Along a single strip of road in the otherwise sprawling city of Seoul, you’ll find two of the city’s very best cocktail bars right across the street from each other: Alice Cheongdam and Le Chamber. Located in the Gangnam district—yes, everyone’s favorite viral song from 2012 is actually named for a part of Seoul and the swanky style you might find there—the two bars are now getting international acclaim as well, climbing up the charts in both Asia and the world.
There’s a special synergy between the two cocktail bars, located in such close proximity—ne that’s hard to understate in a city whose drinking scene is still dominated by soju and beer. While the two bars are entirely separate institutions with separate teams, what they have in common beyond locale is a near-obsessive level of hospitality, along with intricate menus, creative concepts and highly inventive drinks.
A Walk into Wonderland at Alice Cheongdam
You have to go down the rabbit hole to find Alice Cheongdam, semi-hidden through a functional florist and a flight of stairs. Once inside, low-slung leather lounge chairs replace bar stools, and a seasonal welcome drink is offered, both encouraging guests to take their time while reading the playful thematic menu.
“Korea is known for its beautiful seasons, and even if you go to the same place, you can find different beauty from one season to the next,” says head bartender Willy Park. “The menu expresses the four seasons with a style that matches Alice’s theme.”
The bar’s upcoming menu features an emoticon to match a cocktail’s particular sensory experience, with QR codes revealing full ingredients and explanations. Previously, a graphic novel depicted a mischievous rabbit’s adventures on the town, with colorful illustrations accompanying each drink.
The playfulness doesn’t stop with the menus but rather continues with each drink’s ingredients and presentations. The Birds & the Bees, for instance, features basil-infused gin with pineapple, honey and an IPA foam, served in a mug contained within a straw bird’s nest loaded with chocolate eggs for you to snack on. Another drink was smoked within a mirror-backed jewelry box that guests pop open with resounding delight.
Le Chamber’s Luxe Lounge
Le Chamber is also a basement bar, though rather than hidden behind a flight of fancy, the flight of stairs here leads you into a luxurious cocktail lounge replete with a chandelier and grand piano. The city’s stylish night owls may be out in abundance, but the key to the friendly environs is that everyone is welcome.
The bar’s code of conduct is “Hyang-Eum-JuRye,” which refers to a traditional etiquette from the Joseon Dynasty, Korea’s renowned kingdom that ruled for five centuries after its founding in the late 14th century. “Both the high and low classes were invited to drink in public so that they could each learn the manners and disciplines that were valued in culture,” says head bartender Tae Woo Park. “This also serves as a great reminder that today’s fine drinking is to drink responsibly.”
A recent menu showcased a diverse set of ingredients and drinks, from classics to barrel-aged cocktails and omakase cocktail flights, all with accompanying illustrations as well as helpful information such as the drink’s flavor profile and ABV. The Love or Hate is a standout with Islay whisky, amontillado sherry and truffle, along with a revamped Pisco Sour featuring yuzu and basil oil.
The Unifying Force of Hospitality
Two high-end bars this close to one another can either foster a unifying atmosphere or carry on as bitter rivals.” It’s the former that’s on display in Gangnam with neighbors Alice and Le Chamber.
“We don’t think it’s about competition, but instead it’s about increasing the bar scene in Korea overall,” says Park. “Each bar also provides a different individual experience, and it’s common to receive recommendations from our bar to Alice and vice-versa.”
“I personally think we should strive to serve customers like true friends, without pretending or pretension,” says Du Ui Hong, the outgoing bar manager at Le Chamber who this year will open his own bar, Nlin. “Then that one guest might bring 10 people to your bar.”
Hong believes the hospitality roots for both establishments can be attributed to the backgrounds of their respective owners, both of whom worked in Seoul’s glitzy hotels. “It’s not special to make a drink, but it’s difficult to actually be a good bartender, which means be a good friend,” he says.
It’s a sentiment that’s shared back across the street. “Of course, a bar’s drinks should be delicious, but the warm hospitality that people give you is much more than that,” says Park. “I think the most important factor in any good bar is the interaction between the bartender and the customer.”