It has been said that eating out in Korea is less expensive than buying groceries every week and it’s true – you can get a great meal without spending a lot of money. On the other hand, you can spend a small fortune on one excellent meal, or you can spend a lot of money on a Western meal at a TGI Friday’s or Outback Steakhouse. In any case, restaurants are everywhere you go in Seoul and there is enough variety in styles, budgets and types to please everyone.
In Seoul, you can basically place all of the restaurants into four groups: Western chains, Korean food, a Korean take on foreign food and actual authentic foreign food. The foreign food restaurants tend to be found in foreign areas. For example, in Itaewon you can find authentic Mexican, Indian, Greek, Middle Eastern – even Mongolian restaurants – where expats flock on the weekend for excellent dining experiences. The best French food will be found in the French district around Seocho-gu (Banpo-dong), while the best Japanese food will be found in Ichon-dong where the largest Japanese population is located.
You can find Western fast food chains everywhere. McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King (as well as Korea’s own version of McDonald’s – Lotteria) are especially popular, but you can also find Subway and Quiznos in certain areas. VIPS, Outback Steakhouse, TGI Fridays and Pizza Hut are other Western chains that would be considered fancy and expensive by Korean standards.
Obviously the least expensive and, happily, the best food in Seoul is Korean food. Galbi, or Korean BBQ, is a staple of Korean restaurants. When you go out for galbi, it is better not to eat all day in preparation of the feast that will be presented to you. Galbi restaurants are open late and are often host to raucous groups of Korean families or coworkers. Other popular Korean choices include dakgalbi, or chicken galbi, Korean style sashimi, bulgogi, which is spiced and seasoned beef fried or put into a stew or bossamwhich is sliced, steamed pork served with kimchi.
Restaurants often open later in the day, around 11 AM, and close very late at night (sometimes as late as 1 or 2 AM). Since Koreans like to drink alcohol with their food, dinner can last for several hours so restaurants tend to have later closing hours. If a restaurant is open before lunch, it will usually not close between lunch and dinner as people will be in and out all afternoon. Galbi restaurants are usually only open for dinner and won’t open their doors before 4 PM. Some Western fast food chains and smaller Korean restaurants are open up to 24 hours a day.
If you are looking for an early morning breakfast, there are not many choices in Seoul, but the ones that you have are quite delicious. There are quite a few popping up on Girasou-gil in Apgujeong. There is also one or two in Itaewon. The Flying Pan and The Hungry Dog, located in Heabongchon, are two recommendations that open at 7am and serve amazing Western style breakfasts.
While reservations are not usually required, if you are having dinner with a large group it is better to phone ahead. This especially holds true for most restaurants in Itaewon, since many are small in size and popular with expats (particularly on weekends). There is no specific etiquette for eating out in Seoul, unless you are eating with your Korean friends or coworkers. In that case, it is important to pour drinks for each other and not to let your eating companion’s glasses go empty.
For more information on eating out in Seoul, visit the following resources:
Seoul Eats: This food blog has excellent information on restaurants and specialty food shops in Seoul. The restaurant reviews are also helpful when wondering where to eat on the weekend! http://www.seouleats.com/
Eloquence Magazine is a free monthly publication aimed at mature Seoul expats. Its articles include excellent restaurant reviews and spotlights, as well as shopping and cultural articles. You can find this magazine at most expat hangouts in Itaewon, Gangnam or Hongdae.
Groove Magazine is the number one expat magazine in Seoul. They cover everything from the arts, to movies, sports and where to eat. They review nearly ten restaurants in every issue, and tell you all that you need to know about dining (or brunching) out in Seoul. http://groovekorea.com/
10 Magazine is another great expat magazine that overs restaurant reviews and recipes in Seoul. They also offer up tips for where to take cooking classes (for a variety of cuisines) and can be a great source for entertainment well. http://www.10mag.com