UPDATED JUNE 2, 2014
Reader (and friend) Żaklina had this question:
Do you have recommendations or a 10-day restaurant tour guide for Seoul?
My parents are coming to visit for 2 weeks, and I’m looking to take them to restaurants in Seoul. Any suggestions with maps?
The difficulty of writing about restaurants in Seoul is that the culinary scene changes so rapidly. Restaurants suddenly close down and become coffee shops overnight. Not exaggerating. Now, if you’re willing to do the footwork, I’ll lay down a great tour to get a taste of the classic, traditional, quirky, and new. You’ll need comfortable walking shoes and an ample appetite.
Day 1 – The Touristy North
You gotta hit the main spots in your first couple of days. Gwanghwamun, one of the palaces, your first of many trips to Insa-dong. My rules in this area are to look for places off the main road, packed with office workers. Avoid places that look like franchises. Also avoid Korean restaurants with Japanese written up front. Those are tourist traps.
Up near the palaces is one of the last holes-in-the-wall in Seoul that is legendary for its kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew). It’s a tight squeeze, but luckily ordering is easy. They basically only serve two things–kimchi jjigae and gyeran mari (rolled omelette). The jjigae is notable for its sourness and spice, which balances well with the smooth omelette. It’s a good way to wake you up.
Explore Gwangjang Market and try some bindaeddeok. That’s always fun. For dinner you can head down a bit.
I just tried this place out recently. I’ve been on the hunt for restaurants with some history. In the alley maze south of Jongno 3-ga Station is a joint that has been serving bossam (juicy pork wraps) with oysters for over 35 years. You also get a bowl of gamjatang (pork spine soup) with your order. On weekend evenings, there’s a line out the door for this place. And it’s good!
Day 2 – Noryangjin and Mapo
Come on! This has to be the best attraction in Seoul. One of the world’s largest fish markets. And it really doesn’t have that fish market smell. They keep it clean. You can try different critters fresh from the vendors. I say it’s like going to an aquarium where you can eat the exhibits. Just point to whatever you want. The vendor will prep it for you and likely will direct you to a restaurant a few meters away that will cook it.
If anyone is coming to Seoul for one night, I take them here. Mapo, for me, is barbecue heaven. It’s blocks and blocks of grill houses. There’s this one area behind the Best Western that I call Galmaeggi Gil (Galmaeggi Street). It’s all places that specialize in what best be described as pork skirt steak. It’s the meat from around the diaphragm. Seriously, it’s lean and full of flavor. Mapo Jeong Daepo takes this a step further. They place a domed pan on top of natural wood charcoal. There are gutters on the sides of the pan originally intended to catch the rendered pork fat. Into these gutters they pour scrambled eggs and layer aged kimchi on top. This has become so popular that the other restaurants in the area have copied it.
NOTE: This is included in our Ultimate Korean BBQ Experience. CLICK HERE for info.
After a hearty barbecue meal, it’s traditional to have some rice or chilled noodles. Just down the street from Mapo Jeong Daepo is this great Gangwon province temple to buckwheat. It stands apart from other places through its chilled broth, which is like a rich beef consomme. Enjoy this with a bottle of buckwheat flower makkolli.
Day 3 – Truly Unique
Real North Korean food humbly served outside a family’s home. There are only five items on the menu: JjimDalk (Steamed Chicken), Mandu (Dumplings), Naengmyeon (Chilled Noodles), beer, and soju. Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema called his meal there one of his most memorable in 2013.
If you’re truly adventurous then try this high end restaurant that specializes in grilled intestines. NO REALLY! It’s one of the best meals you’ll have. They also have some high quality Han-oo beef.
Day 4 – Reflection
A tour of Korean cuisine isn’t complete without Buddhist temple food. It’s best to reserve a lunch here and go for the second or third largest set menu. The meal will take at least a full hour, so relax and enjoy. The food is inspirational. After lunch, take a stroll around Jogyesa Temple and head on down to Insa-dong for some shopping.
Of course you’re going to go shopping in Insa-dong. To relax from the hustle of the streets, my favorite spot is the Insa-dong Teahouse. It’s across from the dragon’s beard candy hawkers with the sign 인사동 찻집. Go in the back to the little courtyard. Try some exotic teas and infusions. My favorite is the pine needle tea. Enjoy this with some honey cookies and grilled rice cakes.
A little north of Insa-dong, along the east wall of Gyeongbokgung Palace, is MokSuiDonNa먹쇠돈나, which generally translates to “Eat, Rest, Pay, Leave.” It’s a ddeokbokki house that is famous for its long lines, its rude service, and its awesome ddeokbokki. It’s an interesting and memorable experience where you can get a feeling for Korean childhood nolstagia.
Day 5 – Joe’s ‘Hood
Another reason why it’s challenging to for me to write about Seoul restaurants is that I don’t live in Seoul. I live in Anyang, a suburb to the south. My friends who live in Seoul rarely come visit because they complain that it’s too far. But when they actually do come, they realize that it’s really a short subway ride away. So a day trip to Anyang to get around some green mountains is very much worth it.
Every chef and foodie I have taken here has said it’s one of the best–and in many cases the best–Korean food they had on their trip. It’s another one of those journeys. In this instance it’s to my ‘hood of Anyang. This place is tucked at the base of Gwanak Mountain and originally catered to hikers. Make sure to get the chicken barbecue, the pajeon, and the namesake boribap with their housemade liquor.
Also right near me in Anyang, but I haven’t found many places like this that do this as well. It’s a butcher restaurant. You know, at a sushi bar you can see the fish from raw ingredient to prepared dish. This, you could say, is the Korean barbecue version of that. There’s a butcher counter that carves up pork and beef to order for grilling at your table. Great quality and atmosphere.
Day 6 – Itaewon
What can I say? I talk about this place a lot because I love it. Korean tacos made not because they’re trendy but because these guys miss the foods they grew up with.
This speakeasy was started by Texan expats passionate about great cocktails and great food. Their style borrows a lot from Korean culinary culture and their Texan roots. They make the best Old Fashioned in Seoul, and you gotta try their Fried Chicken Burritos.
Day 7 – Chicken Day
A favorite of former president Roh Mu-hyun, Tosokchon is another place that specializes in only one thing. The best places do that. Enter this classic hanok style complex, sit down and just use your fingers to tell the server how many bowls you need. Gorgeous bubbling bowls with whole chickens bathing in them show up with a rich silky broth. I’m not a big fan of samgyetang, but I make an exception for this one.
Take a stroll through the markets and the streets north of here and to the right. Very charming.
This is a chain restaurant, but the Myeong-dong location is considered the most reliable–if you can’t make it down to Andong itself. This is a good taste of regional Korean cuisine with this unique chicken stewed in a dark spicy garlicky sauce. For the full effect, order some Andong soju with your meal.
I also suggest grabbing some famous Korean fried chicken for the evening. I love my Two-Two Chicken. But really, any place that smells good on the outside will be great on the inside.
Day 8 – South of the River
Back south of the river for this landmark for new Korean cuisine. The lunch menu is (last I checked) W40,000 per person. It’s a set menu, so just sit down and enjoy the ride. The fun part of eating here is guessing which traditional dish inspired each course.
Make sure to order this at least three hours in advance. Duck stuffed with all these goodies baked in clay pots. It’s homey, luxurious, and shouts, “You’re in Asia, dawg!”
Wine Korea’s Joshua Hall likes to bring a bottle of Pinot Noir to make it complete.
Day 9 – Hapjeong
This neighborhood is actually part of trendy Hongdae, but it’s a bit out of the parameters of the kids and clubs. It’s where the grown-ups go, with wine bars, tapas, and unique Japanese and Korean bistros. I have heard good things about Swedish night spot 22soldermalm, but I haven’t been there yet.
Gourmet ice cream shop with constantly alternating flavors, including Burnt Caramel and Salt, Champagne Grapefruit Sorbet, and sometimes even Foie Gras.
Go to the 2nd floor of this popular snack bar and order the fried shrimp and gukmul ddeokbokki (rice cakes in spicy soup form). Mimi’s fried shrimp recipe has a patent in Korea, Japan, and the U.S.A.
In the service of full disclosure, I’m friends with the owner and did the bistro’s website. But I also recommend it as a place to enjoy a bottle of wine served by people who really, really know wine.
Day 10 – Toast to Memories
Walkerhill (W Seoul and Sheraton)
On the last day, it’s good to try some places you missed on the list or return to your favorites. If you have some money to spend, head to Walkerhill and indulge at the W Hotel’s Kitchen or the omakase sushi at Namu. Upscale barbecue at the Sheraton Walkerhill’s Myongwolgwan is also worth the trip.
Pierre Gagnaire a Seoul
And if you really have the money and want to end the trip with a serious send off, check out Pierre Gagnaire a Seoul.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This list is hardly definitive. I live in Anyang for goodness sake! If you have any suggestions PLEASE mention them in the comments.