One thing any visitor to South Korea will quickly notice is the sheer amount of cafes across the whole country. Cafe culture in Korea is very strong, with cafes and cafe-goers in abundance.
For example, there are so many cafe chains. To give you an idea, around Korea you can find: Tom N Toms, A Twosome Place, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Ediya Coffee, Paik’s Coffee, Mega Coffee, Gongcha, Hollys Coffee, Dal.Komm Coffee, Cafe Pascucci, Angel-in-us, Caffe Bene, Cafe Droptop, Banapresso, Compose Coffee, and of course, Starbucks.
That’s 16 chains! But there are also plenty of independent cafes everywhere, from small takeaway-only shops down alleyways to immaculately-decorated, ultra chic cafes in up-and-coming neighborhoods.
So Koreans love their coffee. But it goes beyond that – cafes have been a fixture in Korean society for a century. And it all started with the dabang (다방).
This post is a look into contemporary cafe culture in Korea and its roots in the dabangs of the 20th century.
What is a Dabang?
A dabang is a place that serves coffee, tea, and other drinks. The “da” (茶 in hanja) part of dabang means “tea” and the “bang” (房 in hanja) part means “room.”
So dabang literally means tearoom, but they had a variety of beverages available for patrons.
The word dabang isn’t used so much today, but you will occasionally see cafes with “dabang” in their name. These often aren’t decorated like the traditional dabangs, but you can occasionally find a cafe style this way.
I did recently find “Dabang Coffee” (다방커피) brand coffee in a supermarket in Korea, shown below. The slogan above “dabang coffee” says “그시절, 우리가 좋아했던,” which means approximately “the dabang coffee that we liked at that time,” with a feeling of remembrance or nostalgia.
Dabang Coffee-brand coffee
There is a real estate app called Dabang, but I’m almost positive that the meaning is different, e.g. the “da” doesn’t mean tea here.
History of Dabangs and Coffee in Korea
Supposedly, King Gojong was the first person to have coffee in Korea in 1896. It was served to him at the Russian legation by Antoinette Sontag, the sister-in-law of the Russian ambassador. This was durnig the time he stayed at the Russian embassy after he fled the palace when the Japanese invaded South Korea.
However, Koreans seem to first have tried coffee through foreign warships visiting Korea, who shared the beverage with Korean officials.
Antoinette Sontag also introduced the first dabang/cafe to South Korea at the Sontag Hotel in Seoul early in the 20th century. The Sontag Hotel, built in 1902, was a European hotel that saw many westerners who lived or visited Korea.
The 1920s saw many dabangs open in Seoul, particularly around Myeongdong and Jongno. Their popularity grew over the next few decades, especially amongst the culture makers and upper class of Korea.
Through the 1940s, they were a gathering place for writer, artists, and intellectuals, à la cafes in Paris. Coffee was associated with elite status and Western culture.
The cafe scene in Korea changed after the Korean War, when the American soldiers brought instant coffee with them. Throughout the 1950s, dabangs grew in popularity again. By the end of the decade, there were 3,000 cafes around the country.
But this time, dabangs were for everyone. They became a place to socialize with others – for business, for dates, for general hangouts. They were a staple of Korean social life.
This popularity continued through the 1980s. All the while, in the 1970s, the first Korean 3-in-1 coffee mix was introduced to the market, making coffee even more accessible to everyone.
The 1980s also saw the addition of coffee vending machines on the street and other public places. You can still sometimes find them around, like this coffee and tea vending machine I saw on a subway platform in Seoul. Everything cost 400 or 500 won (around $0.35-$0.40 USD), for a very small cup.
A coffee and tea vending machine in the Seoul subway
Also springing up in the 1980s were more modern cafes. These cafes featured beautiful interiors and espresso machines, which allowed the introduction of new ways to drink coffee.
Contemporary Cafe Culture in Korea
A major factor in the explosion of coffee and cafe culture in Korea is Starbucks. The first Starbucks branch opened in Seoul near Ewha Womans University in 1999.
As of 2021, Korea had 1,611 Starbucks branches in the country, the third most in the world after the United States and China. Its sales for 2021 were approximately 2 trillion won (~$1.7 billion USD), while the next biggest chain, A Twosome Place, only had sales around 1 trillion won (~$800 million USD).
Starbucks has helped pave the way for Korea’s current iteration of cafe culture. The chain introduced new styles of coffee, different than those available in dabangs or via instant mixes. It also popularized takeaway drinks, disposable cups, and mobile ordering.
But why is Starbucks so popular in Korea? Most likely, it’s a combination of factors and doing the right place at the right time. For one, they made their stores places where customers could stay a while and chat or work. This means spacious branches, comfortable chairs, Wi-Fi, and power outlets, especially compared to other chains.
Starbucks also has a pretty extensive menu catering to Korean tastes that also features seasonal drinks and food. Of course, you can get a classic Americano or latte, but also localized drinks like yuja mint tea. Past seasonal drinks include the cherry blossom latte and pink crystal chamomile tea, both limited releases for cherry blossom season.
Various cherry blossom-themed products from Starbucks Korea
They also sell cute seasonal items like mugs and tumblers. Starbucks in other countries do this too, but the products seem cuter and to change more often than they do in the United States (at least to me; other Asian countries also seem to have similarly-cute items). The cherry blossom-themed items are particularly popular and sell out quickly each year.
But the association of Starbucks with quality/luxury continues to this day. As a teacher in Korea, I was occasionally gifted Starbucks drinks or gift cards from my employer or parents.
I don’t think it’s necessarily because everyone likes Starbucks, but I get the impression that it’s at least a minimum level of “fancy” for a gift. Like it’s a safe gift that won’t be perceived as cheap.
But it’s not just Starbucks in Korea. In 2021, around 16,000 new cafes opened up. As I mentioned before, there are a ton of cafe chains and independent cafes everywhere in the country.
And they often have gorgeous settings. Many people do love a good interior, especially if it’s Instagram-worthy. Decorations are just one way that cafes try to differentiate themselves from their tough competition.
Many cafes have signature drinks or foods, like the pretzels at Tom N Toms. Often they jump on the latest trends, like the croffles in so many cafes now or dalgona coffee which became popular on social media in 2020.
Croissant + waffle = croffle
Other cafes are themed, having some kind of enticing hook to get people to try them out. This could be anything from massage cafes offering high-end massage chairs to flower cafes dripping in plant life to pop culture-inspired cafes like the Harry Potter-themed 934 King’s Cross (seen below)
934 King’s Cross (still open), Arriate Hongdae (closed)