The History Of Dabang: The Original Korean Coffee House

Before major franchise coffee shops started taking over, dabang was an important part of the Korean culture. What do they look like now?

Jihyun Lee
2 years ago

Did you hear about the special Starbucks branch in Korea, Starbucks Byeoldabang?

The name "Byeoldabang" is a combination of the word "Byeol" (별) which means star, and "Dabang" (다방) which refers to traditional Korean coffee and tea houses.

Currently, there aren't many dabangs in Korea, but there is a new trend for vintage things.

Recently, BTS gathered a lot of attention by filming their 2021 Season's Greetings at one of these traditional coffee houses. You can also check out all their vintage-style filming locations here.

Today, we'll be diving into the history of dabang and visiting Hakrim Dabang (학림다방), one of Seoul's oldest dabangs that has been in operation for over 60 years.

The Beginning Of Dabang

Old picture of Korean dabang

Dabang (다방) is a combination of the character "da (茶)" which means "tea" and "bang" (방), which means "room".

It wasn't just a place that sold tea though, they also sold various types of coffee as well.

Before Western-style cafes that sold espresso-based coffee from coffee beans entered and spread all throughout Korea, a dabang was the place to go for coffee and tea.

Korean people on the streets in Korea 1920Source: The Hankyoreh

It's said that it was around the 1920s when a dabang first appeared in Korea. It was in fact, during the Japanese colonial period. 

At the time, there were many coffee houses that were mainly concentrated on the streets of Myeongdong and Jongno. 

In the mid-1950s there were more than 50 coffee shops in Myeongdong alone. 

Old photo of Koreans sitting on tables in the 1900s

It is said that poor Korean artists during the time gathered at dabangs to discuss and write about art. As a result, there is a lot of Korean literature that was written in dabangs.

Cultural events such as publication commemorations, poetry recitals, and music appreciations were held there too.

You could also say that dabangs from the 1920s to the 1950s were sacred places of elite Korean art.

The Peak Of Dabang 

90's people reading at dabangSource: Kyunghyang Shinmun

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the culture of dabang was enjoyed by men and women of all ages.

During this period, dabangs weren't only for the elite and artists.

It went through a transformation from being a sacred place of elite art to becoming a popular spot for all generations and genders to spend their time at.

1900s dabang in KoreaSource: Wellbeing News

Most people chose to head to dabangs as there were very few other places for people to spend their time at.

Dabangs became a place for discussions about art, meetings, blind dates for college students, and a place to rest for the middle-aged. 

In Korea, there's even a famous song called "Love In The Milky Way Cafe" (사랑은 은하수 다방에서) which has the lyrics, "Love meets at the door of dabang, drinks tea and coffee while listening to the same song every day." 

girl reading newspaper in the 1900s in KoreaSource: EBS culture YouTube

Also, since this was a time when cell phones didn't exist, it was important to decide on a firm time and place before meeting up. 

So it was common for people to set the meeting location at a dabang. The first person to arrive can wait for their friends while having a drink.

Because of this, there were many places named "Yaksok Dabang (약속다방)", "yaksok" meaning "appointment". 

Old photo of people in Korea dabangSource: Kookje Daily News

A dabang was quite similar to the cafes that exist today, but it had much more culture.

music dabang KoreaSource: pet paper

During the time, there were "music dabangs" that were created for people to listen to the latest hit records.

Nowadays, we can conveniently listen to music on our phones, but at the time, people could only listen to music if they had a record player. So it became a popular place that people went to listen to music. 

DJ at music dabang in KoreaSource: Kyunghyang Shinmun

A DJ behind glass can be found at a music dabang. 

Apparently, during this time, a DJ was just as popular as an idol by today's standards. 

After you write your backstory and request a song on a piece of paper, the DJ will find your song in hundreds of vinyl records and dedicate it to you.

A Typical Dabang Menu

Dabang Coffee

dabang coffeeSource: MSG on YouTube

Unlike the espresso-based drinks that are sold in cafes these days, instant coffee was sold in dabangs. 

dabang coffee instant coffee powderSource: MBC 강원 영동

The coffees that were sold in dabangs used instant coffee powder. The coffee to cream to sugar ratio was very important when making their coffee.

Each person has slightly different taste buds, so it's said that people usually told the workers their preferred ratio and the coffee would be made to fit their preference. 

Ssanghwa-cha (쌍화차)


Ssanghwa-cha is a traditional Korean herbal tea that is made with astragalus, cinnamon, and licorice in hot water. Then, dates or pine nuts are added in with a raw egg yolk. 

raw egg in ssanghwa-cha

Isn't the raw egg yolk so unique? You can drink it when the egg yolk is slightly cooked due to the hot temperature of the tea.

This tea is said to be effective in relieving fatigue and warm your body up.

Whiskey Tea

whiskey tea

Whiskey tea is a mix of whiskey and black tea. Whiskey in a shot was too expensive, so it was sold by adding it in black tea! 

The Disappearance Of Dabang

dabang in 90'sSource: 14f on YouTube

Dabangs have gradually disappeared as coffee vending machines gained popularity in the 90s, and cafes that sold espresso-based coffee were created.

In addition, in 1999, the first Starbucks in Korea opened at Ewha Womans University, and take-out culture was becoming popular which caused dabangs to gradually disappear. 

There were also some cases where dabangs turned into illegal prostitution establishments. 

korea girl riding motorcycle

The female owner of a dabang was called "madam" and female employees were called "leh-gee" (레지), which was how Koreans pronounced "lady".

During the time, "leh-gee" had an image of delivering coffee in thermos bottles on a motorcycle. 

korean girl coffee delivery movie scene

Just like this scene from a movie, a "leh-gee" is a delivery woman who travels directly to the client with their coffee.

ticket dabang

This is an example of a dabang that has been transformed into a prostitution business. For an additional fee, you can engage in relations and these dabangs are called "Ticket Dabang".

Even today, there are apparently many places that engage in this illegal sex trafficking business under the name of being a "dabang".

Dabangs Today

However, there are still some dabangs that remain the same as they used to be!

BTS sitting around table at dabang

Recently, BTS filmed their 2021 Season's Greetings at Eulji Dabang, which has been in operation at Euljiro for nearly 40 years. 

Today, I visited Hakrim Dabang, which has been open for 65 years since 1956, to give you a closer look!

My Visit To Hakrim Dabang (학림다방)

Hakrim Dabang

Address: 서울특별시 종로구 명륜4가 대학로 119

Hours: 10:00-23:00

Hakrim Dabang is located on Daehak-ro, a street that's rich with culture and filled with lively youth. 

Daehak-ro-ro streets direction to Hakrim Dabang

directions to Hakrim Dabang

If you come out of Hyehwa Station exit 3 and walk one block you'll find Hakrim Dabang on the 2nd floor. 

It's the oldest store in Daehak-ro, and the third oldest in the country.

It's a place that's loved by so many Korean literary figures, musicians, and actors. It's also a place that was often visited by university students who led the Korean democratization movement. 

my love from the star Hakrim Dabang

Hakrim Dabang

It also frequently made an appearance on My Love From the Star, as a cafe that Do Min-jun, (Kim Soo-hyun's character) frequented.

Hakrim Dabang

wooden staircase Hakrim Dabang

If you push through the glass doors on the first floor, you'll find a narrow wooden staircase. Every time I walked up a step, I could feel the years that passed by with every creak.

wooden door Hakrim Dabang

If you open this old wooden door, you can enter Hakrim Dabang!

Hakrim Dabang

Even though I went during the day on a weekday, there were still a lot of customers. I thought there would be more of an older crowd, but I was wrong. This dabang was full of men and women of all ages.

There were middle-aged people having afternoon tea, daughters who brought their parents, couples in their 20s having a nice date, and university students taking online lectures. 

counter vinyl records Hakrim Dabang

cash register Hakrim Dabang

There were tons of vinyl records behind the cash register.

I was excited to drink a cup of coffee while listening to beautiful classic music through the record player.

Hakrim Dabang

Hakrim Dabang interior

Hakrim Dabang dim lighting seats

Even though it was sunny outside, the lighting indoors was slightly dimmed.

Overall, the space had wood-toned furniture with dim lighting, which had the effect of making it seem more luxurious than old. 

Hakrim Dabang window seats

Hakrim Dabang window seats

Hakrim Dabang window seats

On one side of the store, you could see the beautiful scenery of Daehak-ro. 

Because the weather was so nice, the seats by the window were the most popular.

window seats Hakrim Dabang

This picture of the window seats was taken in 1988 at Hakrim Dabang. The curtains and lights have changed while everything else looks the same.

Hakrim Dabang window seats

my love from the star Hakrim Dabang

In the back of the store, I was able to find the seat that Do Miin-jun from My Love From the Star sat at.

Hakrim Dabang

attic seats Hakrim Dabang

If you walk up the small staircase to the left of the dabang, you'll find some seats in the attic. 

Hakrim Dabang

Hakrim Dabang

This is the view of Hakrim Dabang from the second floor. 

The large tables, the comfortable sofas, and the antique wooden interior design are the signatures of the dabang. Doesn't it look like the perfect place to relax for a long period of time? 

Hakrim Dabang photo book

Hakrim Dabang photo book

Hakrim Dabang photo book

You can also look through this photo book that was published by the owner of Hakrim Dabang which beautifully captures different moments in time over 30 years.

I looked around while waiting for my order. It felt surreal to be in this dabang with such a long history right in the middle of the bustling city of Daehak-ro. 

Hakrim Dabang menu

Although the appearance of Hakrim Dabang has not changed much, the menu has been modernized.

They were selling espresso-based coffees, traditional teas, and other beverages that can be found in most other cafes.

The only items on the menu that were being sold from the previous times seem to be their Vienna Coffee, herbal tea, and parfait. 

Hakrim Dabang Vienna Coffee

I ordered their most popular menu, Vienna Coffee and Blueberry Cream Cheesecake. 

Hakrim Dabang Vienna Coffee

Vienna Coffee 6,000 won

Vienna coffee is what we know to be an Einspänner.

However, unlike the typical Americano-based Einspänner, the Vienna Coffee is latte-based with cream on top!

I was surprised to see how thick the cream was! The cream was so deliciously sweet that it instantly put me in a better mood after one taste.

However, if you don't particularly like sweet things, I wouldn't recommend it since it might be a little too sweet.

Hakrim Dabang blueberry cheesecake

Cream Cheesecake 6,000 won

It looks different from your usual cheesecake, right? At first glance, I thought this looked more like milk pudding or soft tofu.

The jam that's next to the cake is the blueberry jam! You can choose between blueberry jam or orange jam.

Contrary to what I would've thought to be soft, this cheesecake was pretty thick and custard-like.

It was sweet but also a little tangy like Greek yogurt which paired well with the blueberry jam.

Today, we learned all about the origins of coffee and tea houses in Korea! We also got to visit the Hakrim Dabang together.

Wasn't it interesting? It was so much fun to actually visit the place that I've seen in popular K-dramas!

How about a visit to an old dabang the next time you're in Korea?

We highly recommend visiting Daehak-ro's Hakim Dabang for a unique traditional Korean coffee house experience. 

I'll be back with more fun content next time, thank you for reading!

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