One of the reasons I prefer reading and writing in certain cafes as opposed to at home, other than the quality of the coffee, is the cakes you can eat there. Another important factor I suppose is the ambience of the coffeehouse – being amidst other patrons immersed in their work or conversations, the snug and mellow furniture and lighting, etc. – but unfortunately one-off cafes run by dedicated owners, which best fit this description, are becoming ever rarer, so we must make do with the franchises.
Usually I find Starbucks, despite their ubiquity and the ill-will generated by the prices, to have the best interior. Their furniture is inviting and the proportion of sofas to hardback chairs is considerably higher than the others (as an aside, Caffe Bene has possibly the most uncomfortable seating, while Pascucci shows a certain dedication to customer comfort by having all plush seats, but suffers from being bland and predictable). The general standard of interior design is consistently decent across all the stores, with the wood panels and spacious table arrangements – as well as the communal laptop work areas with generous helpings of power plugs – contributing to the best customer experience. I know that isn’t saying much when looking at the pitiful competition offered up by the lamentable likes of Hollys and Angelinus, but considering the bad rap and the general disdain Starbucks gets from the general populace, they offer a surprisingly good environment, especially if you want to hang around and do something a little more constructive than just chatting.
The one chain cafe that comes closest to matching the (relative) quality of Starbucks is Caribou Coffee. They aren’t widespread, but there are two stores I know of around Shinchon/Iwha University area, and at the very least the one by the Shinchon subway station is not at all a bad place to do your reading and writing. Its biggest attraction is the low lighting – where other coffee joints insist on fluorescent brightness, Caribou Coffee has a more subdued and considered ambience, and the lighting is a lot warmer on the eye. Seats are leather-bound, spacious and there’s even a mockup of a fireplace and sofas arranged like a living room.
If I have to find an issue, then it’s the coffee they sell. Caribou specializes in very sweet mocha/cocoa options, and you get a choice of chocolate that goes in the mocha, between white, milk or dark. It’s all well and good, but if your palate is used to more sober caffeine, then Caribou’s offerings will make you dizzy with their sickly saccharine taste. Some people love them; personally I’m a little more ambivalent.
The raspberry cheesecake above was, like Caribou’s coffee menu, thick and pungent, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing on a cheesecake, and went very well with the mocha pictured next to it. I still think that, in terms of taste, Coffee Bean has the best of both cakes and coffee, but Caribou Coffee is a very welcoming alternative, and gives Starbucks a run for its money when it comes to comfort and atmosphere.