Seoul's Itaewon district gets new international flavour

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The Independent Online

The opening of South Korea's first Taco Bell restaurant on June 30 has underlined the increasingly international atmosphere of Seoul's Itaewon district.

The U.S. fast-food chain started selling its mainstay tacos, burritos, quesadillas and nachos in June, with Shin Sang-yong, president and CEO of Taco Bell Korea, telling a press conference that he hoped to attract young Korean consumers and foreign residents with its menu of healthy, Mexican-inspired meals.

The arrival of Taco Bell is merely the latest indication of change in a district of the South Korean capital that used to be sleazy but is now becoming international and chic.
The girlie bars that used to cater to the United States military personnel of the Yongsan Garrison are being replaced by bistros while stylish pavement cafes are moving into premises vacated by knick-knack shops.
Arguably the clearest sign of the gentrification of Itaewon was the opening in March of the area's very first boutique hotel - The Imperial Palace - a far cry from the dingy accommodation that used to be the staple in this part of town.
The sudden proliferation of pavement cafes has made a huge difference to this part of Seoul. A short way along the road from the Imperial Palace is Spiro Luca, an Italian art display space with a restaurant and bar that spills out onto the sidewalk, while Between is a stylish lounge bar - all chrome and glass with a frontage onto the street.
Between only opened in early June but has already earned a reputation for excellent food and an unusually well-stocked bar.
There are still plenty of bars and tourist shops clustered around Itaewon subway station. More and more, however, they are being squeezed out by Calvin Klein and Adidas, the North Face and Nike, Cold Stone Creamery and Reebok, plus a good smattering of smart coffee shops.
And nightlife has by no means disappeared from Itaewon; it has just evolved.
Five years ago, the alleyway behind the Hamilton Hotel was a shadowy thoroughfare with a single bar to its name. The Three Alleys Pub is still there, but it has been joined by a host of bars and eateries serving some of the best fare from around the world - and it is appropriate that it has been renamed International Restaurant Street.
The Bliss dining lounge has prime location on the corner of the road and serves up Euro-fusion food on its raised terrace. Upstairs, Buddha's Belly serves Thai cuisine, while the top floor of the building is a Halal restaurant. Next door, Guga Galbi is a Korean barbecue joint while above is the Izakaya En, Japan's contribution to the neighborhood.
At First Sight is a classy cocktail lounge that stands beside the Cucina Acca trattoria, which has the Copa Cabana Brazilian Steak House upstairs.
The view from Gecko's Bonji is a colorful procession of stylish young Koreans mingling with expats. Next door, My Chelsea Brunch is a New York-style dinin g experience, the Loco Loca latino bar is playing salsa music and ser ving up margheritas, while Zelen provides Bulgarian cuisine.
One of the favorites among the locals is Le Saint-Ex, an authentic French wine bar and bistro, while fans of the British-style pub or American sports bar are not left wanting, either, thanks to The Scrooge sports pub, The Dickens Lounge, The Baby Guinness Bar or Sam Ryan's Sports Bar.