Great places to eat in Seoul, Korea (long)
This is by no means an exhaustive or even expert list. I grew up in Seoul, but left when I was 18 and I had bad taste in food as a teenager (too many meals at TGIF), so I don't know it as an adult. But I come back every winter to visit my family and I got some great tips from my cousins this year, so I thought I would put in my own two cents for all the queries I see here about Seoul.
Seoul is definitely not an easy city to eat in if you don’t speak or read Korean, especially because the city doesn’t have street names. Every restaurant’s card will include a little map on the back and people give directions in terms of major buildings, subway stations, and other landmarks. But at the same time, it’s hard to have a bad meal, especially if you are adventurous and like spicy, pickled, strong flavors. Unless you’ve extensively explored LA’s Koreatown, there are many, many things to eat that you can’t get anywhere but in Korea. Every department store has a wealth of food in its basement, including very affordable food courts with classic Korean standards even at the toniest of department stores. I am particularly fond of the food wonderland at the Shinsegae Department Store next to the Marriott Hotel and near the Nambu Bus Terminal. Other good places to poke around are Insadong, especially for traditional street food, and Myeongdong, which is a young, shopping and hanging out mecca. In general, a chowhound with a good chowhound nose can eat very well in Seoul; I hope my tips can help some chowhounds eat even better. Most of the places below are south of the river, as our families live here. There are many more wonderful places to eat; these are just a few I know and love myself.
So that my post is not ridiculously long, I’m going to assume some knowledge of Korean food and not go into long descriptions of major dishes, but of course, feel free to ask me if you have any questions.
1) A TRUE CHOWHOUND EXPERIENCE: The best galbi-tang, or short rib soup, in the world at Budnamujip. This is a classic, Korean barbecue place, with several locations, though my family always goes to the one near Yangjae subway station. The grilled beef is fantastic, though expensive, so a good way to sample its high-quality meat is to go for lunchtime short rib soup. This is a good example of how a basic, hearty Korean dish can be transcendent—a steaming hot bowl of golden, rich soup crowded with short ribs to pick up with your hands and gnaw. This is an experience people line up for, and they only serve 100 bowls a day at lunch, so to be safe, get there by 11:00 on weekends and holidays, a little later on weekdays. I don’t know if anyone there speaks English, but they do have menus with English translations and some information in English on their website.
1340-5 Seocho-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul 137-072
2) Sawhuleh Boleebap
Great bossam (steamed, fatty pork), great spicy kimchi to eat with the fatty pork, and nutty, warm barley bibimbap, or rice with sautéed vegetables to mix in.
No address but it’s in Apgujeongdong and the phone number is 02-540-5292.
3) Sandong Kalguksu
Fantastic handmade knife-cut noodles, wonderful kimchi, so-so dumplings.
About 300m from Yangjae subway station going towards Nambu Bus Terminal, turning right into an alley right by Hanna Bank.
Old-school, traditional restaurant, not cheap but not super-expensive either. $20 per person Korean noodle hot pot, the best mul naengmyon (cold buckwheat noodles) in the world, and pretty great bibim naengmyon (spicy buckwheat noodles), too. Another place with menus in English.
91-18 Nonhyun Dong, Kangnam-Gu
Tiny place with a loyal following for my favorite thick-skinned, traditional Korean dumplings filled with tofu, meat, and kimchi. A wonderful place for an affordable meal in super chi-chi Apgujeongdong.
Right across the street from Galleria Department Store, tucked into the alley on the right side of Uniqlo (which used to be a McDonald’s and THE meeting point in this neighborhood).
Another old-school place, slightly more upscale but not expensive, specializing in bulgogi based on the owner’s super-secret, no-sugar formula. A good place to try bulgogi, naengmyon, and other Korean classics.
1321-7 Seocho Dong, Seocho Gu
7) TO:UR Fried Chicken
Good fried chicken, Korean-style, which means very crispy whole chicken fried without batter and then cut up. Really excellent accompaniment to beer. You can find this kind of fried chicken almost anywhere in Seoul; just look for the signs that say “HOF,” which is a Korean-take on a German beer-related word. But if you're in Myongdong, on a side street across the main road from Shinsegae Department Store, you can find this place where I had a very enjoyable meal with my cousin.
And for more expensive dining, especially if you’re getting tired of Korean food:
For Japanese sushi with a Korean twist, meaning fresh raw fish (best at the bar) and wonderful Korean spicy fish stews and braises. The 40,000 won (about $42) lunch set is a great value, a parade of high-quality food.
1302-47 Seocho-Dong, Seocho-Gu
If you’re going from Kangnam subway station towards Kyobo Tower, make a left right past Kyobo Book Center, and then turn left by the LG store into an alley where you will soon see Sushiko.
9) Palsun, Chinese restaurant in the Shilla Hotel
This is probably the best, most refined Chinese food I’ve ever had in my life, though I've never been to the best restaurants in Hong Kong. Very expensive (~$120 or more per person, without drinks, if you get a set menu). But the food is truly special, made with particular care, and perhaps interesting for Americans since there are many dishes you will never see in 90% of Chinese restaurants in the U.S.
Thanks so much, AppleSister! It's always a challenge for non-Korean speakers like me to find good local restaurants in Seoul, without having to depend on my Korean colleagues. I love Korean food, especially the elaborate Imperial Joseon/hanjeongsik (Korean equivalent of Japanese kaiseki, I guess) spread of dishes - I hope you can find some time to try those & write about it in the future.
As to Garlecchina's questions, I don't think you'd have a problem in Seoul at all if you don't take seafood or pork. Beef seems to be the meat of choice in Korea, followed by chicken (you got to try the sam-gye-tang, or chicken & ginseng soup - absolutely delicious, and you'll find it everywhere!)
I've only found two good/authentic Indian restaurants in Seoul, both located in the Itaewon district: Asoka (at Hamilton Hotel) and the Taj Mahal, which is a few hundred feet away on the same stretch of road.
The chicken soup really is very good, very soothing and warm, and supposedly very healthy.
If you are very strict about your seafood consumption, you should know (as it's not obvious) that most kimchi has fish sauce or tiny bits of shrimp in it and that some soups and stews consist of broth made of anchovies. Neither would necessarily have identifiable pieces of seafood in it. It would be a shame if you missed out on kimchi, which is the most Korean thing to eat, but I'd hate for you to find out afterwards and feel upset. Otherwise, though, you can stick to beef, chicken, and vegetables easily. There are lots of great-tasting wild greens in the banchan (the little dishes) that you can't get easily outside of Korea.
hi klyeoh...i'm a samgyetang fan too...(it's the only Korean food that i get truly excited about)...
Apple Sister, that's a great list...i wish i had it when i was in Seoul for three weeks, about a year and a half ago...what i found the biggest problem in Seoul wasn't the language but the fact that a lot of restaurants absolutely will not serve solo diners, since they are laid out with big tables for groups...as a result, i ate a lot of samgyetang because it's one of the few dishes specifically designed as a single portion and all the samgyetang places would serve me...the place i went most was Baekje Samgyetang in Myung-Dong...
Thanks for the information, I'll be heading to Seoul in late March.
I live in Tokyo, so I'll be trying to avoid as much japanese food as possible, we do have a bustling little Korea Town here, but it's mostly yakiniku (as far as I can tell).
I'll be traveling with some lazy, not-so-interested-in-food people so I'm hoping to plan out 2 or 3 meals, and let the rest just happen. Does this sound safe?
there is a famous place for samgyetang by the blue house. very good.
also, the best chadolbaegi is at a place called bong san in samgakji. they have really good chopped green pepper with soy & vinegar sauce, raw cabbage, and awesome gochijang. the doenjang here is also very good as well, with chopped cabbage and chadolbaegi. not thic, but more soupy.
another really good place for chadolbaegi is in youido by the old first bank bldg, but i can't recall the name. it had this unique red sauce, & you wrapped it in boiled cabbage.
the best doenjangjige i've ever had is behind the old doosan bldg in uljiro-ip-ku. it is a beef doenjangjige. different from bang san as it is thick, spicy and sweet. across the street from the lotte hotel in myung-dong. it is the small little alley straight back behind the doosan bldg. on the right as you walk in about 50 meters. it's a small yellow sign, and you can easily miss it. the doenjangjige is only served at lunch on weekdays. and it is the only thing it serves at lunch on weekdays. you get very good side dishes with it as well, including an excellent mackeral jorim. there is always a line around noon, so you should go around 11:15ish.
Hi AppleSister, what a great list of eateries you have...i'm revisitng Seoul again in April next year. I'm sure i'll be able to try at least 1 or 2 of your recommendations. Will you be interested to show me around? I'm actually interested in finding good stir fry chicken in spicy sauce. Do you have any recommendations? Hope to hear from you soon! Cheers!
I probably won't be there in April 2010, but keep me posted on your trip and I may have better tips, as I'm leaving for Seoul in a week, with a long Jeolla-do-focused road trip as well. Hmm, stir fry chicken in spicy sauce--are you thinking of la-jo-gee, the Korean-Chinese dish?