[Herald Interview] Restaurants that sell a story

By Kim Da-sol

The space feels more like a bar, where quality Korean beef and tender lamb chops are grilled at the table by the staff, who also recommend alcohol pairings from the store’s ...

  • Published : Feb 2, 2018 - 20:55
  • Updated : Feb 2, 2018 - 20:56

It’s hard to settle on a restaurant in the bustling Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon, where the dining scene seems to change by the month.

The constantly shifting topography of eateries is currently all about mixing and matching different cuisines or being authentically foreign, with eating out becoming more of an exuberant repast rather than a simple meal.

In a back alley in Itaewon is Yoo Ji-young’s Korean barbecue restaurant Tongue & Groove Joint.

But don’t expect to walk into a typical Korean barbecue restaurant, as one would not come to expect that from the charismatic owner, donned all in black and unreserved, with a hearty laugh that few would find resistible.

The space feels more like a bar, where quality Korean beef and tender lamb chops are grilled at the table by the staff, who also recommend alcohol pairings from the store’s more than 100 types of drinks -- without breaking the bank.

Yoo Ji-young poses in her restaurant Tongue & Groove Joint in Itaewon. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
“Many say this boutique restaurant does not feel like a barbecue place. It was my intention to design it avant-garde,” the 46-year-old serial restauranteur told The Korea Herald. “I could have made the place even fancier, like a fine dining restaurant, but I did not want to exaggerate the ambience, which could make a guest feel uncomfortable.”

Yoo exudes confidence as she describes her business philosophy as being closely intertwined with life itself, just as she has risen from running a tiny bagel shop in her 20s to operating a successful food consulting firm and a chain of restaurants.

Throughout her career, Yoo has provided consulting services for over 100 brands and opened 15 restaurants on her own. She has also shared her expertise by providing lectures on dining trends at Ewha Womans University.

Some of her accomplishments include a renovation of Korea’s major retailer Shinsegae Department Store’s food court. She also participated in designing 10 Corso Cormo, a Milan-based shopping and dining space introduced in Seoul in 2008. Her most recent work with a big brand was designing a restaurant inside the Hyundai Motor Studio in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province.

Having been a dancer who majored in performance arts, Yoo said that her inspiration comes from films, arts, paintings and music.

“I consider chefs as lead actors onstage and the restaurant their important stage set. When a concept is settled for a restaurant, we decide on the interior that will set the tone.”

An interior view of Tongue & Groove Joint in Itaewon. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Tongue & Groove Joint, which opened in 2016, for instance, is inspired by Korea’s traditional wood art pieces and architecture such as seoggarae (rafters built without nails).

“The restaurant has taken the concept that we can be fully happy simply with the properties of matters that are closest to the essence,” Yoo explained, meaning once such a frame -- the restaurant’s interior as well as the quality of food -- is perfectly set, imaginations -- experiences -- can run wild, rather than feeding them to customers.

The way the employees work are also connected to such a concept, as they are guided to freely converse with customers, minus the pompous attitude.

“I envisioned a place where both the customers and the waiting staff could act like themselves without caring what others thought,” Yoo said, a strategy that has so far turned out to be on the mark, considering her large pool of frequent customers with good taste but humble needs.

Like in life, the key to standing out from the crowd and surviving the steep competition is to know oneself first and then what others want, she offered.

Most importantly, more restaurants should have their own unique “swag,” instead of copy-pasting Instagram friendly spaces.

“I don’t believe in Korean restaurants having to be all-out Korean. Why can’t a Korean restaurant play hip-hop music? As long as customers want it, we should consider putting variety and a unique combination into the restaurant.”

To this end, her previous restaurants all have unique themes with unique names, such as Witch’s Table, A Place Between Kitchen and Library and Moon Table. 

Yoo Ji-young poses in her restaurant Tongue & Groove Joint in Itaewon. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Her latest restaurant opened late last year in the bustling Gangnam district.

Haejangok sells not just Korea’s traditional hot hangover soup, but offers a whole range of remedies, including sweet red bean buns and pear juice.

“I will continue to make more unique and weird restaurants just as how there are many genres in movies. Those who watch a movie will all have different interpretations. I want to hear more of the customers’ interpretation of my restaurants,” Yoo said.

Yoo said Korea’s dining business has plenty of room to grow.

“Unlike countries like those in Europe, Korean’s dining experiences are dominated by and limited to certain big franchises. It has been booming since the 1990s, but I wish more dining options will one day help Korean customers to eat what they want, not because it was hot on social media,” said Yoo.

“If an owner does not enjoy one’s own restaurant, then the customers will not like it either,” she said.

By Kim Da-sol