www.groovekorea.com / July 2014 38 Itaewon Station opened in 2000, putting the district on the metropolitan grid. The first of the big foreign restau- rants began to open, along with pubs and bars that didn’t cater exclusively to horny young men or aging Depart- ment of Defense civilians. Gecko’s opened on the corner by the subway station, and was one of the first places one could get a lunch in Itaewon that wasn’t Korean. Then 3 Alley Pub opened in the alley behind the Hamilton Hotel, with a goshiwon (place with inexpensive one-room accommodation) on top of it and nothing around it but Korean restaurants and businesses. Moghul opened down the street. Benjamin Joinau opened Le St-Ex, a French bistro, in 2000. “Everyone told us we were crazy,” Joinau says. He was aware of the neighborhood’s bad reputation, but he also felt something was changing. “The subway station was going to open, and Itaewon geographically is the center of Seoul,” Joinau says. “It’s historically speaking almost the only cosmopolitan area of Seoul. I thought if there was a place to open a French bistro, this was the place.” Le St-Ex succeeded in a somewhat ironic manner — because the location was considered seedy, the rich and famous would eat there. “At the beginning we attracted a kind of elite of Korean people who wanted something different,” Joinau says. “Most of them wanted to have a discreet way to go out. Because there were very few Korean people (in Itaewon), famous people, rich people, actors could come and not be recognized.” The movie stars came to Itaewon because no one else did. Paul Matthews, an actor from the U.K. who has lived in the area since 2001, says the restaurant culture ha s been the prime mover for change in Itaewon over the past decade, with restaurants like Le St-Ex, La Tavola, La Cigale de Montmartre and Moghul paving the way. “And then it became about upscale drinking too, like when the Bungalow opened,” Matthews says. “It wasn’t just about skeezy bars. It was about classier drinking, cocktails and having a nice night out.” Joe McPherson, who runs the Zen Kimchi blog, says the Smokey Saloon, in that same alley behind the Ham- ilton, in 2005 “hit the Korean food blogs big time. For a couple of years, a line formed outside the restaurant, mostly Seoulites who had rarely ventured into Itaewon. More blog-worthy restaurants opened, which whittled away Itaewon’s seedy reputation.” McPherson also singles out Vatos Urban Tacos, which in 2011 “exploded on the Korean food blog and media scene more aggressively than any restaurant before.” Soon it had to move to the main street. That, McPher- son feels, is when Itaewon truly gentrified. “It went from seedy to not unsafe to trendy.” Wayne Gold notes that even late at night, whereas it once took 20 minutes to line up for an egg burger after leaving the bar, one can now choose between a kebab, a Moroccan sandwich or even an empanada. Gold points to one (now defunct) bar that was famous for having “the best burger” in Korea. “And they were getting those prefab ones off the base,” he says. Now, he shakes his head in amazement at what’s available. “Kids today, they don’t understand,” he jokes. Infux of the elite Edited by Elaine Ramirez (elaine@groovekorea.com) COvER STORY