KOREAN NAME: 아오이 소라
LOCATION: Seoul, Itaewon (서울, 이태원)
LOOK & ATMOSPHERE: If you take a walk down the street behind Itaewon’s mosque, you’ll see a curious sight. Shabby hardware stores, halal restaurants, ddeokbokki joints, and artists’ tiny studio-shops are all crammed into a weird, mixed up little alley that makes you feel like you’ve entered another time and place. Blending in with the pervading aesthetic is Aoi Sora.
It’s impossible to tell by the gunwale-gray concrete foundation what kind of business it used to be, save to say not much has been added. Other than a comfortable chair and couch combo up front, all the furniture and fixtures feel very functional. One wall is covered with an assortment of art books, miniature robots and toys, and other assorted knick-knacks, while a movie is typically being projected on the other wall. It all combines to give you the distinct impression that Aoi Sora looks like a man cave first, and a bar second. And that is just the case, at least as far as I could tell.
Aoi Sora is owner Hong Rang’s second job/chill place when he is not doing work as a designer. Although a lot of people recognize the bar’s name as belonging to the Japanese porn star, Hong had other reasons for his choice. Hong noticed that daytime drinking is not very common in Korea so he wanted to make a place where people could chat over a little booze while enjoying the blue sky, or aoi sora as they say in Japan. According to the promotional pamphlet, Hong says, “Afternoon drinking allows romance to thrive.” Hong’s female counterpart and partner also happens to be named Sora.
BOOZE: Aoi Sora has usual makgeolli suspects like Jipyeong and Sobaeksan, but the real gems are found in their small but interesting selection of yakju, premium makgeolli, and soju. As I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the menu, I can only give you a smattering of their options.
- Homo Ludens (호모루덴스)
- Mangang-e Bichin Dal (만강에비친달)
- Baekhwamiin (백화미인)
- Bae Haejeong Doga Buja (배헤정도가부자)
- Seolhwa (설화)
- Chilseonju (칠선주)
- Yeonmiju (연미주)
FOOD: Aoi Sora has a fixed menu with items, such as golbaengi muchim (₩30,000), grilled herring (₩18,000), beondegi (₩16,000), and salad (₩17,000). As we had dinner plans elsewhere, we opted for the simple kyeran yori, or egg dish (₩8,000).
Additionally, customers can choose from a rotating daily menu. On my second visit, options included smoked duck stir fry (₩38,000), garlic shrimp (₩28,000), oyster mushroom jeon (₩20,000), and tofu steak (₩19,000) among others.
Food prices at Aoi Sora are not outrageous but they are on the high side. Unfortunately, ordering food is a requirement.
BATHROOM: On site, unisex bathroom. Small but clean. Warm water and hand soap available.
OVERALL: My first visit was truly lovely. It was the day after Seolnal, and the place was almost empty. I asked Hong if ihwaju was on the menu. While he didn’t have any for sale, he offered me some he had brewed in one of his on-site classes (see below). It was a relaxing afternoon of enjoying natsool (낮술), or day-time drinking, and catching up with a friend.
But, my second visit wasn’t nearly as pleasant. Something about the vibe just felt off. Or, perhaps it was my fault. To do a review, you have to take pictures, ask questions, and write things down. Even though, I had told Hong on that first visit that I write a blog, it was clear that he and Sora were not pleased with what I was doing. They asked my wife in Korean why we were asking so many questions and writing things down. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the menu for fear of…? I don’t know. Perhaps, that I would try to steal their menu ideas for my own joomak? Typically, the places I visit are pleased when I ask questions and take an interest. I don’t want any special treatment so I typically don’t tell them I write a blog, or at least not until I’ve paid and ready to leave.
There were other hints that Aoi Sora is less a bar and more like Hong’s semi-private, for-profit place for him to unwind. We called ahead to ask the hours, and were told to make sure that we called again to let him know when we would arrive. Hong said he had a big party coming in and he wasn’t sure if there would be space. When asked if we should make a reservation, he said that he doesn’t take reservations, nor does he take parties over five. After we arrived, we were shunted onto seats at a table with three other customers. Meanwhile, one large table for seven was completely empty (and stayed empty for over an hour), and Hong and staff occupied the only other large table. Groups that came in after us were told that Aoi Sora was full up. Keep in mind, the bar could seat 25, potentially more, and there couldn’t have been more than 13 customers at the time.
In the end, Aoi Sora is Hong’s bar, and he’s entitled to make the rules. Totally understandable, but not a welcoming experience. And yet, this place has a lot going for it: the curious selection of makgeolli, yakju, and soju; an alternating daily food menu; and a cool, laid-back vibe where you can actually get a drink before 6 p.m. (not so rare in Itaewon, but definitely the case elsewhere in Seoul). For these reasons, I’ll probably come back to Aoi Sora. I’ll just remember the golden rules next time: no questions and no writing.
On a side note, Hong occasionally holds classes to teach people how to make traditional makgeolli. He doesn’t have a set schedule; instead you need to keep up with Aoi Sora’s site, facebook, and/or instagram.
- 2 p.m. – 7 p.m. (Monday – Wednesday)
- 2 p.m. – 2 a.m. (Thursday – Saturday)
- Closed on Sunday
ADDRESS: Seoul, Yongsan-gu, Hannam-dong 757-20 (서울 용산구 한남동 757-20)
DIRECTIONS: From Itaewon Station (이태원역), leave via exit 3. Turn right at the first big intersection. Walk straight past the foreign market, and take the second left, the one that takes you up the hill. Go straight until the road dead-ends and turn right. Go straight for another few minutes and Aoi Sora will be on your left. These maps might help you navigate if you’re having trouble finding it.