“Um, are you sure there’s something here?” I remember asking the friend that first took me to Anthracite back in 2012. In the dark, only the Dangin-ri Power Plant towered ominously in the background decorated only by the residential houses at its feet and the Jeoldusan Catholic Martyrs' Shrine carrying holy embodiments of the 1800s. On my first visit, there were no landmarks to light the way, but in current-day 2015, these back streets to the aromatic café now have pockets of light flickering like fireflies on a hot summer night and the YG headquarters to boot. Grandmas fussing over toddlers at the playground are passed by stylish twenty somethings walking their dogs to the Han River nearby. Lost, we ask a stranger on a street for directions and we later found out he’s model Heo Jae-hyuk. “I just stay at home and I don’t do much,” he answers when we ask for a resident’s perspective of the neighborhood. “I sit around and study all day,” answers a student hanging out at Veronica Effect. While we don’t doubt they’re telling the truth, there must be a reason businesses keep popping up in these parts, whether it’s a bar, a three-story antique shop or even a bagel store, known only by word of mouth. On a Saturday night, I peek into some shops that have closed for the night and realize that five minutes away by cab in Hongdae, some of my rock band friends are going hard to a crowd of sweaty, loud fans. Here, it’s that feeling of watching the party from a distance with someone you care about and thinking, I don’t want to go back in just yet.
From Anthracite to Tojeong-ro
An intimate feeling surrounds the Dangin-ri Power Plant
The first name to brand the neighborhood, the fact the two-story building has actually been renovated from an old shoe-factory is not even the coolest thing about it. Set within the low-lit minimalistic gray-toned walls are a collection of plush sofas and classroom furniture all arranged to the jazzy playlist of the café. The beloved home of long-time coffee snobs, Anthracite boasts fresh blends from Ethiopia, Columbia, Kenya, Brazil and more. We give kudos to Anthracite for bringing people to this neighborhood, even before Hapjeong-dong was a thing.
Bean Brothers makes good use of the high ceilings, with two lofted seating areas that overlook the floor and allow for excellent birds-eye views of the coffee bar, a U-shaped counter in the middle of the room that almost acts as a stage. It’s enthralling to watch every step of your coffee being ground, measured out, and poured over before your very eyes, and you can get a sense of the degree to which the head baristas have trained their staff. Bean Brothers has three house roasts, each one named for one of the three main baristas and each with its own flavor profile.
You already know that Seoul ranks when it comes to its izakaya game, but Japanese desserts? Where can you find those? While at first glance, you might confuse this “dango” to be a few beautifully assorted Korean rice cakes, they’re actually a type of sweet Japanese mochiko dumpling. Available in different flavors of green tea, soy sauce, strawberry, caramel and grain powder, these are a great alternative to after-dinner cakes if you’re in the mood for something a bit different. During the summertime, Danggojip also serves up an incredibly pretty cherry blossom bingsu that’s as delicious as it is aesthetically pleasing.
Mudaeruk (or Mu, as it is sometimes affectionately called) was started by Kim Geon-ah and two fellow indie musician friends who wanted to create a casual gathering space for music lovers. They recently relocated to a converted warehouse, a white-walled, cement floor space that is enormous but still fills up with Hongdae’s young and artsy crowd. They occasionally showcase the work of up-and-coming artists on their walls, but the main cultural attraction is the concert space in their basement where the good work of supporting indie musicians continues on. The first-floor café exists for the purpose of funding this project, so grab a few friends and get drinks and eats before the next show. For double karma, order one of Mu’s new “sharing boards,” wooden cutting boards loaded with small bites—for every board, 2,000 won goes to Save the Children’s local projects here in Korea.
Created by the same interior design team that did Anthracite, 3 Sam Partners could at first pass as merely an aesthetically pleasing café. However, their secret’s not their coffee beans but the New York claim to fame—bagels. Made in more of a Montreal style (softer and chewier), they offer a range of flavors including plain, strawberry, cinnamon raisin, chocolate and the Volcano, which seems to have become a neighborhood bagel. Flavored cream cheese (a difficult feat to come by in Korea) comes in olive and tomato. Recently reopened after a ten month renovation, an ajumma peeped in with glee. “Are you back? I’m definitely coming back later for a bagel.”
Ever look at Molly Ringwald’s outfits from Pretty in Pink and wish that you could find those items somewhere? Ironically, the secret trove of all your vintage and vintage-inspired must-haves are now available at this three-story building in Hapjeong-dong. The first floor consists mostly of jewelry and accessories, the second of shoes and clothing and the third for household goods, either imports or local Japanese and Korean brands. Our favorite was a high collared wedding dress the owners had bought from an 80-year-old woman at a garage sale in New Jersey, now available for rentals. Prices range from 10,000 won to 700,000 won to suit even an Andie Walsh budget.
Fashion bloggers all over the world are crazy about celebrated shoe designer Minju Kim, winner of the 2013 H&M Design Award. While international fans try to get their hands on her shoes online, Seoulites can get easy access on this small street in Tojeong-ro. Progressive fashionistas will hunt down her shoes for their platform heels, unusual patterns and bold colors that seem to go with her brand’s namesake. Currently available are shoes from their “Ottopi Just Landed” collection, which showcases an illustrated alien with wide-eyes and stripes, but they update their shoe line-up seasonally. Even for those that may not be able to afford the shoes, they might be worth checking out just for the artistic elements.
When headed to Manpyoung, look for the neon sign in pink that reads "vinyl music." A music bar opened by two friends of ten years, they've long listened to music together and even DJed together. Their reason for starting the bar? They say it's because they wanted to make noise in what they deemed a quiet and romantic neighborhood. Playing music that ranges from what was hot in the '60s to current Korean indie music, you can also make song requests on hot pink post-its and stick them on the turn-table. Whoever's spinning will do their best to search for it in their 10-year LP collection or play something similar. While their cocktails are average at best, they do come out quickly. It's more the atmosphere you go for—neon laser lights and funky beats. On opening night, they showed a pig head on an iMac screen and stuck a wad of cash on its lips as an "offering" to bless their venue. The place has a sense of humor like that.
Combining modern aesthetic with a German countryside feeling, you’ll first notice Krämerlee on summer nights by the jovial drinkers seated outside. As indicated by their German name, the bar offers a simple menu of six craft beers and four food dishes. Although the classic Weissbier is a local favorite, manager and German native Christian recommends the Helene, which has undertones of the pear juice from which it’s made. Popular dishes include Christian’s favorite flammkuchen which he describes as “German pizza” (made predominately with white cheese and onions) and the potato and sausage platter.
“I’ve lived here for over fifty years and I’ve recently retired. Nowadays, I just study, eat and play. Sure, the neighborhood’s changed a bit over the years and young people are buying lots of coffee, but that’s not for old folks like me. It’s so expensive!We enjoy it because it’s quiet and the air is good and the transportation is good. It’s busy but so easy to get to so many places. I bike around at the Han which is right over there and all my kids live here, too. I still love this neighborhood.”
Jennifer Konig (Translation student at Ewha Women’s University)
I’ve been living in Korea for seven years and had an apartment in Yeonnam-dong before coming to this neighborhood two years ago. Yeonnam-dong was getting too busy and I liked how there were so many individually old buildings here. Because of the proximity to the Han River, a lot of people have dogs and everything is really pet friendly. The Han’s probably my favorite thing about living here but I enjoy the cafes, too. I go to Bean Brothers a lot because it’s close to my house and they always have electric outlets for my computer and refills, too. I feel like a lot of new people are moving in and the rent’s going up, but I want to continue living here.”