Monday, July 18, 2011

Five Hongdae Cafés You Don't Want to Miss, Pt. 1

In Seoul, café culture reigns supreme. There's literally hundreds of independent coffee shops all across the country, and each has its own unique charm--especially in neighborhoods like Hongdae, a youthful and fun-loving neighborhood filled with artsy college students who are just as willing to pay for the aesthetics of an establishment as they are for the actual drinks. Unlike in business districts where the coffee drinkers are usually office employees on the run, location doesn't necessarily have to be the end-all, be-all rule of a successful café in Hongdae. Here, it's not all about getting a cup of coffee as soon as possible; other priorities take precedence. Hongdae's customers would rather take some twisting turns in back alleyways in order to find that perfect, secret spot than go to the first Starbucks they can find (not, of course, that corporate café chains don't do well here--they absolutely do). 

All in all, finding all of Hongdae's great little cafés and ranking them would probably be an impossible venture. Instead, here are some of my current summer favorites, in no particular order, that have a few particular quirks that set them apart from the rest:

1. aA Café

  • A Hongdae café classic--this joint café/museum beats all others when it comes to interior design. The main room is gigantic and spacious, warehouse-like, filled with an adorable assortment of seating (it's quaint and mismatched, but rates five-stars in comfort) and some seriously fantastic lighting. The avant-garde chandelier doesn't seem like it would do much good after dark, but thanks to the huge windows and infiltration of natural sunlight, there's no chance of feeling crowded or cooped up. 
  • aA is also home to a museum of amazing furniture from all over the world: tables and desks and chairs, all belonging to a famous art collector. The building's five stories (the café only occupies the ground floor) are a museum/gallery that customers are invited to browse at their leisure, and it's definitely worth checking out.  
  • Recommendations for a light lunch: the citron-ade (유자에이드) and the club sandwich. Prices aren't unreasonable, each item being about 5,000 to 10,000 won. The drinks are brought out quickly, but if you order food, be prepared to wait quite a while.  

2. Thanks Nature Café

  • Despite its first-rate location, this shop can be surprisingly easy to miss. It's on the basement floor of a building located on the hill leading up to the front gate of Hongik University, on the same street as Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Café Bene and all of the other big-name chains. Look for 'Jakob's Kitchen,' and then look down. Like a lot of other places in the area, Thanks Nature Café relies upon a theme to stand out from every other coffee place in the vicinity--unsurprisingly, the theme is "nature"--but thankfully lives up to the particulars with a calm, quiet interior.
  • Honestly, one of the greatest things about Thanks Nature Café is that it's so perfectly zen inside. There's also an outside patio/terrace, and both that and the inside are filled with potted green plants--the description sounds a bit obvious and unimpressive, but it lends to the Disneyland-forest-feel in a great way that works.
  • Thanks Nature also employs two live sheep to make the nature-themed decor really authentic. In a small pen on the patio, there are two white sheep that hang out, occasionally bleating noisily; the animal-lover in me doesn't know how to feel about keeping two grown sheep in a Hongdae café, but it's certainly unusual and makes this particular establishment memorable, which is probably what the owners were going for. 
  • They don't use sugar or processed syrups in their drinks, instead opting for all-natural sweeteners that give their fare a light, refreshing taste instead of the saccharine flavor that most Korean lattes or flavored coffees possess. 
  • Recommendations for a dessert-y snack: try the brownie with ice cream, and the iced black tea latte. The richness of the brownie and the ice cream--which might be overwhelming with something too sweet--go well with the smooth subtlety of black tea latte, which alone, is also perfection.

Maps: the first is for Café aA, the second is for Thanks Nature Café

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