Everyone has made some good points. Things I would add:
1. It's always nice to start a Korean meal with some appetizers, in addition to the Panchan, and I like to get either a scallion pancake (pajun), or fried dumplings (mandoo). They are a really nice start to the meal
2. It is true, you will need to get two orders of whatever meat you choose, in order to use the table cooking. I would further add my endorsement to the Kalbi lovers. Most restaurants even have two choices of Kalbi, and I would suggest getting their 'special' Kalbi. There will be some pieces with actual bone attached, you can ask them to take them into the kitchen and grill them for you, as it's not good form to do those specific pieces at the table (they smoke too much).
3. If you have 3 or more people, it's nice to get another dish to go with the barbecue. We usually order either a Soon dubu chigae (spicy seafood soup with soft tofu; make sure they bring you a raw egg to add to it, hot soup cooks it and it thickens it), or a Dol Sot Bi Bim Bap (deconstructed fried rice dish served in piping hot stone bowl; add spicy bean paste (gochu chang) and then mix to combine all the elements. We usually eat the whole meal family style, so having one or two of these dishes is a nice 'side dish' to go with the meat.
4. If you've got some people who don't like the marinated meat, an excellent choice is either Deung Shim (rib-eye, un marinated) or Chadol bagi (thinly sliced brisket). The Chadol is accompanied by a dipping sauce - each person should get a tiny dish with a mix of sesame oil and salt; perfect accompaniment.
5. A personal favorite: Hyae mit. this is beef tongue, raw and thinly sliced, and then cooked on the grill. Gets the same dipping sauce as Chadol. Just fabulous. Plus, great shock value for the squeamish.
6. In the city we prefer Kum Gang San (best Panchan), it is a wonderful restaurant and my in-laws (I'm only Korean by marriage) prefer it best. I myself am rather partial to Won Jo. I think it's the best place in the city for Kalbi. If you're into other dishes (like if you're a tripe junkie), you may have other preferences. Like for oxtail soup, the king is clearly Gam Mee Ok. But moreso than Western style restaurants, there are many things that go into your experience. A responsive wait person who is attentive to your grill is important. A generous selection of Panchan as well. Some restaurants give you little extra dishes, always a nice touch. There is a place on Long Island where we live, blanking on the name right now, but they usually give us a little jook that is delightful, as well as a savoury egg custard dish which is another favorite.
7. Almost forgot - my wife and inlaws prefer white rice, but I prefer Okok bap or Jako bap. This is a mix of various rices and beans, and I ask for it in lieu of a white rice bowl to accompany my meal.
8. They bring with the meat a little plate of green chile peppers and raw garlics. you can grill them with the meat (beware of them falling into the fire), or have them make a little foil dish and you can cook them in there. I prefer them both cooked, and eat them with the meat. nice combo.
I hope this helps and that you have a wonderful first experience with this extraordinary cuisine.
re: El Tigre
since this is the Manhattan board, I second Woo Chon. They are very freindly and have lots of great stuff (spicy cod roe soup) in addition to BBQ. They will show you how to cook everything and how to eat it. I agree special kalbi, and spicy pork belly is also a favorite.
Flushing opens up a whole universe of Korean options so if you like Korean check out the Outer Boroughs board.
I second the Madangsui recommendation; it's on 35th St, away from the craziness of Ktown's main drag.
Definitely have kalbi, the short ribs. I hope you're going with a crowd of at least 3-4 people because you have to order lots of meat at a Korean BBQ to truly enjoy it. Start off with the un-marinated plain kalbi so that you can enjoy the taste of simply meat. Then move on to a marinated variety. I have a colleague who swears by the joo-mool-luk at Madangsui; it's very good. After you're done gorging on meat, order rice or noodles. The rice should come with dwen-jang-jjigae, a fermented soybean paste soup. Usually, I go for the cold noodles, either in a cold broth or in a spicy red chilli sauce. Unfortunately, the cold noodles aren't Madangsui's strong point.
Please don't go to Kunjip. Everything there tastes the same and is full of MSG. I also had a truly terrible experience there with the waitstaff. I'd hate for a first experience with Korean BBQ be marred by that establishment.
After being a long-time lurker on this board, your query led me to finally sign-up for an account and post. I love Korean BBQ and love introducing people to it. I hope I'm posting in time for you to get this info!
First off, you need to order at least two orders of BBQ for them to set up the table grill. If you don't have at least two orders, they will cook it for you in the kitchen and bring it out.
Bulgogi is what most people think of when they hear of Korean BBQ. But for me, it is kalbi (short ribs) all the way. To me, the meat is a lot tastier than bulgogi. And bulgogi is sliced very thin and has a tendency to overcook. Windycity is correct in that the waitstaff turns the meat for you. But I prefer my meat a bit rarer than most Koreans like to cook it. So I'll take it off and turn it when I want to. You can call me a control freak, but I prefer my meat on the rarer side. Accompanying your BBQ will be some lettuce and ssam-jang (a sauce made out of fermented soy bean paste). What you're supposed to do is place some rice, grilled meat and a bit of ssam jang in the lettuce, roll it up and pop the entire thing in your mouth at once -- not an easy feat if you have a small mouth.
In K-town, my pick would be Madangsui. They offer both plain and marinated kalbi. While I like the plain, I think a first-timer should order the marinated one. The banchan is a cut above other places in K-town. The only issue I have with that place is that the grills are gas. If you want to grill your meat over coals, Won Jo and NY Komtang have coal grills. Lau has recently posted about good BBQ at Don Bogam. Their decor is nicer than other restaurants in K-town. So if that's a prerequisite in your BBQ search, I'd probably opt for that one.
Here's a recent thread on Korean BBQ.
re: Miss Needle
Here's a Chow Digest summary of Lau's comments from Don's Bogam. I walk by often but haven't been in. Sounds great - and I'm also curious about the wine bar angle, if anyone's gone that route ... http://www.chow.com/manhattan_digest/...
17 E 32nd St, New York, NY 10016
re: squid kun
i agree w/ Miss Needle...I do not think you should order bulgogi, i think you should order kalbi and sam gyup sal
i've never understood why people ordered bulgogi at bbq restaurants, i feel like its something you just make at home...bulgogi does have a tendency to overcook and i think kalbi is just much better tasting in general.
I'd go to either Don Bogam or Madangsui as the Miss Needle and Squid Kun recomended, either one will be fine
also i would not go to kun jip for bbq, they are not a bbq specialist and there bbq is very mediocre