A New Lifestyle in South Korea: First Weekends, and Now BrunchSEOUL, South Korea, Nov. 1 — When she returned to Seoul in 2000 after 10 years in New York City, Park Su-ji introduced her fellow South Koreans to an exotic way to socialize over food: brunch.
“I really missed brunch but didn’t find any brunch restaurants,” Ms. Park said. So in the spring of 2005 she opened Suji’s, which serves toasted bagels and blueberry pancakes, among other brunch staples, in a setting that features black-and-white photographs of the Chrysler Building and Union Square in New York.
Ms. Park said that she had thought her restaurant would primarily attract Western expatriates. But two years later, scores of restaurants in Seoul offer or even specialize in brunch — and they are filled with South Koreans. Restaurant owners and local newspapers say there may be as many as 200 such restaurants.
The sudden embrace of the leisurely late-morning repast reflects greater exposure to Western customs and cuisines as more South Koreans travel, work and study abroad. But it also is related to a watershed development at home: the mandatory weekend.
For decades South Korean governments have stressed hard work and making money, which has helped to turn the country’s economy into one of the most robust in the world. But starting in 2004, the government began shortening the official workweek from six days to five. Now, all enterprises with 50 or more employees are required to provide two days off. By 2011, all companies must do so.
The discovery of the weekend has meant an explosion in new activities. Inns have opened up all over the country to accommodate overnight excursions. The new opportunity for short trips to neighboring countries has helped catapult South Koreans to the top ranks of tourists in the region.
The unaccustomed free time has also meant that South Koreans can start indulging themselves like the young New Yorkers they had been watching in syndicated television sitcoms like “Sex and the City,” whose characters always seemed to be whiling away enjoyable hours over brunch.
Now, on weekends female friends, male buddies, couples, parents with toddlers and three-generation families all line up outside crowded brunch restaurants like Suji’s, Butterfinger Pancakes, Tell Me About It, Flying Pan Blue, Stove and All Day Brunch. Some restaurants are so packed that reservations must be made days in advance. Once inside, if they can get inside, people spend two to three hours chatting away.
“Before the five-day workweek started, we were always tired after drinking until late, because nighttime was the only time to socialize,” said Suh Yang-ho, a 29-year-old who was having brunch with a colleague one recent Saturday at Stove.
“I think it’s healthier to relax like this over home-cooked-style food in the late mornings,” said Mr. Suh, who works at Credit Suisse in Seoul.
His colleague Choi Hey-rung, 30, gave another reason for preferring brunch. “I don’t want to cook,” she said. “So on Sundays, I bring my family, including my parents-in-law, to brunch a little after noon.”
Traditionally, married Korean women have stayed home with their families; they did not go out with friends on weekends. Now, married as well as single women avoid cooking when they can and are leading the move toward eating out. They regularly get together with friends over brunch. Daughters are introducing their mothers to this laid-back way of passing a weekend morning. Wives are trying to get their husbands to appreciate the leisurely lifestyle it represents.
On a recent Sunday, Han Kye-soon, 29, was catching up with three other single women at a corner table at Suji’s.
“I feel like a New Yorker or a Parisian, like the characters of ‘Sex and the City,’” said Ms. Han, a pottery designer.
What makes the brunch fashion somewhat surprising is that Koreans tend to be reluctant to try non-Korean foods. Even when traveling abroad, they gravitate toward kimchi (fermented vegetables) and bibimpap (rice with vegetables and chili paste). Eating steak and potatoes with knives and forks can be considered an act of sophistication.
Brunch is popular even though some Koreans do not really like the food served at the meal: eggs and bacon, pancakes and toast are all a marked contrast to the usual Korean breakfast of rice, soup and vegetables. The portions are huge by Korean standards. And brunch can be expensive, typically around 25,000 won, or $27.50.
Will the brunch boom last? Clearly it has not taken with some people here.
On a recent Sunday, Jegal Min-jung, 22, and her parents were sitting at a table in the middle of Suji’s. Fashionably world-weary patrons occupied seats by the wide-open windows, while young couples perched on high bar stools.
Ms. Jegal, who had heard about Suji’s from a friend, had wanted to experience brunch with her parents.
Her mother, Kang Deok-hee, had agreed: “It sounded like it would be less greasy than other Western food, like steak with gravy.”
Wishing to sample a variety of dishes from the English-language-only menu, the family ordered eggs sunny side up with toast and sausages; blueberry pancakes; and egg salad with fried potatoes and a toasted bagel. But the time it was taking for all that food to show up tested the father’s patience.
After steaming silently for some time, the father, Jegal Yoon, shouted to the waiter to serve the food more speedily.
“Bring each dish when it’s ready,” he said. “I’m busy and need to leave as soon as possible.”
His wife made a face, then smiled. She explained, “My husband has to go to work after this.”
By SU HYUN LEE