Koreatown offers a hell of a lot more to the city than steaming bowls of bibimbap. One of the best things about the hood, squeezed in between the Annex and Bloorcourt, is the many karaoke bars to choose from. They're mostly tucked into basements below other businesses, the only tip-off being the smallish decals on glass doors. Those doors lead downward into many tiny dens of hilarity, full of people who very clearly are not ashamed that they cannot sing by any stretch of anyone's imagination.
My friend Jordan and I set out to explore this heretofore unknown (to us) territory on Saturday night after a few drinks, and we're both pleased by what we find.
Here are four karaoke bars in Koreatown worth venturing to with a pack of friends.
BMB Karaoke is the biggest karaoke option in Koreatown. It's also had a "Grand Opening" decal on its front window for about a decade. As we wander in, the reception area is packed with a group of ten people in their twenties waiting on a room. There are ten rooms in total, and the brightly-coloured doors to each room look like the front doors to suburban houses.
BMB has different books of songs, so you can be sure to have a selection of songs to suit your desired language. We pop our heads into one group's room, and they're stoked to have a book in Spanish. "I've been here five times in the last couple months," one of the women in the room tells us. The Spanish book also includes English Karaoke faves like Savage Garden, Fleetwood Mac, Cher, and the Beatles.
Back in the hallway again, snippets of badly-warbled songs waft out from under the doors. "I haven't heard any good voices yet," Jordan whispers. He actually looks kind of impressed at the consistency of badness. "But they sing without shame like they're a hot kettle." All in the name of good fun, yes?
You can enjoy your hot kettles with sides of beef jerky, which seems to be the only snack available "due to smelliness of some foods," according to the guy behind the desk. But there's a bar on weekends, serving up shots ($5.50), mixed drinks ($6.00) and a selection of bottled beer ($5). Pricing for the rooms starts at $20 per hour and climbs to $60 for "VIP" treatment.
Going to Freezone feels exactly like doing karaoke in a friend's basement. There's a beer fridge stocking Blue, Coors Light, and more palatable options like Steam Whistle and Corona, as well as a variety of juices. I have to wonder if they're even licensed, as the only other liquor available is a couple of quarts of Smirnoff and Beefeater half-hidden in a corner.
We run into Jordan's friend Adam as we walk in. He's here with a group of about 10 friends. Adam surmises that those who frequent karaoke bars are usually introverts by day, and they come to blow off a little steam. I'm not sure I agree totally, but that certainly appears to be what's going on in the room he's partying in.
He also secretly whispers to us that the catalogue is bad, and laments about having to sing old-school Britney Spears tunes. Regardless of that, though, the place seems charming to me, and half of the eight rooms are occupied, with another group coming in and grabbing beers as we leave. Pricing starts at $20 for four people and climbs to $60 for 12 to 15.
XO Karaoke above Clinton's is one of the more well-known karaoke operations in the neighbourhood. As we wait in the reception area, a huge group of twenty somethings gleefully worships the night to the sort-of tune to City High.
A young dude in a baseball cap comes over to chat while waiting for a drink. He tells us he likes to sneak in backpacks full of beer. I'm not sure that's the best plan, especially given the fact that XO has the best bar setup of any in the area. Along with your requisite beers (50, Budweiser, Steam Whistle, etc)., they've also got import beers like Heineken and a selection of top shelf booze like Grey Goose and Hennessy, in case you're special occasion karaokeing.
There are seven rooms in total, some much larger than others, and pricing varies based on the size of the room. It starts at $20 per hour for a small room.
Gorhe Gorhe is more targeted to the local Korean community, with the majority of their song selections in Korean. There are lots of Korean snack foods available at the bar as well, like nuts, candies, and squid. That's not to say those who are outside the community are unwelcome, though, by any means. The staff are super friendly to my friend and I, welcoming us in and chatting. There's a great selection of songs in English, too, nothin' but the hits, really, like Spice Up Your Life. Rooms here are $30 per hour.
Where's your favourite spot for karaoke in Koreatown? Sound off in the comments below.
Photos by Denise McMullin
by Sarah Ratchford via blogTO