A View from Above
From May 6 to May 15, the Yeon Deung Hoe (Lotus Lantern Festival) lights the Jongno area with a parade of brightly lit, colorful lanterns. With the Seoul city government expecting 300,000 visitors, it is proving to be a great kick-off to the warmer months. While the sea of humanity might be an important part of the festival, there is a place that is perfectly situated above the action, providing a peaceful bird’s-eye view of the festival. That place is The Youn.
The Youn, to put it simply, is a hookah bar/café located within walking distance of several downtown subway stations. It has all the staples of a hookah lounge but owner Kim Joo-nam has spent nearly ten years trying to create something unique. He has succeeded.
Kim Joo-nam, a former professional DJ (though he does sometimes spin at The Youn’s table, which sits on the floor next to Zen pool) did not start out as a hookah aficionado. A decade ago, he ran a business in the basement of the building now largely occupied by The Youn. After the place was remodeled, he was given the choice to move out or move his business to the second and third floors. Kim moved up, wanting to start a café/bar, but he knew that he needed some way to stand out from the crowd. His answer came in the way of a glass water pipe.
With the frequency at which Koreans head to Saudi Arabia on business and a growing population of well-traveled adults, Kim hit the nail right on the head. “There is some memory for hookah,” he says. So, Kim studied everything he could about hookah. It paid off.
The Youn stands above standard hookah lounges first because it is not spread lazily across an open basement. The atmosphere inside of The Youn has everything you want from a hookah bar with a few extras that literally elevate it from the standard hookah bar pack. When Kim founded The Youn nearly 10 years ago, he realized that the handful of hookah lounges in Seoul were typically located in basements. Kim sought to stand out from the fledgling pack by lifting his venue up. Located on the second and third floors, The Youn has replaced a cavernous basement with cushion-covered grottos.
The lighting is subdued but not enough to make the place claustrophobic. Fans blow a steady stream of mild incense around the room, giving an already pleasantly fragrant space a refreshing breeze. The lower floor revolves around a pool in the center lined with candles. Occasionally the bar cat wanders over, laps water, or curls up beside a scattering of candles in the Indian-themed room.
Around the island of water are low sofas or lounge cushions that overlook the neon bustle of Jongno. It is low enough to see everything that goes on outside but high enough to feel somehow like you are hovering above the chaos.
The upper floor of the cafe is occupied by more spacious cushioned booths with flowing linen that separates you just enough from your surroundings but doesn’t block out the senses. The view here is incredible and the vibe a bit more subdued than the more populated lower floor.
Kim takes obvious pride in his product. He is warm, approachable, and has a decent command of English. One of the things that makes The Youn different is that all of his shisha is both tobacco and nicotine free. They are a mixture of high quality herbs and molasses. It is certainly not free of all the health risks associated with smoking, but it provides a product that can be enjoyed by everybody. Further, Kim uses only high quality, clean burning charcoal that heats thoroughly and consistently. To maintain fair prices for the quality product, Kim has had to obtain the hookahs, shisha, and charcoal from the USA. The products that he prefers are not readily available in Korea. By importing, he says he can provide nothing but the best for his customers, while still keeping his prices down.
While hookah lounges typically offer simple drinks and cocktails, The Youn has an impressive wine list that spans continents. Not just a sommelier of shisha, Kim is an unabashed wine freak. At one point in time, Kim says, The Youn was selling upwards of 3,500 bottles of wine a year. While they have toned down their wine business, the list still includes a huge variety that Kim uses to compliment the customer’s experience. The list runs from a KRW 50,000 Stump Jump Red to a KRW 4 million bottle of Chateaux Mouton Rothschild. Kim admits that some of the pricier wines are there for his own benefit. According to Kim, there is no reason to be intimidated by wine. “If you like wine,” he says, “it is always the best.” He is available to help pair wines that will complement the bold flavors of shisha, or vice-versa. If you’d rather keep it simple, The Youn also serves a selection of high quality tea, soft drinks, cocktails, and beer.
The Youn is a product of Kim’s passion. As the business has grown, it has adapted without compromise.
“Business would be easy if I didn’t care,” jokes Kim.
Date: The Yeon Deung Hoe is from May 6- May 15
Time: 12pm-2am (12pm-4am weekends)
Cost: KRW 10,000 for shisha, bottles of wine start from KRW 50,000, cocktails start from KRW 8,000, teas start from KRW 6,000,
Contact info: 02-725-5684
Transport: Jongak Station (Line 1, Exit 4). Walk straight and it will be on your right after about a block. It is just past Twosome Place.