When I lived in Korea I tried to find all the cafes in Seoul that were focused on high quality coffee (you can find all of them on my global cafe map), but in the process I visited a bunch that were less than stellar. However, even the least palatable coffees in Korea are often served in beautiful, or at least amusing surroundings. From vintage Volkswagen buses used as kitchens, to four-story tall Dunkin Donuts, to minimalist bars that could just as easily be the next generation of Apple stores, there is a creatively designed space to suit every mood or affinity.
This eclecticism in cafe design could be attributable to any number of things – the primacy of the cafe as a social space in a nation where many young adults live at home until marriage, where many live in tiny places too cramped for entertaining, where social norms stigmatize eating or drinking alone, where the sheer number of commercial venues providing such social space demands ingenuity to draw in customers, and where safety laws and labor are lax and cheap. I’m certain that only scratches the surface.
In this environment the cafe form thrives and has evolved in ways that, at times, one can only blink at, wide-eyed. For instance, I’ve written about ‘Dr. Fish’ cafes in the past, where you buy a coffee and cake set, and then dangle your feet in a pond full of flesh eating fish that nibble away the dead skin on your legs while you chat with your friends. I can’t imagine that passing health codes in many other places, but it’s one of many unique combinations of coffee, space, and service that have developed here in Korea.
In the pictures below I hope to convey a little bit of that diversity, and also to share with you some of the places and experiences that didn’t quite make the cut for a post here on FRSHGRND, but that were nevertheless entertaining or indicative of wider trends in Korean cafe design. Additionally, you’ll see just how much I end up filtering out to make sure that only the best recommendations make it on to this site.
I don’t have time to caption every image, but if anything piques your curiosity, please ask away in the comments below!
The picture at the top of this post is Seoul seen from the far Eastern edge of town, and above is a shot near Shinchon, in the West-Central part of town.
Hand sorting at Apgujeong Coffee House. This is actually one of the better old-school roasters in Seoul.
W Seoul provides Frieling french presses in their rooms. Nice touch if you bring your own coffee and grinder.
$15 espresso, blend roasted by LAMILL, at the Park Hyatt’s sky lounge. Not good.
$7-8 for a coffee is not uncommon. Another relatively common thing is the ability to select brew strength… always a bad sign.
Coffee Smith is actually not bad, but it’s such a scene that I never felt it was worth featuring here. The shots above and several below barely do justice to how massive the place is – and the entire front facade opens during the summer.
An entrepreneur – hot water and instant coffee mix at Namdaemun market.
I generally describe these types of cafes as ‘old-school Japanese style.’ Lots of single-origin coffees roasted too dark.
Yes, this exists.
The ice-cream waffle, a Korean cafe staple – prices usually range from $7-14. Popular because it is easily shared with a group.
The shot above, and the next several images are from a beautiful restaurant, cafe, and wine bar housed inside the Royal Toto toilet showroom. Yes, the basement level houses a gallery of high tech toilets that look like space pods.
Have a nice day! If Bladerunner is the ambience you crave, then these $0.30 cent machines are for you.
Smaller roasters are very common at places that want to stand out. 95% of the time it’s deceptive and means you will have poorly roasted coffee.
The photo above was an interesting place – a retired woman loved coffee so much that she converted her large basement into a cafe and started serving pour over coffee and snacks.
The place above roasted your coffee AFTER you ordered it. Obviously this was terrible.
This beautiful space, the aA design cafe in Hongdae, is the only place I’ve been kicked out of. The owners are terrible, the coffee is mediocre, the sandwiches and ambience are nice. Go for a beer, not a coffee.
The inside of the bus housed a small espresso machine and kitchen. ET also makes an appearance.
Yri Cafe (above) was one of the coolest spots in Hongdae, terrible coffee but amazing space that catered to the fledgling bohemian artistic community in Seoul with poetry readings, concerts, and more. They’ve relocated to Sangsu, the quieter neighborhood south of Hongdae, but the new space seems to lack the vibe of the old basement location. My guess is that they were priced out by the high rents in Hongdae and the influx of mainstream bars and clubs. Still probably worth a visit, I never made it to the new spot.
“Relax and enjoy uptown cafe with a steaming cup of American style coffee” …
If you enjoyed these pictures, you might also be interested in seeing what makes coffee culture unique in these other places:
And many more to come :)