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Explore Gyeongnidan, Itaewon’s quiet cousin

Just a few months ago, Ruf XXX, a bar and performance venue on the upper end of Gyeongnidan’s main drag, received complaints from nearby residents for causing a disturbance.

“It was during our first anniversary party. We have good relations with our neighbors, but on this occasion we were having a bit too much fun,” said Seong Kyu-ree, a project manager and performer at Ruf XXX. “The door was accidentally left open and the sound must have leaked out.”

This neighborhood in Yongsan District, central Seoul, is still a primarily residential area but in recent years has started to change as more trendy restaurants and bars open their doors here.

The main drag is a narrow street that starts from the Army Central Finance Accounting Center near Noksapyeong Station and ends near the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Mount Namsan. The street’s official name is Hoenamu-gil, in reference to the very noticeable military facility, which is also known as Gyeongnidan. But it is better known among foreigners as Gyeongnidan or sometimes as Veggie Hill.

For people seeking a serene, laid-back hideaway and people who are tired of the crowds in nearby Itaewon, Gyeongnidan is worth exploring. Though its grey cement houses and rough pavement might not look inviting at first, the street has a number of chic restaurants and bars offering a variety of appetizing dishes and a refined ambiance.

Looking very much at home at one such restaurant on a recent afternoon was longtime Itaewon resident Reese Mattison, whose apartment is near Gyeongnidan.

“This is a far cozier and more intimate district than Itaewon, not as commercial, and has such a relaxing environment in comparison,” Mattison said.

It seems he is not alone in his opinion.

“Gyeongnidan is a great place to sit back and relax with friends. I can set aside my daily routine, where I am pressed for time, and regain my composure,” said area resident Noh Ji-won, as she sipped a cup of chai at Lazy Sue, a small dessert cafe.

Situated on the corner of the four-way intersection just down the road from Noksapyeong Station, the cafe offers homemade baked goods with a comfortable interior to match.

Another coffee shop on this street is Standing Coffee, one of the first few shops to have opened in the area. The name comes from the way the store operates: you have your coffee standing up. Like many other eateries in the area, Standing Coffee is a small space of only around 30 square meters (322 square feet).

Another person to have seen the street evolve is Joseph Kim, who once owned the popular kebab diner Istanbul. Kim now owns Noxa, a cozy Italian restaurant right across from the U.S. Army base.

Kim said that he has been friends with many of the other restaurant owners in the area since the early 2000s, and remembers that “we all pooled our ideas to create special, unique dishes that stand apart from other restaurants in Itaewon.”

Flashing a friendly smile, Kim boasted that Noxa doesn’t use any artificial flavors or MSG and that all its dishes are made with fresh, seasonal ingredients.

“This is a family restaurant and these families have kids,” Kim said. “We feed them all-natural, not to mention delicious, food.”

With a comfortable patio area, Noxa has also gained a reputation as one of the few places where customers are welcome to dine and sit with their pets. Passersby may notice dogs lounging on the terrace, obediently sitting on the chairs or lying underneath their owners’ seats as they wait for them to finish their meal.

Right above Noxa on the second floor is Sydney Seafood: Fish ’n Chips. With a decor to match its name, Sydney Seafood has light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, as on a boat, and photos of the sea.

The owner said he studied the culinary arts for eight years in Sydney before bringing his knowledge of cooking Australian-style seafood to Seoul. He said the restaurant only uses ingredients ordered and purchased on the day of use.

Further up the hill is Mao, a Chinese restaurant known for its authentic delicacies including Peking duck. From the outside, the restaurant looks a little like a Chinese temple. The restaurant is a chain, with branches in northern and southern Seoul.

Up the hill past Mao is Jell Bar, a members-only, three-story wine bar. From the outside, Jell Bar looks closed off, but inside there are spacious and luxurious rooms, a large selection of wine and a staff that is knowledgeable about its product.

“All staff members taste the wine themselves so customers receive nothing but the best,” the manager, Park Chan-soo, said.

From its well-preserved wine cellars to its scenic rooftop, Jell Bar is adorned in a mix of traditional and modern accents.

Across the street is the bohemian Ruf XXX, which caters to an artsy crowd. It has three floors with a cafe, bar and restaurant on the first floor, a performing area on the second and a rooftop terrace on the top.

“Because Ruf XXX is a performance space and bar, a large portion of our customers are artists, photographers and designers,” Seong, the manager, said, adding that they are organizing a new exhibit.

Another place in the neighborhood with exhibition space is Olea Kitchen & Grocery, which opened a month ago. The first floor houses a small cafe, grocery and exhibition area called The Garage, which presents works by local artists. The main kitchen is on the second and third floors.

“The Garage actually resembles an ordinary household garage,” said Kim Hyun-ku, the manager. “Artists can hang their works on the wall or display them in the central area.”

Sydney Seafood / Noxa

Sydney Seafood

It has only been a year since Sydney Seafood opened in Gyeongnidan, but the restaurant, specializing in Australian-style seafood dishes, has already caught the attention of area residents.

The overall atmosphere is friendly and welcoming, and the window seats provide a great view.

The fish and chips are recommended.

Prices range from 7,000 won ($6) to 20,000 won.
(02) 790-2722

Noxa

Italian restaurant and bar Noxa uses fresh ingredients without any MSG and they offer a range of vegetarian options. Aside from the food, another draw for Noxa visitors is the relaxing sidewalk patio, where it is common to see weekend diners enjoying brunch with their pets. The most popular dishes on the menu are spaghetti carbonara and gnocchi de margo.

Brunch prices range from 9,500 won to 10,000 won.
Hours are 12 p.m. to 2 a.m.
(02) 790-0776

Lazy Sue / Buddha’s Belly

Lazy Sue

Located at the foot of Gyeongnidan-gil, Lazy Sue provides a comfortable, cozy atmosphere complete with delicious-looking pictures of desserts and teas hanging on the walls. The owner, Lee Soo-yeon, said she received the inspiration for the menu from her travels around the world, from Japan and New York to India. Along with black tea and Indian chai, the top sellers are lemon pie and brownies with ice cream.

Prices range from 3,000 won to 6,000 won.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
(02) 790-1912

Buddha’s Belly

A branch of the famous Buddha’s Belly restaurant in Itaewon, Gyeongnidan’s Buddha’s Belly is a small take-out shop with only four tables. As with the main branch, the green curry, pad Thai and spring rolls are the most popular dishes here.

Prices range from 8,000 won to 14,000 won.
Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
(02) 793-2173

Standing Coffee / Pizzarium

Standing Coffee

The name Standing Coffee comes from the way the store operates, in which people stand in a line outside. When the weather is nice, the owner moves a few chairs outside, making space for customers to sit and enjoy their coffee. The most popular items are the Americano and lemonade. The lemonade is unique in that it is blue and glowing; the blue comes from a special ingredient called Blue Curacao liquor, a sweet liquor made with dried oranges.

Prices range from 2,000 won to 5,000 won.
Hours are 7 a.m. to 12 a.m.
016-211-5049

Taco Chili Chili

This Mexican restaurant offers tacos, burritos and quesadillas in a bright atmosphere with pictures in primary colors. It’s recently moved from its location on the road leading away from Noksapyeong Station to a spot around the corner.

Prices range from 3,000 won to 8,500 won.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
(02) 797-7219

Pizzarium

This pizza parlor was one of the first Western restaurants in the area. The owner, Park Chan-ho said that while studying in Italy at the A Tavola Con Lo Chef school specializing in pizza, he worked part-time at the famous Pizzarium in Rome. The restaurant offers a variety of Italian-style pizzas, including margherita, melanzane, salami piccante and rucola.

Prices range from 4,500 won to 5,500 won.
Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
(02) 312-7580

Mao / Olea Kitchen & Grocery / Ruf XXX

Mao

With traditional Chinese doors, red lanterns and wooden furniture, the decor at this Chinese restaurant feels authentic. There is also an open kitchen, complete with roasted ducks hanging in a line. Mao’s specialties include its Peking duck and hot pot.

Prices range from 5,000 won to 20,000 won.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends.
(02) 793-8845

Jell Bar

Located near the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Jell Bar comprises a wine shop, a members-only bar and an outdoor terrace.

Hours for the members’ club are 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays to Fridays and 5 p.m. to midnight on Saturdays. The wine shop is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
(02) 797-6846

Olea Kitchen & Grocery

The new Olea Kitchen & Grocery offers premium grocery products on the ground floor and Italian food on the second and third floors. The grocery boasts quality products from all over the world, including olive oil, vinegar, Tavalon teas and more. On the second and third floors, diners submit their orders on iPads provided by the restaurant. The diversity of the food selection is matched only by the price, which is quite reasonable for the large size of the portions.

Prices range from 10,000 won to 40,000 won.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
(02) 792-6004

Ruf XXX

Ruf XXX is a multi-purpose bar/restaurant/performance venue. The first floor has a cafe, bar and restaurant. The second floor is a theater where performances are held from Friday to Sunday, and the third floor is a rooftop terrace where clients can see a picturesque view of Namsan Tower and Itaewon. According to the owner, most of the bar’s customers are artists, photographers and designers. Many of the people who perform at the bar also double as wait and kitchen staff, and for this reason, the owner claims that the service is more welcoming.

The menu is simple but delicious and contains three types of rice and barbecue steak with mashed potatoes.

Prices range from 10,000 won to 20,000 won.
Hours are 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
(02) 511-2570

*Reporting by Cho Jae-eun, Kim Tae-rim and Ko Min-seok

By Special Reporting Team [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

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