Saturday, August 6, 2022

Savoring Korea's Cafe Culture

One thing I'm going to miss terribly about our time in South Korea is the wonderful cafe culture. There are regular cafes, themed cafes, dessert cafes, Instagram cafes, animal cafes, and the list goes on. In this post, I'll share a few of my favorite cafes in Itaewon, a neighborhood in Seoul walking distance from our house.

A dessert place I thankfully discovered early on in my tour and patronized regularly is La Vie en Coco (라비앙코코), a chocolate cafe. Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love chocolate. But I'll admit I can be a little picky about the type and quality of chocolate. So believe me when I say La Vie en Coco is the real deal!

It's a very small cafe with only a handful of seats and a tiny menu. They're most well-known for their drinking chocolate and it does not disappoint. The rich, creamy drinking chocolate transports me to Europe every time I order it. You can get it hot or cold, perfect for the frigid Korean winter or blazing, humid summer.

They also sell boxes of chocolate with flavors that change based on what's available. On my most recent visit, I bought a box of chocolate truffles that were half for me and half for M. (It was a bit embarrassing, because I confidently attempted to order the box in Korean but realized only after a few minutes of confusion that I was using the wrong Korean word for the number nine as I was trying to order. In the Korean language, there are two sets of numbers: one known as native Korean numbers and one called Sino-Korean numbers. Crucially, they are not interchangeable. You generally need to use the correct one for each specific context. So I repeated the Sino-Korean word for the number nine over and over again while the poor cashier stared at me blankly until we figured out I picked the wrong number set and should have used the native Korean number. Oops!) Anyway, La Vie en Coco boxes make beautiful gifts for any chocolate lovers, and M has gotten their chocolates for me for occasions in the past.

The next cafe is actually a bagel shop that my friend N recommended called Local Villa Bagel (로컬빌라베이글). These are the best bagels I've ever had in my life. (I know I'm a traitor to my fellow University of Virginia alumni for saying this, but it even beats Bodo's Bagels for me!) They were so buttery and soft with an amazing texture that defies the dry, dense bagel stereotype. The cream cheeses were extraordinary, as well.

My avocado lox bagel with arugula made for an outstanding and filling meal, and I ended up taking a bag of assorted bagels and cream cheese to go. The free water was infused with mint, and the whole cafe was so bright and airy that it created an open and mood-boosting atmosphere. I think it tends to attract a younger audience, too... Most of the other patrons were clearly Gen Z.

The last cafe I'll mention is a study cafe called Nolsoop (놀숲). This study cafe was billed as a "Cartoon & Book Cafe" and seems like it might be a chain. It was so fun, I wish I'd learned about it much sooner.

When you arrive, you place your shoes in a shoe locker and put on slippers. Then, you can order food and drink at the counter and get a time card. When you leave the cafe, you pay for whatever food and drink you ordered and for the hours you spent at the cafe. It's very inexpensive; I stayed an hour and ordered a cherry soda, and my total was about $5.)

On the entrance floor there were board games and places to play them. Downstairs and upstairs, there were a variety of nooks to study, rest, and read. There was also an impressive collection of manga/manhwa(만화)/comic books that you could read while you were there and simply return before you left. There was also a terrace where you could sit outside, though the day I went was much too hot for that option.

Instead, I grabbed a comfortable, padded, private spot to stretch out, read, write, and enjoy my cherry soda. I love the idea of a study cafe, and the whole vibe reminded me of my college days. There were plenty of groups of students there reading or studying, but even as an adult well out of school I'd go back. It was the perfect setting for being productive.

This is just a small snapshot that might give readers a taste of Korea's cafe culture. If you ever visit South Korea, make sure to check out some cafes while you're here. There's truly something for everyone!

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