Seoul’s Café Culture
Quirky and character-filled, the South Korean capital’s coffee joints also serve up art, fashion and design. Story by Nicolai Hartvig and photographs by Vincent Sung
Published on Sep 23, 2010
+ aA DESIGN MUSEUM
Part museum, part designer furniture showroom, this three-story loft space in the vibrant Hongdae neighborhood also has a sprawling café on the ground floor. Every piece of décor boasts noteworthy design pedigree, from the 19th-century French doors and antique London lamp-posts to the Midcentury chairs. Our advice? Pair the organic Korean plum ice tea with the red velvet cupcake topped with silky frosting. The basement-level museum is only open from 2 P.M.–4 P.M., Monday to Saturday; if you’re there outside of opening hours, peer into the large windows by the indoor staircase to get a taste of what’s inside.
408–11 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea; +82 2 3143 7311; aadesignmuseum.com; tea and snacks for two KRW20,000
+ GORILLA IN THE KITCHEN
Owned by Korean megastar, Bae Yong-joon, this pared-down café in the upscale Sinsa-dong neighborhood takes an austere approach to cooking. Butter, cream and deep-frying are banned, while a white-uniformed nutritionist is on hand to supply dietary advice. The menu provides plenty of guidance to the health-conscious, with details on the nutrients of each dish and their benefits, from weight loss to muscle gain. But self-denial isn’t the prevailing theme; offerings are inventive and full of flavor. Be sure to order the succulent grilled beef salad with rocket and the smooth persimmon purée.
650 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea; +82 2 3442 1688; gorillakitchen.co.kr; lunch for two KRW55,000
+ CHANG HEE
Located in tree-lined Samcheongdong, this concrete-and-glass corner café probably has the city’s most extensive coffee list. From Hawaii Kona to Jamaica Blue Mountain, through Kenya AA and Indonesia Java, the globe-spanning lineup is expertly brewed by hand, flannel drip or siphoned through alchemist-style glass bulbs. The coffees are handily color-coded according to aroma, body and taste. Order the rich raspberry white chocolate cheese brulée and the light raspberry or cheese scones are the perfect match for a cup of joe. Visit Sunday and snag a table on the outside patio or by the upstairs window for prime people-watching.
38-1 Hwa-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea; +82 2 735 0986; chang-hee.com; coffee and cake for two KRW26,000
This Japanese-inspired Hongdae hideaway set around an open kitchen manages to hit every category of libation as well as provide a limited, all-organic food menu. Run by the producers of a magazine about Japanese culture in South Korea, Sukkara is often thronged with bohemian students, who lunch on curry rice or soy cream pasta while sipping homemade chrysanthemum or omijya liquor. Make sure you try the fantastic Black Shandy, which couples a locally brewed dark ale with a pleasantly sharp, homemade ginger ale (also available sans the beer). For dessert, a syrupy drizzle deliciously brings together the yoghurt parfait with berries.
Sanullim Building, 327-9 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea; +82 2 334 5919; sukkara.co.kr; drinks and dessert for two KRW24,000
+ ATELIER & PROJECT
Launched by three childhood friends in the art, fashion and culinary worlds, this cozy café is frequented by creative types and kindred spirits. Peruse the collection of home décor, handcrafted leather bags, earth-toned clothes and photographic prints on sale while waiting for your order. If there’s a chill in air, order the dark hot chocolate, which easily fits the bill; in the summer, cool down with the wine granita—red wine and berry coulis over shaved ice with blueberries on top.
647-9 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea; +82 2 548 3374; drinks for two KRW14,000