Three of the best: Cafés in Hongdae
I don’t usually post about cafés in Seoul, because (a) there are too many cafés in Seoul already, and (b) I am not a girl, so I feel I should be posting about manly things like beer, meat, you know, stuff like that.
Seoul doesn’t really have a coffee culture, or at least not much of one; what it has, which is very different, is a café culture. A lot of those cafés, of course, are fairly soulless chains like Starbucks, Twosome Place, and various Korean knockoffs of varying quality (Angel-in-us? Coffine Gurunaru? Bugger off.) But appreciation of coffee itself is still quite a specialist pursuit here. Anyway, I digress.
If Seoul has a coffee culture at all, it’s in places like Hongdae, which is really carving out a distinctive bohemian niche for itself as time goes by, playing host to some of the city’s best foreign restaurants outside of the Itaewon waygook bubble, a few genuinely cool bars, and about ten thousand cafés, many of which are too quirky for their own good.
Nonetheless, it’s a really great place to hang out of a day off, so here are three of Hongdae’s most notable cafés, each very different in their own way, but each trying to sell good coffee to the discerning, not just churn out macchiatos to the masses. All three are pretty hard to find, but isn’t that part of the charm? What? Oh.
Tucked away in achingly trendy Yeonnam-dong, Coffee Libre is maybe a bit hipsterish for its own good, but the product and the atmosphere are both on point. It’s tiny, with space for maybe eight or nine people in the back, so you may want to get your coffee (or beans) to go.
There are only four items on the menu: a single-origin French press coffee (which is what I went for), espresso, Americano or latte. You can choose from a geographically diverse selection of blends.
The interior of the café is pleasingly funky; if you can get a seat, you’ll feel like you’re in a little oasis of calm from which you never want to get up.
Coffee Libre also have outlets in Myeongdong and now Express Bus Terminal, and their main business is selling coffee, including an interesting-looking subscription service whereby you can get beans sent to you on a regular basis. Check out their website for more.
Coffee Lab is a complete contrast from Coffee Libre – a much more modern look to the interior, with trendy metallic-effect menus (you know the ones I mean, they look and feel like they’re steel-plated), and dozens upon dozens of filter handles suspended from the ceiling like a coffee-lover’s dream (or nightmare).
The menu here is much more extensive, with about every kind of coffee drink you can imagine, as well as an “adult” menu of drinks that have shots of various kinds added.
Coffee Lab also sell beans, though I haven’t tried them. The café was founded by Bang Jong Koo, who apparently won the 2005 Korean Barista of the Year award, which marks him out as a real trailblazer of the Seoul coffee scene (though I can’t help wondering how many entrants there would have been back then!). The staff are of the usual young-guys-in-skinny-white-shirts variety, which maybe explained why the proportion of female customers here was unusually high even by Seoul standards.
This is a really nice café, one I can easily spend an hour or two in, and it is quite centrally located, about five or six minutes from the front gate of Hongik University and just a short walk from one of my favourite galbi restaurants in Seoul, the mighty 철길왕갈비 (Railroad Galbi), which I also heartily recommend. I’m not sure it’s the best coffee in Hongdae, though.
Anthracite Coffee Roasters
As a building, as a café, Anthracite is hands-down my favourite, though your mileage may vary. It’s literally a converted factory in the middle of an otherwise very pleasant residential district south of Hongdae, near Sangsu station, that has very little else around it.
The ground floor is devoted to a long counter – which on closer inspection is actually an old conveyor belt! – some shelves with beans and other bits and bobs for sale, and a couple of big roasters. This really does retain the feel of the original industrial shop floor that it used to be – on my last visit, guys were busy bagging and tagging freshly roasted coffee beans from the huge machines at the back.
The main seating area is upstairs, and it’s similarly cavernous. But despite appearances, the place is actually really comfortable. I haven’t been in the depths of winter so I’d be interested to know if it gets chilly inside, but I really love this space. It’s perfect for catching up on work or studying. There’s also rooftop seating for warmer days, which is really delightful.
Beans are available for sale on site and online, and they also have a subscription service for the serious coffeeholic. I like the coffee here, though I’ve only tried a couple of varieties.
Anthracite may not be the place to go if you’re looking to curl up on a sofa with a good book, but I’m a huge fan. A favourite café is as personal as a pair of slippers, but Anthracite is it for me. Off the beaten track, but totally worth it.
- Subway: Hongdae Station (홍대입구역) exit 3.
- Directions: From the subway, walk along the main road until it turns right, and then head up into Yeonnam-dong. After four or five minutes’ walk, just before you get to a small junction, turn left into the small sidestreet and Coffee Libre is down there on the right. Yes, it’s hard to find. That’s part of the charm.
- Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 12 – 9pm. Closed Mondays.
- Subway: Hongdae Station (홍대입구역) exit 9.
- Directions: The easiest way to get here is probably from the front gate of Hongik University: walk along the main road for seven or eight minutes until you see a couple of roads to the right, one heading uphill and the other downhill. (If you cross the bridge over the old railway, you’ve gone too far.) Turn left down the street, and Coffee Lab is just there on the right-hand corner. It’s hard to find. Yes, that’s part of the charm.
- Hours: Open every day. Sunday – Thursday 11am – midnight; Fridays and Saturdays until 1am.
- Subway: Sangsu Station (상수역) exit 4.
- Directions: Walk along the road until you get to the first major junction, and take the second of the two streets going left. After five minutes you’ll get to another main road, where you have to turn right and right again. Look, it’s easier if you just look at the map. It’s hard to find. That’s part of the charm.
- Hours: 11am – midnight every day, though they may close a little earlier on Sunday nights.
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