Café Review: Café Onion, Seongsu

the word “onion” in white lowercase font above a wide, open glass door framed by exposed brick, at the corner of a street

Café Onions seem to embody the space in which they’re located, and there is no better example than the Seongsu location.

Here, the drab gray of unfinished walls reflects the light streaming in from large windows, and the floor features the yellow paint of another time. At once there is mini faded blue tile, and again the unfinished plaster. Where a window or a door once was, bricks have been shoved in to seal the space, unenterable entrances, impassable passages.

There is a long table with plastic separators, hand sanitizer, and outlets for people who come here to study. Come here to snuggle? Worry not–there’s a few tucked away couches for that. If the weather is nice, you can head up to the rooftop but be careful of the stairs, as they’re all a bit uneven and I almost ate it going to the rooftop to take photos.

Located on a plaque near the door:

Artist: Fabrikr
Medium: Mixed media
Dimension: 759m²
Date: 2016

“The space was first built in the 1970s. And it transformed into supermarkets, restaurants, homes, maintenance shops, and factories for nearly 60 years. Each time, the useless parts was broken as needed, and the part that needed to be added were added in a rule of thumb. Since it is a space that has changed based on usability rather than aesthetics, the original appearance of the space gradually disappeared with time.

While exploring space, we discovered the value that new things could not give in the structure of the past. The paint marks on the floor, each of the added bricks, were a great material to remember the time. We focused on recreating the space of the past, keeping all these traces alive. It was necessary to reinterpret it as a space of the past and a space of the same time.

ONION is made of materials that seems to be separated but respect organically connected structures and are carefully added in consideration of users’ functions. Furniture was also made by adding architectural elements to become part of the space. Plants that coexist together are also familiar as they have always been here.

This space will be a place where there are rest and services that purify the mind and a haven to calm the noise in the head of those who seek space. We hope that this place will be remembered as a place that gives someone new inspiration for life and complete rest for someone.”

Café Review: Café Onion, Anguk

the word “onion” in white lowercase font in front of a traditional hanok style entrance with a giant wooden door

Café Onion in Anguk is probably my favorite café in all of Korea. Located steps from Anguk Station and constructed inside a traditional wooden Korean house called a hanok, it serves up great coffee and pastries baked in-house with an amazing atmosphere. Come early or expect to wait for a seat, or grab your drink and pastry to-go.

I’ve gone to the café in several seasons, so these photos will feature snow and rain.

My order: iced Oatly latte with an extra shot, strawberry pastry, iced americano or espresso for round two.

Located on a plaque near the door, translated via Papago:

Artist: Fabrikr
Medium: Mixed media
Dimension: 661m²
Date: 2019

“I remember the day when this house was first built.

Even then, someone would have sat on the floor of the main house and looked at the yard. The gaze would have filled the space from the floor to the sky, and from left to right…

Over a hundred years, numerous footprints remained, numerous horses piled up, and countless eyes overlapped. We groped through all the stories from the past to the present, keeping the air in line with the current use.

Place this space on white paper and extend the past gaze to today. Even then, someone would have looked at the yard from the Daecheongmaru. Today, someone sits on the floor of the Daecheong and looks at the yard. I pray quietly that our present may rest for a while, and that the inspiration for a new life may be here.”

Follow them on Instagram: @cafe.onion

Address: 서울특별시 종로구 계동길 5

Café Review: Krum Coffee, Uijeongbu

Located a few minutes away from line 1 Uijeongbu station is the Uijeongbu location of Krum Coffee, which also has a branch in Yangju. Krum Coffee is on the second floor of the building.

The café is one big open room with fairy lights and a mini Christmas tree in the center of one table. A light jazz music is playing, and on this occasion we could see someone in the back of the café roasting coffee.

When selecting a pastry, go for one of the jam cookies rather than the pound cake, which we found a little hard. And be adventurous and ask what coffee is on the siphon bar if you’ve never had siphon coffee! (But remember to stick around and watch it being brewed, as that’s part of the fun.)

Follow them on Instagram: @krum_coffee

Address: 의정부시 평화로 554 2층 크룸커피 랩

Café Review: Finger Coffee

There’s something different about this café… I just can’t put my finger on it…

Not only is it open 24 hours, but it is an automatic, unmanned café. You insert your card (even transportation cards work!), get the cup corresponding to your order (either a hot cup or a cup filled with ice), move it to the assigned area, and that’s it.

If you happen to feel a bit peckish, you can also check out the ice cream and snack display, which is also unmanned (and they have macarons!). Just insert your card to pay and open the door.

If you’d like to take a virtual tour, click here.

Would this kind of café work in your country?

Café Review: Blue Bottle Seongsu

Today’s café review is the first Blue Bottle café in Korea, located in the Seongsu neighborhood.

the iconic blue bottle signage against a rough exposed concrete wall

According to Blue Bottle’s website:

“The neighborhood of Seongsu—for which our very first Korean café is named—is changing. In what was once an industrial pocket of the South Korean capital, cafes and galleries are springing up to serve the up-and-coming area referred to by some as the Brooklyn of Seoul.

While Blue Bottle brings much of its Bay Area roots, there’s plenty of old-school Seongsu-dong to hold onto. We’ve used the neighborhood’s trademark red brick, for example, to showcase classic Blue Bottle merchandise, as well as items that can only be found in Korea. Our menu, however, offers the same delicious coffee that can be found in our cafes in the U.S. and Japan.

From the street level, guests will first encounter our roastery against the backdrop of high-rises and trains. Down below is our café, and though located on the basement level, the glass walls and open layout create a calm, sunlit spaciousness—perfect for getting coffee with friends or shopping while you wait for your espresso, single origin, or blend coffee.”

It was interesting seeing the roasting equipment and the espresso machines they probably train the Korean baristas on, but I’d disagree that the area is “sunlit.” It was pretty dark, actually, in the way that a fancy restaurant might be dimmed in order to achieve a romantic effect. The overall feel was pretty industrial, but I loved the red brick touch on the merchandise and how the merch was a separate area from the ordering line. Behind a wall in the seating area was an area of several couches where a few families were sitting.

I imagine that on the weekends, seating can be hard to find. As evidence, I present the blue footprints that start from the entrance at street level and wrap around the front lobby area and then down the stairs to the café. People line up for Blue Bottle, and this café is certainly not going to be any different.

Much to my friends’ amazement, I did not order a coffee, instead opting for a strawberry fizz, which was quite lovely. The barista spoke to me in broken English until asking me to write my name on the screen in front of her, and when I wrote it in Hangul, she was visibly shocked and told me that she didn’t know I spoke Korean. (Spoilers: I don’t, but I could understand what she was saying and where she told me to wait until my name was called.) The fizz reminded me of when I worked at the Mint Plaza Blue Bottle location and I’d pour myself a Cascara Fizz in my Blue Bottle glass mug for the ride back to Oakland.

Unfortunately, my friend’s orange blossom latte tasted like the barista dumped their grandma’s perfume into it, which is not how I remember the drink tasting the last time I went to Blue Bottle. I suggested that she ask for them to just make her a regular latte, but since we had already had coffee that day, she wanted to let it be.

Out of all the Blue Bottle cafes I’ve visited in Korea thus far, this only gets a special mention for being the first to be opened in Korea. Go if you want a gander at the roasting and training area, but I still prefer grabbing a drink at the Gwanghwamun location and sitting alongside the Cheonggye stream.

Address: 7 Achasan-ro Seongdong-gu (Ttukseom station — exit #1)

Café Review: Enough You

Take a ten-minute walk behind Yangu Station (Line 1) and you’ll stumble across a pretty little café called Enough You.

The café has amazing croiffles with a variety of toppings and the interior is quiet and calm. There are tropical trees, round mirrors, soft lights, a billowing white sheet hanging down from the ceiling over wrap-around windows, and even semi-external seating where you can pretend you’re enjoying the nice spring weather even though you still need your winter coat…

There’s literally nothing else to do in the area, but if you find yourself on Line 1, be sure to make a pit-stop!

Follow them on Instagram: @enough_you

Address: 경기도 양주시 부흥로 1422번길 220

KakaoFriends Store: Gangnam

The first thing I did when I moved to Korea, after setting aside my suitcases, was download KakaoTalk. There are two different chats for all the teachers at school–one for general information, and one for pictures of the kindergarten students that later get sent home to parents. I have a handful of one-on-one chats and some group chats where I can look forward to Meme day every Wednesday.

To say that KakaoTalk is a messaging app used by Koreans of every age is an understatement. I use KakaoBus to time leaving my house in the morning, and should I be running late, KakaoT(axi) will get me to where I need to go. There’s also KakaoMetro and KakaoMap, even KakaoPay and KakaoBank. Moving a conversation off of a dating app to KakaoTalk is seen as A Thing here. Kakao is more than just a simple internet company–it’s a brand. And along with that comes brand imaging, and Kakao does not disappoint.

Introducing: KakaoFriends, which started out as KakaoTalk emoticons and took on a life all their own.

a large figurine of Ryan, an orange lion without a mane, holding a to-go coffee cup in one paw and resting his other arm on a small table where there is a sign about requiring masks to be worn and a bottle of hand sanitizer

My favorite Kakao character is Jordy, a “dinosaur that has been kept secret since its existence.” Ryan, a mane-less lion and Apeach, a… peach, are two of the more popular characters, but I’d like to also highlight Muzi, who is actually a piece of pickled daikon radish in a… rabbit costume. Listen, just go with it. They’re cute.

There are a few KakaoFriends stores, but my friend and I went to the flagship store in Gangnam. (Unfortunately, we were there too early to visit the café on the third floor.)

the exterior of the KakaoFriends store, featuring a large glass windows that have a picture of Esther Bunny (non-Kakao character) in a collaboration with APeach

Who’s your favorite character?

yours truly next to a Jordy figurine behind the booth of a cute fake radio station

Café Review: Blue Bottle Gwanghwamun

This was the first Blue Bottle in Korea that I visited, and one that I’ve visited a few times since then.

A person sits behind a vase full of flowers, reading a book. The Blue Bottle signage is on the wall behind them.

According to the Blue Bottle website:

In the center of one of Seoul’s three business districts, our Gwanghwamun cafe sits at the bottom of a 20-story office building at 11 Cheonggyecheon-ro alongside the Cheonggye Stream. Restored in 2003, the banks of the stream now serve as a public gathering space and cultural arts venue. We designed the cafe for local workers seeking a reprieve and tourists looking for a coffee near Cheonggye Plaza and Stream. 

To continue the feeling of flow from the outdoor urban plaza, we designed the cafe with the idea of openness, with multiple windows reaching from the floor nearly to the ceiling facing the square. To keep the guests’ focus on the coffee and coffee professionals, we set the bar in the center of the space, wrapping it around the two structural columns. Inside the cafe, we offer plenty of seating and perching options at red oak tables and bars, but on nice days, we imagine many guests will take their coffee for a walk along the Cheonggye Stream.

I would highly recommend going to this Blue Bottle café, getting your drink to-go, and sitting outside along the banks of the Cheonggye stream.

view of part of the Cheonggye stream featuring a waterfall
a view of the stream as it cuts down through Seoul

Address: 11 Cheonggyecheon-ro Jongno-gu

Café Review: Blue Bottle Samcheong

Apparently I have made it my quest to visit all the Blue Bottles in Korea. I have been to the one in Gwanghwamun Square and on Jeju Island, so it was only appropriate that I introduce the new teachers to Blue Bottle in a new-to-me location: Samcheong.

the iconic Blue Bottle logo on a white brick background

The Blue Bottle website describes the Samcheong location as follows:

“In the heart of Seoul’s historic Samcheong neighborhood, our three-story cafe all but shapeshifts as you climb its floors. Conceived by Schemata Architects, each level is as much about the breathtaking views as it is about coffee. The stand alone building is set between past and future: the Gyeongbokgung Palace of the Joseon Dynasty on one side, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) on the other. The ground floor offers a view of the museum. After you place your order there, you can head to the second floor, where baristas prepare pour overs and espresso drinks, and where the picture window frames the sweeping lines of the terracotta-tiled roofs of the hanoks, traditional Korean homes. Take your coffee to-go and meander the labyrinthine surrounding streets, or head to the third floor. There, on the outdoor patio on low-slung couches or inside by the topmost picture window, you can enjoy a siphon coffee or take in the panorama of the palace and the soaring hills beyond.”

I get what they were going for, and it’s true: one can easily peer out the windows onto the rooftops of hanoks, but it’s a bit annoying having to order on the first floor and walk upstairs to get your beverages, and then walk up another flight of stairs to (maybe, if you’re lucky) find a seat. Seats here aren’t plentiful but if you wait around long enough, a spot or two might open up. Good luck watching a barista prepare your siphon coffee though–I’m not sure what the protocol is here if you order one and there already happens to be someone sitting in front of them. (At Mint Plaza, we would kindly ask if guests would move so the siphon-buyer could get the most out of the experience.)

I confused the barista because I ordered two drinks. No, really. I want two coffees. First, a pour-over, because pour-overs are what Blue Bottle does best. Second, since the location has oat milk, I’m going to get a latte, and this location had an orange blossom latte that I decided to try because Blue Bottle doesn’t serve your typical caramel-mocha-praline-hazelnut-frappa-gatos. (Rumor is they never planned on selling mochas, but after adding chocolate to the menu to make hot chocolate, they couldn’t ignore customers’ cries to sell a mocha. For what it’s worth, Blue Bottle mochas are my go-to, because they make their own chocolate ganache in-house with Tcho chocolate and it is delicious.)

The Guatemalan pour-over I had iced would have been better hot, but the orange blossom latte was surprisingly really well-made. The orange blossom flavor fit with the espresso in a very nice way that balanced out the acidity of the espresso and the brightness of the orange flavor. It was tasty.

The space is bright and inviting and it was certainly busy when we went. We had to wait about ten minutes until we found a spot where we could sit on the first floor. There was a steady stream of guests that day and the baristas seemed equipped to handle the volume, even my sudden realization that despite asking the cashier if they had oat milk, I forgot to actually order my latte with oat milk and had to go back to the cashier on the first floor and change my order and had her run to the second floor to ensure my drink was made with oat milk. Whew. If only there was a better way to communicate to the baristas on the second floor.

Follow them on Instagram: @bluebottlecoffee_korea

Address: 76 Bukchon-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea 03053

Café Review: Café Ookii, aka Godzilla Café

Instagram knows that I like cafés, and one day it recommended a Godzilla-themed café that I instantly put on my to-visit list. Surprisingly, I happened to be in the area the very next day and made Mary trek out to visit it after we visited the Trick Eye Museum (underwhelming, to be honest) and the Love Museum (erm, over… something, it’s definitely something).

Café Ookii has a “no kids” policy and for good reason: the walls are lined with Gojira toys spanning all evolutions and editions of the well-known *checks kaiju wiki* “Irradiated Prehistoric Amphibious Creature.”

I ordered an iced americano, which was passable, and couldn’t resist one of their massive kaiju cupcakes which was mostly just icing. In retrospect, I wish I would have gone with one of their cutely designed cookies instead.

Two things of note happened while we were there: 1, I discovered that the woman who had swapped out my conch stud for a ring had managed to close the ring around the strap of my mask (which thankfully was a disposable one I could cut at home), and 2, a young man, obviously drawn to the Godzilla-aspect of the café, came in and struck up an intense conversation with the owner and barista.

If you’re in Hongdae, take a trip out to see this unique café!

EDIT: As of March 24th, it looks like this business has closed. Best of luck to the owners in their next venture!

Follow them on Instagram: @cafe_ookii


Address: 180-8, Donggyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 마포구 신촌로 44