Living a K-Drama Fantasy at the Real-Life Coffee Prince – Written by: Dianna
Spoiled coffee-empire-heir meets a girl, who he thinks is a boy. Said heir hires the girl (as a boy) to help him fix up an old coffee shop and make it a profitable enterprise. After the transformation of the coffee shop, the girl (still acting like a boy) becomes a waiter at the coffee shop, and the two fall in love. Only later does the heir discover that the guy he has fallen for is actually a girl.? Of course, there are the other waiters who have their own life problems to solve, as well a lot of outside interference in the relationship of the heir and his tom-boy girlfriend. But there is always the coffee shop to return to when times are rough. Eventually, all the misunderstandings, miscommunications, and perpetual bad timing ends, and the heir and his girlfriend (who is now easily recognizable as an attractive young lady) can be together.
If this sounds like complete fiction, that is because it is. Above is a synopsis of the 2007 hit Korean drama “커피프린스 1 호점” (The First Shop of the Coffee Prince), starring Gong Yu as Han-gyul and Yoon Eun-hye as Eun-chan. But while the plot may be pure K-drama fantasy, the renovation and operation of the coffee shop is very real. In other words, the shop ? the main set of one of the most internationally recognized K-dramas of the past decade ? is a real place. And you can visit it when you come to Seoul.
In the drama, The First Shop of the Coffee Prince (Coffee Prince) markets itself as a local hangout for young people, and the location of the real shop fits in perfectly with Han-gyul’s vision. You will find the shop in Hongdae, an area of Seoul known for its alternative and youthful vibe. However, being geared towards locals (in both the drama and real life) puts the shop off the well-worn tourist path; it is a good five to ten minute walk from the main thoroughfares around the Hongik University subway station. So, if you prefer to make a bee-line to Coffee Prince instead of wandering among the many delights of Hongdae, you should look up directions on blogs or the Korean Tourism Organization website before you leave the house.
Fans of The First Shop of the Coffee Prince know that the shop is set back from the street and is enclosed by a wall. Unfortunately, recognizing the shop from the street is difficult due to a lack of street views in the drama. But luckily, visitors easily see the sign sticking out over the main gate as they come walking up the hill (which did have a small amount of screen time when Eun-chan chases after Han-gyul as he drives away). The sign is written in Korean, but its hand-written font and watercolor flowers are done exactly like the opening title of the drama, leaving little doubt that you have found the right coffee shop.
After stepping inside the concrete enclosure, you feel like lines between the fiction of the drama and the physical existence of the shop itself are blurred. Everything from the chairs in the couryard, to the walk up the wooden deck to the main, to the counter area, to the sunflower mural, to the chalk-written menus is exactly waht you have seen on television. The menu includes the normal coffee shop drinks and waffles. Even the drama’s hiring principle is upheld at the real Coffee Prince; the workers are “princes” (good looking young men). And all of them wear the same uniform as seen in the drama.
Though the real shop does an astounding job of transporting you into the fiction of Han-gyul’s shop, subtle details remind you that you are, in fact, sitting in a working coffee shop in Hongdae that just happened to be the set of a famous K-drama. There is actually a female worker there (though she could easily be called a “princess”). The d?cor includes cut outs from the drama, memorabilia, and the framed autographs from the cast members. The walls are signed by past visitors to the shop, most of them clearly fans of the drama. Cakes have been added to the menu. You order at the counter and then sit down at any table; the workers bring you your order later, instead of taking your order once you sit down like in the drama.
Of course, it is a little disappointing for fans to realize that the real shop is not exactly like the shop in the drama; however, Coffee Prince does make reality seem as wonderful as a fantasy through its service and ambience. When you enter, you are immediately greeted in Korean with what translates to “Thank you for visiting Coffee Prince”. Then, everyone is greeted again in English, and then, if the staff believes you are not Korean, the instructions for how to order are given in English. Both times an order was placed, it only took five minutes for the item to brought to the table. In typical Korean fashion, the waiter will not disturb you; you must call for them if you need something else. But when you do call them, they are polite and patient with any language barrier issues. Coffee Prince does run out of items by the end of the day, especially popular waffle flavors, and no sign is posted to let you know. However, the staff is very apologetic about the fact that they are out of what you had planned to order, and happily gives suggestions for another menu item.
The inside of Coffee Prince is much like its drama counterpart ? eclectic but relaxed. The mismatched furniture, washed concrete floors and walls, construction-style wood paneling, low lighting and changing music (it fluctuated between classical piano and Korean hip-hop) all somehow work together to create a fun and enjoyable atmosphere. True to Han-gyul’s vision, Coffee Prince could easily become your favorite local, where you take your diary or homework or book, order some coffee, and feel comfortable working there for several hours on end.
A real coffee shop does mean real price tags, and visitors should be prepared to shell out around 20,000 won per person to experience the Hongdae coffee shop with K-drama roots. The drinks range in price from 6,000 to 9,000 won; the waffles are either 10,000 or 12,000 won; and the cake slices start at 7,000 won. At other places in Seoul, you can get a really great cup of coffee for 3,000 won, and most meals ? by “meal” I mean meat, rice, and side dishes ? will only cost you 5,000 won. Comparatively speaking, you will pay more at Coffee Prince than a lot of other local eateries, but they are also not famous drama sets. So, you could somewhat justify the prices by saying you are paying for a unique experience. However, if you are still a little concerned about paying so much for coffee, you can order any of the “Ades” (fruit juices with sparkling water and ice ? think agua fresca meets Orangina). Their size and refreshing taste make you feel that it was worth 8,000 won.
When it comes to the waffles, however, there is no such alternative. In the drama, it is Sun-ki’s waffles that give the coffee shop a unique menu, and the waffles at the real Coffee Prince are certainly unlike anything you have ever seen (a Green Tea-flavored waffle with green tea ice cream on top is just one example). However, it is a little disappointing to pay 10,000 won and then be served a waffle on a single-serving plate. The Coffee Waffle ? which is in fact a coffee-flavored waffle thanks to the coffee beans in the batter ? is undeniably tasty. The waffle is warm, the vanilla ice cream smooth, and it does make a filling snack for one person (though several people were seen splitting waffles). It is also one of the most picture-perfect waffles ever served. However, the waffle does not taste nearly as mind-blowingly amazing as might be expected from a “unique feature” menu item, or for a Sun-ki waffle experience. Though this experience could be due to the time of day (they had run out of several of the other waffle flavors, implying that they may only make a certain number of each flavor every day), it could also be due to the general preparation. Therefore, if you are not feeling like spending the money, you could forego the real experience of the waffles, and instead continue to fantasize about Sun-ki’s creations from the comfort of your couch.
If you want to have a real-life K-drama experience, then pay Coffee Prince a visit. While certain aspects of the coffee shop bring you as close to Han-gyul and Eun-chan as is realistically possible, other aspects make it feel like the funky coffee shop in Hongdae it is supposed to be. And it is this interesting blend of real culture and pop culture that make Coffee Prince a unique Seoul site worth experiencing.