Sports bars in Seoul are a dime a dozen. If you want football, baseball or UFC (Ultimate Fighting bouts), there are plenty of pubs that will offer a stool on which to park your bum and a screen on which to feast your eyes.
But if rugby’s your game, then you need to be at The Workshop.
This street-front establishment sits on the curving road that climbs the lower slopes of city landmark Mt. Namsan. This district, Haebangchon, was originally a shanty town for North Korean refugees at the end of the Korean War; now it’s an expatriate-centric, after-hours entertainment zone bristling with bars, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and more bars.
The Workshop’s owner is South African expat Tobias Jerling. After first visiting Seoul in 2006, he relocated in 2009. In addition to The Workshop, he currently runs Hidden Cellar – a lounge-style property in the same building around the corner – and 1842, a Czech bar and restaurant, while also importing wines and spirits.
The Workshop is Seoul’s premier pub for rugby. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times
From pop-up to rugby pub
Originally, the location was a mechanic shop. When the mechanics vacated, Jerling, who was already running Hidden Cellar and had a good relationship with the landlord, opened The Workshop as a “pop-up.” Jerling had played for and continued to socialize with expatriate rugby team Seoul Survivors, so the theme came naturally.
“Back home, you have a brai – you have a barbeque – and you watch rugby. I missed that a lot,” Jerling said – so he lured that crowd. “I know all the rugby boys here, and this is a bit of a home for them now.” (In fact, The Workshop is one of the team’s sponsors.)
The pub survived its sell-by date as a seven-month “pop-up” back in 2014. Today, it is a permanent fixture in Haebangchon’s lively bar scene.
His patrons are a mix of expats and a growing sprinkling of locals, including Korean Rugby Union staffers and players. “We have people from so many different walks of life: You can have a CEO chatting with someone who is traveling around Asia – it’s special to have that,” Jerling said. “Some places can get a bit rough, but not our place – it’s just fun.”
Outside, on a decked area, are benches on the street for people watching. Inside, the pub’s feel is reminiscent of the workshop it once was, with a grease-proof work floor, cement walls and plywood furniture. Decor takes the form of rugby jerseys, empty beer bottles and chalkboard menus. This is a sports pub, not a Viennese drawing room. But it’s bright and buzzy.
Rugby is not the only sport on offer. A dartboard hangs in the rear, and those who require the lav must run the gauntlet of the players.
Check out the games
Rugger luvvers are well catered for. Five TVs, including one giant-screen, are strategically dotted around the bar, which means even a myopic midget will be able to see at least one. Your correspondent, watching the Rugby World Cup’s opening match between Japan and Russia last Friday evening, had eyes on three separate screens from his bar stool.
On weekdays, the pub only opens in the evenings, but the Rugby World Cup this month is a very special time. Most international rugby events, being in Europe or the Southern Hemisphere, offer hideous timing for Asian fans, but with the current tourney taking place in neighboring Japan, timings are spot on.
This big event, and its special timing, demands special service. “If anyone asks us, we will open up,” said bar boss Reza Karr, another South African. “We will even open if there is just one person who wants it – we will not turn down anyone who wants to watch any game.”
Czech out the taps
Watching rugby is horribly thirsty work. The Workshop, fortuitously, has plentiful lubrication available to anyone suffering from a dry throat.
For beer lovers, fine choices await. Mass-market lagers are available for callow youths, but the pub’s flagship drafts are weightier, grown-up offerings: All hail from the Czech Republic. As well as the classic Pilsner Urquell (8,500 won/$7), The Workshop also offers Kozel Pale (5,000 won) and Kozel Dark (5,000 won). All are classic, round-bodied and fully-hopped central European suds. Crafts and ciders are available bottled.
For gentlepersons of more refined tastes, cocktails are mixed at the bar. Your correspondent sampled a “Dark and Stormy” (10,000 won) – Australian Bundeburg rum, ginger beer and lime on the rocks – and was well satisfied. (It’s tough work, this, but someone has to do it.)
For ill-mannered thugs, despicable savages and beerbarians, shots are offered. Finally, for wimps, simps, losers and milquetoasts, soft drinks are served.
Fill your boots
Those who require sustenance to accompany libation will not be disappointed. The bar menu offers burgers and salads, but the smart money is on the savory pies.
Made in-house, these include Spinach and Cheese, Lamb and Feta and Chicken and Mushroom. Priced at 12,500 won, they are served with French fries and gravy. Generously filled, piping hot and with the pastry basted to a fine, toasty brown, there may be no finer meat pie east of Suez.
But be warned: They are made in-house, so take 20-30 minutes to reach your table, from order to service.
To sum up: Thumbs up.
The Workshop is a convivial spot for north-of-average booze and grub, even if rugby is not your bag. If rugby is your bag, this is THE place to watch and discuss the game in Seoul. And the pub is doing its bit for the sport’s visibility in a country where the rugby is barely played and little known.
“We have quite a few Koreans visiting now,” Jerling said. “But you also get people walking past in the street, and you hear the boyfriend telling his girlfriend, ‘Ah, that’s rugby!’”
English spoken? Yes
Address: 11 Sinheung-ro, Yongsandong 2(i)-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
|Directions: From Noksapyong Subway Station, it is a 5-10 minute walk: Exit station in the direction of Haebang-chong/Mt. Namsan. Walk past the rear entrance to the US Army base; continue up hill, past the display of kimchi pots stacked against the wall; Workshop is on the left.
Monday-Thursday 6pm-12am; Friday 3pm-12am; Saturday 1pm-12am; Sunday 3pm-12am.