Story by: Zach McCullough, Photos by: Adela Ordoñez
The Seoul club scene, vibrant as it is, can get a bit staid if you go out a lot, and sometimes you need something different to spice up your night. Through trial and error (and a good tip here and there), we’ve found a few places that rank as the best under-the-radar clubs in the city. Though some of the clubs that made the cut don’t even have a dance floor, the one commonality among them all, besides being in Itaewon (which was just by chance), is an active approach to only playing good — noncommercial — dance music.
119-29 Itaewon-dong, B1 floor
You can usually expect to hear a solid spread of deep, soulful house, and there’s a good mix of Koreans and non-Koreans drinking and going crazy.
Venue is set right off the main road in Itaewon and buried under a set of stairs. It’s a bit of a hole in the wall — just dark and grimy enough that people aren’t scared about getting down (which is why we go there). One recent night we stopped in at midnight and it was so empty we just turned around. When we went back a few hours later people were spilling into the street. The DJ blew the speaker out that night, but nobody blinked and we ended up having a great time.
The management and the foot traffic of Venue have changed some since we first started going there, so it’s a little hit or miss these days. But when Venue’s good, it’s really good and you don’t want to be anywhere else.
119-8 Itaewon-dong, B1 floor
This European-style club draws a cool, trendy crowd. Though sometimes a little tight with the dimensions, it is nonetheless one of the best clubs in Seoul. And rarely do people get pushy.
The staff of the narrow, low-ceilinged club always seem like they’ve really done their homework. A set by DJ T last winter was one of the best nights out I’ve ever had in Seoul. He played an assortment of old-school Chicago tunes, jackin’ DirtyBird house well into the morning.
On a good evening expect to hear a lot of (new) classic and deep house. The resident DJ is Moritz, a lawyer from Germany who plays deep house most weekends.
There’s also a pair of Korean guys calling themselves The Weekend who I’ve seen play there a couple of times, plus many more.
Berlin is a dinner club joint — like something from the American1920s (except you can drink) — with a small DJ setup in the corner. It’s a more sophisticated/hipster crowd of Koreans and non-Koreans in their late twenties to late thirties, usually drinking beer out of tall glasses or pounding mocha latte martinis.
If you walk down to the end of the block past Starbucks and McDonald’s, you’ll see Berlin’s glowing neon sign hanging over a big window across the street on the hill. Cross the street, head up the hill and you’ll find the place on your left, with the door down a set of wooden stairs. From about 9 to 11 p.m. on weekends (when there’s a DJ), you can expect to hear an eclectic mix that ranges from house/deep house to disco, garage to techno, and just about any other sub-genre in between. Even though there is no dance floor — except on New Year’s when it’s nearly always at capacity — I had to slip Berlin into the mix because some of the best breaks I’ve heard have come out of this little drinkery.
116-15 Itaewon-dong, B1 floor
Not too different from Mystik, and right down the road, is LUV. The crowd at LUV is pretty hip: They’re not too young and not too old, and there’s generally an even mix of Koreans and non-Koreans who are mostly drinking, sometimes dancing.
It’s a lounge more than a club, so it’s a good after-work spot during the week. It’s somewhat awkwardly shaped like an L, with a long bar and low seats on the perimeter, which is sort of awkward. But the music is usually so good that it doesn’t matter. The DJ booth, which is particularly interesting, is a pod-like vessel next to the bar. It’s raised off the floor just a bit and surrounded by a glob of big speakers.
Recently, LUV, along with some music-minded people called Project Outings Pro, did a big hoopla night called “Stranger Than Paradise” with their resident DJ, Andi Numan from New Zealand, and The Weekend. They also flew in this great label manager/DJ from Japan. It was a destination-event with lots of balloons, hipsters with balloons and a huge free guest list until 11 p.m.
Expect to hear a slew of genres including house/techno-house and nu-disco. LUV also makes people smoke in the bathrooms, which is a nice perk for the non-smokers — until you have to go to the bathroom.
74-1 Itaewon-dong, 2nd floor
Last up is a brand new, conceptual, social spot just opened this year. If you walk out of Taco Bell and head left down the street, parallel to the main road, you’ll eventually see a large rectangular sign on the left with camo print that says Union. On the second floor, there is a small soju-style restaurant/bar. Above the restaurant is a small, bare, mostly wooden room containing a table stacked on some cinderblocks with a couple of turntables and a brand new set of speakers on the floor. The last set of stairs goes up to the roof. The small roof space has about a half dozen or so knee-high tables and an amazing (typically unseen) back view of Itaewon.
The crowd at Union is mostly young 20-somethings and mostly Korean, and usually they’re just hanging out or dancing a little. On a Saturday in July there was a Korean DJ mixing quintessential ‘90s hip-hop along the lines of old Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest. The owner, who was very friendly, told me they don’t just play hip-hop. You can expect to hear a blend of non-commercial hip-hop/instrumentals, disco and house.
This is a seriously cool, music-centric spot with an easy neighborhood vibe that’s highly worth checking out.