BUSAN, South Korea — Walking through the front door of Starface on Dalmaji Hill in Haeundae, a veritable pioneering pub founded nearly two decades ago, my first concern was that somehow I had the wrong address and I had stumbled into the well-appointed parlor of a private residence.
This initial unease was quickly allayed by the conviviality of the intermingled, multinational crowd interspersed around the spacious, yet cozy-feeling pub.
Englishman, Charles Young, who co-owns Starface, along with ex-professional dancer Moon So Jeong, says that the comfortable, lived-in feeling was a result of both design and of chance.
“I like the idea of a public house. Historically in Britain, there was one house in every village whose owner would open it up to the community to meet and drink. That’s what we are going for.”
It’s an ideal that many emulate, but few pull off as well as Young and Moon have at Starface. With its subtle lighting accented with table lamps and furnished with over a dozen sofas, settees, and upholstered chairs, it’s the type of place that invites one to shed the coat and stay awhile.
Framed photos of local musicians who have played there and varied shots of scenesters adorn the deep green and vermilion walls to complete the homey aesthetic. However, the current incarnation of Starface was precipitated by chance when a kitchen fire three years ago damaged the site extensively. A thorough remodeling was required, resulting in what is now the pub that the partners had envisioned.
“Starface has always been a place where Koreans, seamen, expats, and all types of people have come. Though, it used to be more spit and sawdust,” Charles recalls.
He then describes what was once a grittier bar evocative of a Tom Waits song, a bit of a dive, where brawls between drunken sailors, ajjeoshis, and expats weren’t uncommon. However, in talking to Charles and bartender extraordinaire, Kim Bu-kyung, about the history of Starface, one name kept coming up: Dany Kang.
A luminary of the local bar scene, Dany opened Starface 18 years ago, a time when nightlife options in Haeundae were far more limited. He spoke with great fondness about its past, what it has become, and his motives when naming this unique bar on the hill. Kang says the name “Starface” was coined for the customers, as well as his high school friend, Ji Dae-han, the actor who went on to play Oh Dae-su’s best friend in the famed movie “Old Boy.”
“I named it Starface for two reasons. One, I wanted to make people feel like they’re a star (admittedly, this may sound trite until you meet the man). Also, for Ji Dae-han. Back then, he was just an extra, but my wish was for him to be famous.”
While Dany is no longer a partner in the pub, the ethos of treating people like stars is still evident on Dalmaji, an area that houses many of the city’s best art galleries, some of its most impressive architecture, and there in the middle of it all, right next to the mystery library, Starface.
Those thirsty for a cold one will find your standards on tap, and a wider selection available by the bottle, which are on special during Happy Hour before 9 p.m. weekdays. However, the cocktails are where Starface shines. The spirits selection is not enormous, but it’s smart, with one key being those little brown bottles with their yellow caps and iconic, oversized labels: Angostura Bitters, which were procured on Charles' returns to England, with their herbaceous magic in tow.
Precisely-crafted Manhattans, old-fashioneds, and pink gins (a house specialty), mojitos featuring garden-grown mint, and the Dalmaji Iced Tea, dressed nicely with cognac and Cointreau, are all in play when you saddle up to the bar stool.
And Charles loves his wines, evident in a unique offering from Spain: Torre Tallada, a blend of Tempranillo and Monastrell (Mouvedre to the rest of the world). With hints of cherry and plum and enough acid to keep the fruit fresh, it’s a steal at $5 per glass. There's also a house white, a fresh Australian Chardonnay, for $6.
Charles cooks up a mean Indian curry, along with British and Mexican cuisine.
The pub grub is solid, and well aligns itself with the diversity of the patrons. Various Korean Anju, fried chicken, beer-battered fish and chips, burgers, and the Mexican pizza are all very popular. On my first visit, I opted for the steak. The flank arrived perfectly temped to medium rare with a pile of crinkle-cut fries. A simple dish, but well-done all the same.
On another visit, I laid into a heaping bowl of curry chips. Charles describes his curry as “Kerala techniques with Punjabi style,” which he culled from four years spent in India. Unlike the yellow version that tops most chips, this curry is darker and thicker, with mushrooms providing the texture while accentuating the flavor and is also available with rice as a main; chicken, shrimp or vegan.
While those among us with a predilection for lounging and imbibing will definitely feel welcome, Starface has much more to offer. There is a pool table, darts, an ample stage for live music weekends, and a English-language lending library. It also hosts Busan's most popular and longest-running trivia night Sunday, and has special theme nights, such as Spanish and Hip-Hop to round out the schedule.
Approaching 20 years since its founding, Starface appears none the worse for the wear and is a Busan institution that still attracts an international legion of patrons. If you are looking for something different or perhaps familiar, head on up to the house on the hill.
Starface is located on the top of Dalmaji Hill in Haeundae. Your best bet is to hop in a cab and tell the driver, ‘Dalmaji, joo-ree-moon-hakwon-jook-oo-ro, ca-chuseyo. ??? ????????
You can check out their Haps page with maps and more info.
Everyone is welcome at Starface.
London Scat Party live at Starface
Lead photo courtesy of Kristina Parchomchuk via Flickr