“When you reach Seoul,” my friend said, “go to You Are Here Cafe; it does western food, it’ll be full of foreigners speaking English, and you’ll get some decent coffee”.
“Do me a favour” I thought, “I want AUTHENTIC KOREAN ONLY”.
Of course, after two weeks of intensely spicy Korean cuisine, and on realising I was but a single metro from the promised land, I headed straight over, high on anticipation and ready to be wowed.
You Are Here Cafe is owned by the people behind two YouTube channels: language-learning “Talk To Me In Korean”, and Seoul-based Canadian couple Simon and Martina, aka the hugely successful “Eat Your Kimchi”. The latter broadcast kitsch, personal, and brightly-coloured snapshots of life in Korea’s capital to a veritable army of followers. I’d only been watching for a few weeks and had already been drawn into their highly stylised world. I was excited to spend a few hours indulging in a real-life manifestation of their enviable YouTube videos.
They say never meet your heroes. I’d extend that to “Don’t try and emulate your heroes’ YouTube videos by way of a suburban cafe”.
It was perfectly pleasant, but unexpectedly low-key: simple seating, white walls, spacious . . . forgettable. Apart from a single wall of shelves dotted with books, international touristy trinkets and Eat Your Kimchi merchandise, the only other suggestion of the cafe’s background came from a few illustrations stuck to the wall around the drinks menu.
Some years ago, this cafe would presumably have made considerable waves in Seoul’s burgeoning cafe culture. My vintage 2008 Rough Guide to Korea (some of us are hipsters without even trying), suggests that decent coffees were then few and far between; these days, it’s gone so far the other way that tracking down a Korean plum tea is little short of the holy grail. Coffee shops abound in even the smallest villages; Seoul is positively heaving with them.
Which leaves You Are Here in a slightly awkward position. Presumably there aren’t enough foreigners to keep the cafe afloat, so it needs to appeal to Koreans too. But instead of picking one or the other, it floats somewhere in the middle; not western enough to serve as a home-from-home for weary travellers, but hidden down a sidestreet thereby failing to attract passing local footfall.
It promised to be a meeting point for newcomers wishing to learn Korean, but the only visible concession to this came from a small blackboard which advertised weekly language classes. The considerable space – a rarity in overpopulated Seoul – lends itself well to such gatherings; but who turns up? I was there at midday on a Saturday, when similar joints in London or New York would be turning patrons away, yet the place was almost empty. Again, perhaps, due to the confusing target audience. Korean cafes tend to sell either food or coffee, but rarely both. This brunch-loving Londoner had presumptuously assumed You Are Here would have stepped into the breach and be plugging the excellent combination. But instead, their limited food selection comprises two sandwiches and a few toasties. And for all their YouTube hype about offering a selection of recognisable healthy(ish) puddings, there were just a few sad looking cakes on offer, and I wasn’t tempted to indulge.
Credit where credit’s due: the club sandwich really was quite excellent. I mean, there’s only so much eulogising one can do about a sandwich, and perhaps it’s just having been away from home for six weeks which did it, but that thing was marvellous – even if it did take its sweet time in arriving. Delicious pickle, decent bread, just the right amount of filling, and a lightly dressed salad on the side: wholesome, refreshing, filling. And the coffee? It was fine. Pretty standard. Served far too hot and largely lacking in flavour, chain-cafe style. I was surprised that for a country so hot on recycling, it came in a disposable cup.
I had a strawberry milkshake, too, which was satisfyingly huge, creamy, and thick enough to barely drink; but made with frozen fruit despite the servers confirming that it was fresh. Of course, that may simply have been down to communication. I certainly don’t expect English to be spoken as standard, but in a cafe owned by non-Koreans and aimed primarily at foreigners, I’m surprised that they hadn’t hired people with a more confident grasp of the language.
My crowning example of the cafe’s disappointment was the loo. Perhaps the humble restaurant bathroom doesn’t hold quite the level of impact in Korea that it does in the west (I know I’m not the only one whose first thought on walking into a particularly swanky joint is inevitably “I bet the toilet’s lovely”). But this is a two-thirds-Western-owned cafe, and Eat Your Kimchi is identifiable by their penchant for Korea’s ubiquitous kitsch. Such accoutrements are available literally everywhere and it would have been both easy and cheap to whack in a cutesy soap dispenser, embellishments on the mirror, windowsill ornaments, a kawaii hand-towel. But it was less interesting than a shared hostel toilet. It had blah blue tiles. Everything was unadorned. I had hoped for Eat Your Kimchi illustrations covering the walls, but all I got was a tiny sticker of their dog above the door handle. It just seemed so half-hearted.
I wonder whether the team are even involved these days. It certainly didn’t feel like it. They opened last year but it already feels like just another unobjectionable Korean cafe. Had I stumbled across this place by accident then I would have hung around for a bit (good wifi, I’ll give them that) and left with barely a backwards glance. It’s not worth trekking across the city. And if I feel that way after a fortnight, I can’t imagine the crushing disappointment of the trans-Pacific fans visiting after years of slavish devotion, only to discover that not only are their idols themselves nowhere to be seen, but traces of their trademark personalities are equally difficult to discern.
It’s not a bad cafe by any means. It just could have been so much more.