mingling of opposite languages. We pay our bill, and are stunned to find out how much of the evening was on the house. A gift from the most interesting man in Korea. Mr. Lee, he says his name is. It tells us little, as there are only around five true Korean surnames. He juts his hand out to each of us and takes a few moments to ask our names, and repeats them back to ensure his pronunciation is correct. He makes us promise to return.
We funnel back down to the street and I once again try to find the name of the establishment, but I have no luck. Nonetheless, we resolve to return again soon for another night with the most interesting man in Korea, in the Cocktail Bar at the End of the Universe.