It’s 7 p.m. at Los Angeles’ Wi Spa and the café tables are packed. This spa, like so many in Midtown and Downtown, is Korean, which means in addition to totally nude, gender-segregated hot tub and sauna bathing rooms, there’s a communal area with additional saunas (one for every ailment), and a café serving a hodgepodge of traditional Korean main dishes like shaved ice topped with red bean. Their offerings are a far cry from the sodium-free, juice-heavy, veggie-abundant, fat-free, sugar-free, fun-free dishes often served at more Westernized establishments.
With over a half-dozen large Korean spas in the greater Los Angeles area, it’s not a rare sight to see people sitting cross-legged at low tables, digging into plates piled high with food. And thanks to Korean spas’ generous schedules (during the weekend, many operate 24-hours a day), bibimbap (crunchy rice with pickled vegetables), cold noodle soup, teok-bokki (fermented rice and fish cakes), and bulgogi (marinated beef) is readily available no matter when needed. (And yes—for the record you absolutely need kimchi between hot tub rounds.)
One could argue that the spa cafes’ inclusion of more Westernized treats like pressed juice, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream slices, macaroons, and elaborate coffee drinks might fall under the umbrella of pandering to Los Angeles’ typically diverse audience. (Or perhaps it’s an attempt to squeeze more money out of patrons who have paid the spas’ generally low entrance fees, usually hovering between $20-$40). But the act of eating a meal at the spa—yes, even heavy, salt-filled meals you’ll have to sweat out later—dates back much further.
Before Korean spas became the de facto clubhouses of Los Angeles elite, they were straight-up bathhouse called “jimjilbang,” a word you’ll now find associated with the multi-gender café and common room area. This luxury-on-a-budget tradition evolved from a very basic need. Imagine: You don’t have bathing facilities at home, so once a week your family cleans up at the neighborhood bathhouse. So do your neighbors, who you quite like. It’s a long journey, so you bring food. So do your friends. You agree to share your boiled eggs and fermented yogurt drinks (still spa snack staples), and everyone hangs out and chats. Suddenly there isn’t a reason to rush off.
If spas are a pillar of Korean socialization, then sharing a meal is its foundation. It also points to a bigger lesson about the core purpose of the Korean Spa experience. Built out from necessity, they were never meant as a way to shut out life, but rather prepare you for what’s to come. (Also evidenced by the vigorous/borderline vicious full-body scrubs, which should never be attempted on a full stomach.) So why not fully embrace Korean culture and fill up on your favorite spicy noodles? You’ll burn it all off anyway.
A few Los Angeles spa cafes worth visiting. (Admission fees are required.)