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The best cafés in Itaewon

Itaewon’s coffee culture is avowedly hip and fiercely competitive, and every other storefront is a café—so let us guide you to the best…

Bonanza Coffee

Following the availability of small American craft roasters including Intelligentsia and Stumptown Coffee Stumptown Coffee, we now have the Berlin-based artisan roaster Bonanza in Seoul. Even beyond Berlin, Bonanza Coffee is one of the fastest-growing roasters in Europe, with its original location selected by National Geographic as one of the “25 coffee shops around the world you have to see before you die.” This new international location is in Itaewon, but the surrounding area of Hangangjin (near Downtowner burger pub and Pizzeria D' Buzza’s Hannam Dong branch) is quite serene. Although the café is located inside novelty merchandise retailer Morethanless, its seriousness towards extractions has been attracting even professional baristas and humble home brewers alike. As I open its large glass doors and step inside, sturdy La Marzocco Linea machine first catches this aficionado’s eyes. A specialty coffee icon established in Florence, Italy, it grew with Starbucks’ early expansion, and since been an inspiration for most of the high-end espresso machine brands in the world including Synesso and Slayer. The overall atmosphere of the café is quite refined and modern (which is appropriate for its identity as a fashion retailer as well). The staff is kind and friendly, while the audio system involving a powerful amp and a fancy set of speakers are adding another tasteful element to the space. The star of the show is, of course, the coffee. The roasted beans selection available

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Yongsan-gu

Hell Cafe

At Hell Cafe, enclosed are stories of several now renowned baristas of Korea. Kwon Yo-seop, a first-generation hand-drip barista who is in charge of this place, an award-winning star barista Im Seong-eun and Lee Hun from a renowned shop — all with skills and drills have somehow deviated from the path of wealth and fame. Although the cafe has now a number of fanatic followers due to a lot of recent media exposures, it still is a micro-roastery sticking to Union fire roasting and putting out the best they've got for delicate details. The most popular coffees here are the Hell Drip and the Classic Cappuccino. Extracted through a classic nel drip method, the Hell Drip is the long-time favorite of barista Kwon Yo-seop who used to reside in Gom Dabang, the old-time go-to place for Hongdae’s coffee aficionados. With 30 grams of beans, about 100ml of coffee is extracted — strong and potently fragrant, this supposedly “painful-like-hell” coffee presents beautiful notes in its corners. It can be made with a single-blend, but the dark roast blend is my recommendation. The blended coffees here are brewed from a diverse selection of beans, with the rumor that even Geisha coffee (which is often referred to as “God in a cup”) is at times available. At first, one may wonder why the baristas here go above and beyond to stick to their strict philosophy, but after witnessing the the process of careful roasting and extraction, the wonder is well likely to turn into respect. Next, the Classic

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Yongsan-gu

Ways of Seeing

Ways of Seeing is a cultural multispace run by the artist collective Sun In Jang (a play on words that literally means “cactus” and also implies the gathering of admirable people). While they also run a café and shop, it’s so much more—rotating art exhibits fill the space; workshops, film screenings and concerts take place here; and fashion magazine Cracker Your Wardrobe has been hosting the FIFTY SEOUL charity flea market here since 2011.If you’re simply looking for a place to get a drink and something to eat, the menu offers plenty of options. Vegans and the lactose intolerant will be happy to see soy milk coffee drinks, which can be difficult to find at independent cafes in Seoul. Meat eaters will appreciate the handmade ham sandwich. Fans of sunlight (and smoking) take note: There’s a giant deck with outdoor seating in nice weather.

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Yongsan-gu
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On Ne Sait Jamais

The French phrase on ne sait jamais translates as "you never know" (or "you can't really tell") and indeed, it's hard to tell exactly what the concept of this café on Itaewon-ro 54-gil is. Director Park Ki-dae says the tiled walls and floors most likely cause customers to mistake it for a bathhouse concept, while others even think it's a Dr. Fish (a café chain in Seoul famous for fish pedicures). So what is it really? As Park puts it: “People can envision what they want from it.” From the blue bath-like rectangle in the center of the café one can face the kitchen from which fresh French, American, Japanese and Italian-style baked goods come out—the most famous item being their Italian tiramisu. Throngs of people come on the weekend (beware the lines) for the soft and delicious desserts paired with Anthracite coffee.

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Takeout Drawing

Takeout Drawing is as much art space as it is café—in fact, food and drink sales fund the exhibitions, talks and artist residencies that each of Takeout Drawing’s four locations hosts. Every quarter they print a newspaper, which you are free to take home, that features articles, news and their menu. Speaking of which, in addition to the standard array of espresso drinks, Takeout Drawing’s creative beverages, invented with their resident artists, are unlike any we’ve had. We’re big fans of the white peony latte (decorated with a dried peony blossom), Paul’s Meringue Factory (topped with a spiky meringue that you dip in the espresso), and Storming Ant (with black sesame and foamy milk). For a pick-up-me, order the ㅋㅋpresso (that’s pronounced keukeu-presso)—it’s a complete surprise every time, up to the whims of the barista. According to the menu, “This is recommended when witty touches are needed.”

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Itaewon

Glamorous Penguin

For those of you lucky enough to have grown up with a baker at home, five-layer lemon meringue cakes might be nothing special. For the rest of us, there’s Glamorous Penguin, an oddly named but all-around lovely bakery and café that serves up the kind of cake that could have been homemade (by someone really good at baking, who really loves you, on your birthday). Korean-Canadian owner Sophia Yoo spent months testing recipes with her pastry chef before opening and applies the same rigorous process to new cakes. The vetting process clearly pays off—we can’t get enough of the dense, moist layers of the carrot cake, and the maple apple, and the red velvet, not the mention the oatmeal cookies… Help.

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Hannam-dong
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MO Jain Song

Mo Jain Song is a hidden gem at the end of an Itaewon alley. Parsons-trained designer Jain Song launched her first collection in 2004 with the philosophy of “city meets nature.” Her modern designs do not use leather or fur, focusing instead on the pursuit of “perfect tailoring.” The first floor houses her collection, while the second floor features a café and a select shop of small delights curated from around the world. They range from the fanciful (tiny metal sea creature magnets) to the eminently practical (7.5” Gingher pinking shears), with a large selection of high-quality gardening tools. In fact, inspired by her father, gardening has been a lifelong hobby of Jain Song’s: plants fill the space. Just opposite the café is a glass-covered terrace with small fruit trees, potted cacti and brightly colored seating. In nice weather, take your drinks to the rooftop garden for views of the city.

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Hannam-dong

Ikovox Coffee

In the alley behind the Hamilton Hotel, prices are high, people are many, and the eats are a mixed. But if you’re looking for respite from the hubbub, look no further than Ikovox Coffee. The tiny first floor space has low ceilings, is dimly lit, and is outfitted with brass accents, stained woods, and olive green highlights—the aesthetic is both turn-of-the-century classic and utilitarian. Thankfully, Ikovox is not all show. They roast their own coffee daily in their Sinsa facility, which you can purchase in cans. Their cappuccino foam is consistently tight and smooth but latte art is not a given (when asked, the barista smiled and said, “if we feel like it”). Instead, the focus is on the coffee. Pour-over aficionados will appreciate the generously-sized individual Chemex pots, and those of you with a sweet tooth will be happy to hear that they serve Glamorous Penguin’s moist and dense layer cakes.

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Yongsan-gu

Ando Café

Hidden on the top floor of an unassuming office building on the east end of Itaewon is Ando Café, an outpost of the popular vintage furniture emporium with shops around Seoul. As the building is built into a hillside, this rooftop has more of a hidden courtyard feeling than the open-air views of other city rooftops. But what you lose in skyline views you gain in peace and quiet. The café itself is full of charming vintage furniture from all over the world, from French library catalogue drawers to plump British leather couches. Furniture displays rotate as pieces are periodically sold. Grab a cold beer or lemonade on particularly hot days.

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Hannam-dong
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Rose Bakery

This outlet of the world-famous Rose Bakery sits on the first floor of Hannam-dong’s Comme des Garcons store. Rose Bakery began as British transplant Madame Rose Carrarini‘s idea to introduce modest but honest British homemade fare to France, her husband’s country of birth. Since Rose Bakery’s first shop opened in Montmartre, it has opened venues worldwide, including four in Seoul. They showcase an array of salads, quiches, pizzas and cakes – all hearty, homemade creations made with fresh, organic ingredients. After all, good ingredients make good food. The daily menu at Rose Bakery is limited so get there early if you're looking for a meal, as freshness is their philosophy. The flavors do not disappoint. Is it the organic speaking? Perhaps—in any case, it's also an excellent place to enjoy sweets with good coffee (their long black speaks volumes)—and even sketch a little with the colored pencils and paper provided at each table.

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Hannam-dong

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