The Coffee/Cafe Craze in Seoul

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For some reason, the coffee/cafe craze in Seoul city doesn’t stop.  And I don’t like it.  You might say, “well, what’s the problem? Of course it’s good to have a good cafes! That’s what cities are!”  Yeah, sure, if those cafes are all very unique, quiet, and serves good tea and snacks.  But no – it’s all Starbucks, Coffee Beans & Tea Leaf, and domestic brands who tries too hard to imitate the first two (and often their drinks taste like shi*).

One of the things I hate the most about Seoul city is lack of quiet, cozy cafe where I can enjoy decent tea (and snacks) and read for hours.  It is near-impossible to find a quiet cafe in Seoul.  Pretty much every single cafes are in the main streets of some populated, touristy area, with multiple stories and hundreds of seats.  Of course it is exploding with people.  And, I don’t know why, but so many Koreans always come and go as a group.  Sure, sure – one of the cafe’s function is to enjoy your time with good people.  But, again, I don’t know why, but Koreans tend to speak loud. Really loud.  Even when you don’t have to.  So imagine trying to read your favorite novel, surrounded by 10+ groups, all speaking really, really loud at the same time.  Oh, and the ceilings of these cafes are so damn high, the sound reverberates.

Secondly, despite the number of cafes in Seoul, they are all same. ALL. SAME.  It’s like Wallmarts – after all, it’s either Starbucks, Coffee Bean, Cafe Bene, or Tom&Toms.  That takes away one of the joys of cafe visiting.  You already know what it’s going to like, and you know what the menu will be like.  Why bother?  You just end up doing same things, or just stuck in your room, watching the same old TV show.

Lastly…almost all of them seriously lacks tea menu.  I’m a tea person and this greatly saddens me.  It’s upsetting when you ordered a cup of black tea, paid 5,000KRW and the tea bag says Lipton.

The thing I really loved about Tokyo was its richness of cafe culture.  They have Starbucks, but it’s certainly less crazed than Seoul.  Tokyo is full of million cafes run by different individuals.  They are all different in looks and menus.  And yes, they also serve a lot of teas.  No one bothers you whether you come alone or no.  There are people who come in as a group, but they don’t scream like Koreans (they do so in bar or pubs, though).  So for me, pretty much every weekend was great.  I would grab a map and my favorite book, eye-shop for a cafe, take a seat, and enjoy great food and lovely tea, along with book.  No one bothered me and all was very calm.  After 4-5 hours, I would come back to home, very content.  Tokyo has its share of hustle-bustle cafes, but at the same time, there is almost equal portion of no hustle-bustle cafes.

So far, I found only one or two cafes that satisfies my standard of cafe.  I was at one of those cafes today, doing my stuff.  A group of girls came along, probably working on a fashion industry, about to have a brainstorm or something.  One looked very absent-minded.  They opened the labtop and logged on to (what is supposedly) their company website.  Like many South Korean websites, you know, one of those things filled with Flashes and big beat music.  They just left it on.  So that big music started to echo in the whole place, mixed with John Mayer songs.  I ahemed a bit.  They did not notice.  I was annoyed (I caught cold. Again).  Finally, I had to say, “look, would you please turn that music down?” The girl was so surprised, hastily said “oh, sorry, sorry.”

Isn’t it a common sense to either silence your sounding device or use your own audio set in the public place?  Like, she should have known it as soon as she take out her computer, instead of putting it on until I say it.

Few days ago, I watched a documentary on Seoul’s cafe craziness.  Surprisingly, many Koreans associate Starbucks and other big-name coffee store brands as better and tastier and more sophisticated.  Starbucks? Sophisticated? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t make fun of it, since my image and experience of Starbucks and that of many other Koreans are different.  I suspect it also has to do a lot of Koreans’ consciousness of the look of others – but hey, if you think the coffee taste like shit, you can say it.  Don’t pretend just because you are worried about what others might think of you.  They aren’t paying for your coffee.

Most of all, if you want to look sophisticated, you’d better start with the sophisticated behavior – because, failing to behave in what is supposed to be sophisticated place will actually make you look worse.  Sadly, I haven’t seen many Koreans doing so.

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4 responses »

  1. For some reason I thought Korea is more tea friendly but 5000 KRW for cup of Lipton Tea Bag+Water? That is just outrageous!
    I am also surprised that people think Starbucks is sophisticated. Wonder what made them think that way hmmm. Could it be the marketing or the pricing? It sucks to hear that coffee in Korea is not so good. I thought they might be actually good with the craze that has been going on for few years.
    By the way, how have you been? I haven’t talked to you for so long.

  2. Well I kind of understand why – to us who lived in US, Starbucks is just a place where you get coffee or drinks. But to many Koreans, it is the import brand from west.

    The coffee craziness is getting hotter and hotter and it works against a tea person like me 😦

  3. Hello~ Just curious as to what these cozy cafes are that you found? (Unless you don’t want to reveal your secret^^) I’ve also had the same problem. I just want to relax on a Sunday reading my book but Paris Baguette is more like a chit-chat meeting place for friends than a cozy cafe.

    • Hi metheliving! Thanks for your comment. I don’t know I can be much help, but here’s some of my tips.
      1) The best time to spend quality silent time in Seoul cafes are, unfortunately, weekdays daytime. If you can, drop by either Garosugil, Hongdae (not main streets), Sungbook and Pyoungchangdong area on weekdays. It’s heavenly.
      2) For weekends, our chances are slim…unless we expect to walk and hike a lot. Try to find cafes located far far away from main streets, often hidden away in one of small back alleys or far from station.
      3) Some Coffee Beans offer library floor (membership required). It’s not bad at all.

      Overall, #1 works best. Honestly, I think Seoul city needs to invest more on projects like dividing the population concentration and creating more spaces, instead of making ugly-ass King Sejong statues and random floating glass thing on Han River. Feel free to contact me if you need any help on your Seoul living – I always want to be friends with more people in this town!

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