Beer in Seoul
As is often the case when discovering a new dive bar, I didn’t plan on going there. But on my walk home the itch for that proverbial last beer took hold and I went for the closest watering hole.
I saw a few people—some Korean businessmen (were these regulars?) in wrinkled blazers—sitting and talking outside, a cluster of Hite cans and the unmistakable green soju bottles on the table in front of them. That was a good enough sign for me, so in I went.
If dive bars are nothing else, they must be free from irony; this one passed that test. The lighting inside was harsh and fluorescent—no trendy Edison bulbs here—and the floor linoleum. An older guy in blue coveralls was hunched over in the back, slurping some instant noodles. The alcohol selection was sparse—Hite, Cass, a few exports, and the obligatory soju—but then, you don’t want to be making decisions at 3 a.m. I grabbed a can of beer and some spicy Sun Chips, paid and walked out. The businessmen were laughing amongst themselves and didn’t pay me any mind as I found an empty seat and drank my beer.
That’s a dive bar, I thought to myself. No dealing with a cocky bartender, no need to tip, and plastic chairs outside in which to sit and take in the city noise. As I walked away that first night and looked back at the businessmen, I knew that soon, I’d too become a regular at my neighborhood 7-Eleven.
I had been living in Seoul, Korea for a few weeks by then and had just started to grasp the abundance of drinking options: the fried chicken and beer tower spots, expat Irish pubs, or the ubiquitous karaoke bars. Each had its own merit, but my favorite drinking establishment turned out to be a convenience store. 7-Eleven ticked all the boxes of a great dive bar: cheap alcohol; snacks like kimchi instant noodles (hot water included), umami-packed crab chips, or gimbap (rice and spam rolls); indifferent, non-judgmental bartenders or cashiers; and outdoor seating.
It sounds petty, but of the many gripes I have with the U.S., I always go back to the so-called open container laws. There’s something emblematic about the fact that you can’t drink a beer outside in the Land of the Free. Outside my local 7-Eleven in Seoul there was no huge NO LOITERING sign, just some old, perfectly adequate plastic lawn chairs and a table. They were almost encouraging people to stay.
Eventually, as often happens, I had to share my local dive with my friends. After meeting up one evening, we couldn’t decide where to head for a drink. “I know a place,” I said. 7-Eleven wasn’t a stop on the way home anymore. It was the night’s only destination.