The "booking club" is a social club exclusive to South Korea, and is a unique compromise between modern Western ideals and the preservation of traditional customs. "Booking" is very popular in the capital, Seoul, and can be found in some of the larger cities outside the country where there is a sizable Korean population (e.g. New York City, Los Angeles). "Booking" is very much a man's world, an extension of the traditions already in place in society.
South Korea is still steeped in traditional Confucian values, with a very strict division in the roles of women and men. (These have broken down greatly due to the modernization and Westernization, but not by a whole lot). Most importantly, chastity is still valued very highly. After all, the most famous romantic tale is the story of Chunhyang, who epitomized the ultimate ideal woman by refusing the advances of a corrupt governor, claiming that she was only one man's wife. Even in these days, it's considered unseemly for a woman to take the role of asking a man out; it gives the impression of being too "easy." So how exactly do two people meet if their circle of acquaintances isn't wide enough?
That's what booking clubs are for. Women and men come here to be introduced to each other through the use of a go-between. Instead of entrance fees in Western clubs, tables are "bought"; you rent out a table for the night with a group of friends. Each table comes with some snacks and some form of liquor; what's on the table is dependant on how much you want to spend. Obviously, "better" tables can be bought (where the liquor at the table isn't beer, but perhaps whiskey or soju), but the price of the table rises enormously, and "upgrades" are really meant for the men, not the women. (The best tables are usually private rooms, similar to karaoke rooms, and are meant for men.) Tables for girls are substantially cheaper than tables for guys, and for good reason: first, to encourage them to come to the club, and secondly, because most girls never sit at their table for a long period of time. Still, it's rather expensive; a single table can cost a few hundred dollars, which is why if you go, you go in a fairly large group.
Men's tables are very expensive, especially the private rooms; a single night out can cost up to US $1000 (~1,000,000 won) for men, not including additional drinks and tips, depending on what kind of table is bought. Each room has several waiters serving it; in many cases, customers have a specific waiter that they prefer or are in good standing with.
You might be asking yourself, "Why would there be a waiter if there is food and drink already on the table?"
The waiter's primary purpose isn't to get more food and drink (though they can be). What you order from a waiter are women.
Private rooms are equipped with television or plasma screens whose feed is coming from the dance floor inside the club (where the girls are dancing to atrocious techno k-pop). The men in a private room will observe the screens to pick and choose among the women dancing (as if they were no more than menu items), and will then give their "order" to their waiter. The waiter will leave and return with one of the items in your "order", dragging whatever girl you especially liked enough to make a request for. She'll sit down next to you, and the waiter will depart to serve someone else.
So what do you do now?
You make small talk, of course. You introduce yourself, and try to impress her in the short time you have. While it's true that you chose her and that the waiter dragged her over to you, she's free to leave if she doesn't like the way you look, or how you spoke. If you're lucky, you'll exchange email addresses/phone numbers, but you know it's over when the girl says that her friends are waiting for her at the table (a blatant lie; her friends are being shipped around from table to table, too). Hopefully by then you've snagged her number, and you can always call her later if things went well.
This is where the benefit of buying expensive tables come in. Having a private room and expensive liquor on the table is a not-so-subtle way of saying, I have money. Lots of money = good job = good university = good potential husband. Also, lots of money = lots of presents. It gives you a marginally better chance that the girl will stick around to really talk to you; nobody likes a cheap desperate loser.
(Cultural note: There is a rather distressing trend of materialism and superficiality in South Korea, especially in women. It doesn't help that blepharoplasty and other surgery is very common; it doesn't help that trendy clothing is very expensive (Italian brands are popular); it doesn't help that trendy clothing is also generally made or sold in one size - give or take, size 4 (25-26" waist). This is to make sure that clothing is only worn by the "right" women. This has caused a rise in the number of incredibly bad habits in women.)
If things go really well between you and the girl, there are a ton of cheap motels nearby that you can use. If she leaves, then it's no big deal; the waiter will bring over the next girl you've chosen, and you can talk to her instead.
As you can see, being in your waiter's good graces means that you'll always have a ready supply of girls being delivered to you. A bad waiter will be slow or inefficient; a good waiter will be able to snag the very pretty and popular girls quickly for you (as some girls will constantly be at someone else's table). It's expected of you to tip your waiter well for their service, typically a hundred bucks or more. This is just your tip, not the group tip. If you are in especially good graces with a waiter, they'll alert you by calling you or text messaging you on the nights that the club is "hot"; that is, full of pretty girls.
Girls, however, have a very different night in comparison to guys. Upon reaching their table, girls will usually head straight for the dance floor, which has several video cameras. They can dance for as long as they want; as long as they're on the dance floor, they will be undisturbed by a waiter. It's only when they get off that the real action begins. Sometimes a girl will make it back to her table to rest before a waiter comes by, but if she's pretty, she definitely won't make it and she'll be disturbed the moment she gets off the floor. A waiter will come up to her, and politely inform here that someone is interested in seeing her.
The token and obligatory answer is, "No." It saves face for the girl; she has made her "good girl" response. She doesn't really want to go, that's not something she's interested in doing... the waiter will simply ignore her responses and take her by the arm to drag her, "unwillingly," to whatever guy wanted to speak to her.
The girl will then sit down and chat with the guy; if she's not interested, she'll politely excuse herself and leave. If other men have requested her, then she'll be picked up by another waiter again and conveyed to the next guy. It's very likely that she won't see her friends for the rest of the night, which is why carrying a cell phone ("handphone") is very important, especially if you want to leave together. (Or, more importantly, leave with someone else...)
Now the observant might be asking themselves, "So... what happens if the girl really means 'no' when the waiter comes?" It doesn't happen too often unless the girl's tired. If she really does mean no, and makes that clear to the waiter, he'll let her go. He won't force her, of course; there's no point. But no waiter will touch her for the rest of the night. So the girl will be sitting at her table for the rest of the night, and a boring (and expensive) night that will be.
These sorts of clubs are very popular with the university and young single professional crowds, despite the expense. It's a quick and painless way to meet a lot of new people in a very short time (kind of like speed dating). It frees men from the hassle of trying to pick up girls (since they all come to him), and it frees women from the social stigma of meeting men. If anyone's in South Korea and has a few friends, it's one of the few "must try" things, if only to appreciate the way a compromise has been worked out socially.
(Another cultural note: many booking clubs are run by local gangpeh (a gang; similar to yakuza) of some sort, so if you ever have the interest to go to one of these clubs, it's best to make sure you've got the money. It's not all that wise to run up a huge bill and not pay. You will end up paying, though maybe not in the way you expected to.)
Remember folks, liquor is the ultimate social lubricant!