Meagan Mastriani finally agrees to share her favorite café in Seoul. Meet Café Hibi.
By Meagan Mastriani
I have a confession — I’ve been committing a cardinal cafe sin. All these months I’ve been writing about Seoul’s great cafes, recommending adorable eateries all around town, but I have yet to share my favorite spot. The spot, in fact, where I sat to write nearly every one of those other reviews and the spot where I am sitting right now. I’ve spent too much time here hiding my computer screen, trying not to reveal my secret betrayal. Today it’s out in the open: consider this my penance.
Cafe Hibi, in Hongdae, has been my little den of iniquity for quite some time. I first noticed the place because of its mysterious sign. It shows some inscrutable Japanese writing and a stenciled tapir (you know, those jungle-dwelling, pig-like critters with funny noses). I passed it several times and always asked myself, “Why a tapir?” It’s located on the second floor, with strategically placed windows that keep you from seeing exactly what’s going on inside. Was it a store? A restaurant? An office of some kind? I wasn’t even sure what kind of establishment the place was until I circled the building and found a sign that read “Cafe Hibi” and some posters for an art exhibit inside.
When I finally climbed the stairs and peeked inside Cafe Hibi, I found a sun-drenched studio with white stucco walls, mismatched furniture, and clippings from quirky Japanese magazines taped all over the place. Cafe Hibi is clearly a Japanese-inspired place, but it feels like it belongs in Seoul. It has the same kitschy-cute style that is so dominant right now, yet with a simplicity and refinement that sets it apart from the cluttered cookiecutter cafes in the area.
So I solved the matter of the Japanese script, but I still haven’t figured out the tapir conundrum. Perhaps the mysteriousness is the answer itself — maybe it’s just meant to attract inquisitive passersby. I’m sure I’m not the first to be drawn in by the strange animal. (Hmm… a mystifying creature luring a girl into sinful territory, this sounds familiar!)
Clever sign and nice design aside, what won my total and complete devotion was Cafe Hibi’s incredible service. In addition to being warm and attentive, the staff have been known to bring over complimentary snacks with some frequency. On weeknights, when it’s fairly calm, the kitchen may realize they have some extra food or perhaps want to try an experimental dessert, and they’ll send it out to all the customers for free. The first time I received a bonus plate of fresh watermelon slices, I was thrilled. I assumed it was some sort of special, that it didn’t happen very often. But the next week, I got a delightful whipped cream-topped fig cake. I must admit, each time they happened to bring me a treat while I was writing this column, I felt a bit like Eve tasting the forbidden fruit. Their generosity was sinfully delicious.
Of course, even if you come on a weekend or evening when the kitchen isn’t feeling so charitable, the menu has plenty of options to satisfy your sweet tooth. The banana smoothie (or “smoodie”, as the menu reads) is a wonderful concoction topped with cinnamon and nuts, served in a small bowl and eaten with a spoon, rather than slurped from a glass. If you come with an empty stomach, start with one of their salads or curries (which smell so delicious I’m tempted to order them even when I’ve already eaten).
Before leaving, be sure to browse the local art on display, which changes with remarkable frequency and features an impressive variety. From week to week, there are exhibits as diverse as collections of handmade stuffed animals, mini Polaroid galleries, and stationery from local graphic designers. Maybe you’ll even get lucky enough to visit during one of Hibi’s special events, like the occasional flea market held outside the cafe.
To Cafe Hibi, my one and only favorite writing nook, I’m sorry I did you wrong, and I hope this confession absolves my culinary crime. Please forgive the future infractions I’m sure to incur, and understand that out of all the cafes in my heart, you are the closest. Yours truly.