Lisa Lee, who works near Koreatown's Cafe Mak off Wilshire Boulevard, keeps returning to the coffee lounge even though a cup of coffee costs $7. "You pay for the atmosphere," Lee said one recent afternoon after taking the last sip of her cafe latte. "The menu pricing is outrageous. The servers don't speak English. But it's cozy and comfortable and you can relax here for as long as you want."

The roughly 7-square-mile Koreatown has nearly 50 of these so-called "cafes" in which $5.50 is the going rate for drip coffee and a fresh-squeezed watermelon juice runs $7. After tax and tip, coffee ends up costing nearly double what one might pay at Starbucks.

So why do so many customers keep coming back to the throng of Koreatown coffee shops?

"It boils down to a cultural thing," said Mark Hong, a long-time Koreatown real estate broker with CB Richard Ellis.

"The mentality of meeting at the corner caf & #233; is ingrained in Korean culture because the residential living spaces are not so large," Hong said. "In most Asian countries like Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, where there's a shortage of land and people live vertically, this concept of cafes for casual and business meetings is pretty standard."

Indeed, Asian metropolises are packed with these independent coffee shops, often with ordinary but high-priced coffee, which serve as meeting places for friends, business associates, even family members.

While Johnney Park, owner of Caf & #233; Mak, likes to credit his special blend of Brazilian wild mountain coffee as the attraction, he concedes customers pay to sit at his caf & #233; for six to seven hours at a time to chat, surf the Internet and conduct business meetings.

"I was a McDonald's coffee kind of a guy," said Park. "The idea of paying more than $5 for a cup of coffee was unthinkable. But at a lounge like this, you're paying more for your seat, your little piece of real estate."

At Caf & #233; Mak, a 5,000-square-foot space, book-filled bookcases and a hodge-podge of local art create a living-room feel. A fireplace crackles at night in a large outdoor seating area.

Familiar Feeling

Ambiance is key at these coffee shops. Most invest heavily in interior design and recoup their cost by hiking menu prices. This works somehow in a neighborhood where median household income hovers under $22,000 well below the county's $42,000 median because most Koreans are used to paying incrementally more for their seats at a caf & #233;.


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