Caffe Bene, a multimissitude of locations in Seoul and Korea
Korean chain Caffe Bene may just seem like a local version of Starbucks – their omnipresence would suggest so. But not only is my favourite café chain a whole lot airier and brighter in terms of décor – unlike, Starbucks, their toilets are always in pristine condition – but their drinks offering is a whole lot more inventive and delicious, especially for non-coffee drinkers. All drinks are offered either hot or iced. Their Grain Latte and iced Grain Benesto are winners. Waffles, gelato and honey bread are also on offer. My local branch, situated in a side street at the western end of the Cheongye stream, was newly opened when I arrived in Seoul. Two storeys of high ceilings and wide floor space (as well as a separate smoking area: no need to part with your coffee and book when in need), pleasant and unobtrusive music and large windows to look out of make this branch a perfect place to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Ideal for: alone time, reading, a quiet catch up, free use of Mac computer.
Café Yeon, Samcheong-dong
One of the most beautiful parts of Seoul, a complete universe away from the neighbouring skyscrapers of Jogno-ro in vibe, architecture and noise, is Samcheong-dong. Traditional Korean buildings with their slated roofs are mixed with European style cafes and boutiques up the plane tree-lined streets which run all the way up to the foot of Samcheong mountain. Café Yeon is located up some steep stairs on the hill runs along one side of the main road. The interior design is, like its exterior design, in the traditional style: the outside doors slide open, shoes are left in the courtyard outside, the floor is wooden with the ondol under floor heating and guests sit down (cross legged or otherwise) on the flat pillows provided. This café is teeny tiny so forget getting in on a Saturday. Weeknights are dead, and if you are the sole customer the staff are more than happy to play your choice of music, chosen from their extensive CD collection. (I opted for AC/DC’s Back in Black followed by Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.) Café Yeon also hosts live music events and has every Lonely Planet you might need to complete your world tour.
Ideal for: Inpiration, traditional Korean teas, good music, cosying up to a loved one.
The independent café is on Gangnam’s trendy Garosu-gil – where all the good-looking, well dressed young things hang out. Rabbit is famed for its cupcakes (light and delicious) and the Wasabi Latte (sweet and moreish). Their adorable Rabbit mugs are available to buy. As is the case with all decent cafes located in popular areas, it gets busy on weekends and the hustle and bustle makes it a place better suited for a group outing and a sugar hit to continue through the marvelous boutiques that line this other plane tree-lined street. Whether it was fortune or coincidence that I arrived in Korea at the start of the year of the Rabbit (me being a Rabbit, too) and chanced upon this little gem is still a mystery.
Ideal for: girly gossips, fashion envy.
Didier’s Gauffres, Hongdae
Koreans love their waffles. Starting up a Belgian waffle bar in Hongdae, – the quirky, edgy, arty environs of the Hongik arts university – is thus not such a bad idea. Didier himself is a proper Belgian and makes a variety of waffles (Liege, Bruxelles) that would make anyone with the slightest semblance of a sweet tooth weep with joy. The first time I tried my Liege waffle with fresh strawberries, whipped cream and chocolate sauce I wanted to run out into the street and shriek like a crazy person. I settled for sending my Belgian grandparents a text instead. The bar itself is formed of smooth metal surfaces and can seat about five people, perched on black and red bar stools. Most orders seem to be for take out and you are likely to have the place to yourself. The waffles are made fresh and so patience is needed. A bag of five mini waffles is available, too.
Ideal for: alone time, studying, a late evening sugar craving, orgasms of the palate
Itaewon is for gays and foreigners according to most upright Seoulites. And, indeed, its position right next to the US Army barracks does lend it an atmosphere of seediness and revelry (think Soho). Off the main street sprout small alleys that are mostly a continuation of the market stalls, but nestled away almost out of view is the small and quaintly furnished, Tartine. The name would suggest something European and tart based is served, but Tartine is famous for its North American home-made style pies. The array is displayed on a shelf in the window and all the favourites are there – blueberry, mixed berry, apple, pumpkin, lemon meringue. Tartine is small and you are lucky if you get a seat during peak times (the usual symptom of café-going in Seoul). Most visitors opt for the take out option, but if you decide to spend a while in its homely environment – think Little House on the Prairie meets quasi-French farmhouse hospitality – you can eat your chosen dessert warm with ice cream and browse the collection of American cookbooks and home living magazines. On weekends they will politely ask you to leave after one hour to allow others the pleasure of its pies.
Ideal for: cosy dates, comfort food
The divine Reminis earns prize position in this café-aficionado’s books. The cakes are worthy of being displayed in their own art exhibition, so gorgeous to behold they are: the Koreans take cake decoration to new levels of artistry. Head baker, Yun-sun Goo (female!) has created novel treats which fuse western style baking with Korean tastes such as the green tea and chocolate cake: chocolate brownie base layered with chocolate mousse under a green tea mousse layer and adorned with a mini green tea macaron and a sugared chestnut. Words cannot and should not describe. It should only be experienced. The strawberry tart is the most delicious I have ever tried and the macarons are lighter and far superior to anything La Duree can offer. Opt for their chocolate cake if you want to push the limits of decadence.
Reminis wins my loving affection for its atmosphere, too. It is located on a corner of Anguk-dong that resides in an area of Seoul where the building of modern glass atrocities has been prohibited to preserve the old, traditional architecture. One can stare endlessly out of its glass facades and it is always quiet enough for one to enjoy one’s book. The interior is light, beautifully and simply decorated and anything you order is presented on a ceramic slab that brings to mind the glorious Korean celadon pottery. All their teas are made the proper way (with leaves in a tea pot) and served in befitting china cups.
Yun-Sun trained at the Cordon Bleu and runs weekend baking courses in the kitchen of Reminis (very expensive, of course). They also make cakes for special occasions and anyone in need of a wedding cake can browse through a photo album of stunning photographs before making that most important of decisions.
Ideal for: orgasms of the palate, people watching, contemplation, alone time, reading