Not Another Hipster Café : Taipei's Old-School Coffee Shops
WORDS BY Francesca Chang
PHOTOS BY Samil Kuo, Taiwan Scene, Nathan Dumlao
The lively city of Taipei has recently experienced a coffee craze led by a young generation that is amped up about high quality beans, trendy atmospheres, and unique café themes that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Taipei has also become a paradise for coffee lovers as just one drink order will usually grant you access to a cozy spot in a café for the entire day. What’s more, many of the capital’s upscale coffee shops are run by professional baristas who have won international roasting and concoction contests. But although Taipei has garnered international attention as one of the world’s top coffee cities because of these “hipster” shops, there remains a coffee culture nostalgic for the days when Taipei’s cafés were not prized for their international status, but rather for their steadfast standing as a hallmark of the times.
Here, we explore five coffee shops that have remained standing in Taipei since as early as the end of World War II.
COFFEE FROM THE CHIANG KAI-SHEK ERA: ASTORIA CAFÉ | 明星咖啡館
The retreat of the Nationalist government (國民政府) from China to Taiwan in 1949 is a widely known story. However, a little known fact is that the Han Chinese people were not the only ones who came to Taiwan during that time. During that same year, six Russian emigres came to Taipei from Shanghai (上海), where they had been in exile after the Russian Revolution. Together with their Taiwanese business partner Archiybold Chien (簡錦錐), the entrepreneurs opened a bakery featuring soft Russian candy previously available only to the Russian royal family, and Mazurka walnut cakes which were modified by using local dried longan instead of dried cherries. While these pastries were sold on the first floor, the second floor offered coffee and drinks.
The Russian-style coffee house started to gain popularity among intellectuals in 1959 when poet Chou Meng-tieh (周夢蝶) began selling poetry and other literary works outside the bakery. Unlike other shop owners on the block, Chien allowed the poet to conduct business right outside the café doors. As a result, many of Taipei’s young writers, including those who later became Taiwan’s key literary figures, began frequenting Astoria, drawing inspiration in a welcoming environment with no time restrictions as they wrote. Astoria also attracted important political figures including the late President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), who had studied in the Soviet Union for over a decade, and his Russian wife Faina Chiang Fang-liang (蔣方良).
Despite being closed for an intermittent 15-year period, Astoria is alive and well today, complete with the original European furniture and Russian pastries that once attracted poets, businessmen, and politicians of Taipei. For a special treat, be sure to order the Russian black tea; it features a generous serving of brandy.
5, Sec. 1, Wuchang St., Zhongzheng Dist.
10:00am - 9:00pm
COFFEE FROM THE 1950S: FONG DA COFFEE | 蜂大咖啡
Located in the hip district of Ximending (西門町), Fong Da Coffee has stood the test of time, being the first café in Taipei to introduce the novel concept of iced coffee in 1956. Since then, this café has kept its cool by continuing to use vintage equipment to grind and brew coffee on its street-facing countertops, a site that attracts passersby and keeps the never-ending queue of customers entertained. In addition to these old machines, Fong Da has also preserved its commitment to high quality coffee, offering 12 different blends.
Additionally, there are two things impossible to miss when passing by Fong Da: a meter-tall iced coffee maker (which only makes four cups every six hours) and large, tempting, glass cookie jars that line an outdoor cookie station corner.
Characterized by a small, narrow walkway and a line out the door, this busy establishment is an exception to most of Taipei’s coffee shops that refuse to give customers a time limit. Visitors are granted an hour, tops, and then the next round of customers is ready to take their seats. While you’re there, be sure to order their famous iced coffee, and approach the cookie counter directly for their traditional walnut cookies and soft bean paste pastries that remind the current generation of their grandma’s cookies.
42, Chengdu Rd., Wanhua Dist.
8:00am - 10:00pm
COFFEE FROM TAIWAN’S ECONOMIC MIRACLE: MI FENG CAFE | 蜜蜂咖啡
Between the 1950s and 1980s, Taiwan experienced a rapid period of industrialization and economic growth known as the Taiwan Miracle. Mi Feng (which translates to “bee”) Cafe, not to be confused with another “Bee Cafe” in Taipei, was a true representation of these times. During the island’s economic growth, coffee was seen as a symbol of status. If you could afford to sit at a café and leisurely sip coffee all day, it was a sign that your business was prospering.
Opened in 1978, Mi Feng Cafe catered to this type of clientele. The current owner, Ms. Tsai, still reminisces about the customers’ stock market chatter, the smell of cigarette smoke in the air, and the sound of Japanese music playing in the background. Mi Feng Cafe was a Japanese franchise that had 20 shops around Taipei. Today, Ms. Tsai’s branch is the only establishment still standing. Her willingness to sit and chat with us while showing us photos from the café’s early days is representative of the café’s entire vibe: friendly, homey, and slow-paced. Her café is a piece of Taipei history stuck in time: everything from the furniture to the original sugar containers have remained the same since 1978.
Mi Feng’s prized honey coffee is a special blend of beans prepared with the old-school siphon brewing method whereby a vacuum with two glass chambers is used to heat — but never boil — coffee beans. Her shop is also famous for its Taiwanese braised pork knuckle dish and lemon juice mixed with a raw egg. She still serves warm almond tea, a local classic. Be sure to check out this piece of Taipei history soon — Ms. Tsai has plans to sell the shop!
3-2, Qingdao E. Rd., Zhongzheng Dist.
7:30am - 8:30pm ; Closed on Sunday
OLD COFFEE TURNED HIP: OLD TREE COFFEE | 老樹咖啡
Old Tree Coffee is a café originally from Southern Taiwan that made its way up to the coffee paradise of Taipei. The inspiration behind the venue’s name was originally from a Chinese poem of Ma Zhiyuan (馬致遠), an acclaimed poet of the Yuan dynasty (元朝), that mentions an “old tree.” However, when the shop’s owner, a passionate coffee aficionado, opened the third branch in Taipei in 1984, he was inspired by the old, towering trees in the Wanhua District where he grew up, and very carefully designed the furniture and decor with the Baroque style that still stands in the Taipei branch, not only to embody his memory but also to create a relaxing atmosphere for the customers.
Established during Taiwan’s great economic boom in the eighties, prominent businessmen would not only come here to relax, but also to conduct business deals. One interesting fact about Taipei’s longstanding coffee shops is that they previously stayed open later than imaginable for any Western-style café. That is because before the days of the internet and smartphones, Taipei’s nightlife thrived with lively bars, musical venues, and cafés. After partying or drinking in the evening, businessmen would visit cafés like Old Tree to sober up with a cup of coffee and conduct business until the wee hours of the morning. Back then, Old Tree remained open until 2 am. Now, it closes at 11:30 pm.
Now one of the most expensive coffee shops in Taipei, a cup of their highly popular proprietary blend (both dark and medium roasts) will cost you around NT$300. Another specialty is its Irish coffee, served with just a hint of whisky. Unlike other cafés, very few dining options are available to avoid interfering with the scent and taste of their finely curated beans. If you plan to go, make a reservation first. This place is often fully booked.
EAST MEETS WEST: WANG YI COFFEE | 王義咖啡
For over 30 years, Wang Yi has held to tradition while adapting to the modern coffee trends of Taipei. This unique venue is famed for serving a very traditional Taiwanese dish alongside its specialty roasts: beef noodles. A Taiwanese staple, beef noodles are a dish made of savory beef broth, stewed or red braised beef, vegetables and perfectly Chinese noodles. The unconventional owners add a little twist to this dish by adding spicy pepper to give the broth an unexpected kick. Although such a hearty meal may not be what Westerners first think of when envisioning a coffee shop, the combination of local food and high quality coffee works well in the foodie city of Taipei that continues to seamlessly blend the old with the new. In fact, Wang Yi’s beef noodles sell out practically every day — sometimes even before lunch! Coffee is usually served after customers are finished with their meal. Even if there is a line (which there usually is) customers are allowed to take their time to enjoy their cup of coffee, served with sweet honey cake, upon finishing their meal.
Wang Yi prides itself on catering to a very local Taiwanese market who appreciate the authenticity of its establishment. Although the baristas brew high quality coffee beans from around the world using modern equipment, the shop relies solely on word-of-the-mouth marketing, with an almost non-existent presence on the internet besides a Google map location. The proprietors of this shop prefer to keep it this way, declining almost every interview or press opportunity presented to them. Such a low-key profile proves that quality and familiarity can withstand the test of time in a modern city like Taipei.
4, Ln. 54, Sec. 1, Zhongshan N. Rd., Zhongshan Dist.
9:00am - 4:00pm ; Closed on Saturday and Sunday
Despite Western influence and the success of modern, hipster coffee shops, these five venues above have remained true to their origins, continuing their own coffee traditions and preserving a piece of Taipei’s history for the old and the new, one cup at a time.