Borrowing its name from a type of limestone used as a key design element in its space, Travertine, a new coffee shop and bakery in Seoul’s city center, mixes the old with the new: a traditional hanok rooftop merges with sleek glass walls, and futuristic steel stools dot a gravel-lined garden space that’s reminiscent of the courtyard surrounding Gyeongbokgung Palace. It’s a welcome new spot for those who live and work on the quiet gingko-tree-lined street in Yongsan—during the day, most of their customers are nearby office workers, but at night and on weekends, it tends to attract a younger crowd (like most Korean coffee shops, Travertine stays open relatively late—until 10pm).
Run by manager Seung Mok Lee, Travertine opened in the fall of 2018, and is owned by a larger creative company that also publishes a triannual cycling magazine, Far Ride Magazine. The multi-roaster shop features coffee from both near and far—they worked with Suan Coffee from Busan to create a house espresso blend, and the selection of filter coffee rotates often, most recently including The Coffee Collective from Copenhagen and Proud Mary from Melbourne. Their pastries, including croissants, brownies, and financiers, are all baked in-house.
Constructed in the 1920s and originally used as a residential building, the space came with many unique elements the design-minded ownership group took care to preserve. The rooftop, columns, unfinished walls behind the bar, and garden space are all original features, complemented by rich wood tables and walls and greenery added by the team. “We also referenced 2001: A Space Odyssey and Cosmos for inspiration, because both gave us this idea of imagining the future from a past perspective,” Lee says. A neat retail shelf displays an array of brewing equipment, reading material, and bags of coffee that Lee has collected on his travels—when I visited, I spotted some bags of Stumptown and Heart from his most recent trip to Portland.
In addition to offering meticulously prepared drinks in a beautiful setting, Lee’s main dream for Travertine is to connect with and inspire their customers, in part by opening the space up for events. “Specialty coffee has become more popular in Korea, and companies are taking coffee extraction and roasting very seriously,” Lee noted, “but we want to take this further and focus on engaging with people.”
Ray Yoon, who previously worked as a barista at More Than Less and now guest baristas at shops around the city, shares this sentiment. While living in Melbourne, he was struck by the friendly, easygoing nature of Australian coffee culture compared to the polite but more reserved nature of the culture back home. He fondly recalls visiting Aunty Peg’s, and how the staff remembered his name on his second visit. “I think a lot of Koreans drink coffee for the caffeine, or they go to cafes to see friends and take photos,” says Yoon. “There aren’t as many people who come in to really taste and learn about coffee and chat with baristas, and I want to change that.”
In an effort to do so, Yoon has collaborated with people around the city to brew and talk about coffee at everything from jazz gigs to store opening parties. For Travertine’s first gathering this past fall, he hosted a simple cupping event, educating attendees while getting to know each guest. “I just want to show people that coffee and conversation can be easy, and go well together,” Yoon says. “After the event, our customers turned into our friends.”
Most of the seating at Travertine is communal, encouraging visitors to mingle, and Lee plans to host more events in the new year. “If we can eventually turn this into a spot where meaningful relationships are created over a cup of coffee, I couldn’t ask for more.”
All photos courtesy of Travertine (by Brad Hammons and Hyunki Kim)
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