How Can You Tell a Good Restaurant in Korea?

I’m working on a little list of tips to guide people in their restaurant choices.  We all know that in Korea, especially in urban areas, that restaurants come and go so quickly that it’s futile to base your decision on recommendations alone.  Here is a preliminary list I’ve come up with.  There are some reasons for some of these rules that I’ll elaborate on later.

  • There are lots of people having a good time
  • Avoid restaurants with long lines
  • Trust your nose
  • Ignore carnies
  • Chain restaurants disappoint 80% of the time, Korean and international
  • Fusion is evil
  • Family friendly is not your friend
  • Office workers know best
  • Korean restaurants with Japanese on them are meant to fleece Japanese tourists

What are your indicators of a good or bad restaurant in Korea?


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11 thoughts on “How Can You Tell a Good Restaurant in Korea?”

  1. Lots of taxis parked outside generally means a good cheap restaurant.

    The less dishes on the menu the better.

    Chain italian restaurants disappoint 100% of the time.

  2. Yeah, I should include Rob and Fatman’s modifications to the line rule. Thinking of the lines I’ve seen outside mediocre-crappy places like Smokey Saloon, 요기 and Myeong-dong Gyoja.

    Also should include restaurants that people tell you are “famous.”

  3. And include Paul’s suggestions and modify Italian restaurants to Italian restaurants outside of Itaewon. That Ola Mario is a pretty fine place, and it is an Italian chain–very pricey, though.

  4. And what chains are consistently good/bad? Fatman’s Lotteria claim is sure to invite controversy. I recently went to a franchise of Andong Jjimdalk, which was awesome in Myeong-dong but was criminally bad (as in couldn’t eat more than three bites bad) at the Anyang location.

    I say this because I have had really good experiences at Halmoni Bossam and any Nolboo that specializes in Galbi Jjim.

  5. Fatman has to dissagree on some of these – first, lines can be good. Our favorite samgyetang and ddeokpokki and hotddeok places both ALWAYS have lines. They’ve had lines ever time we’ve been there for the past ten years. Why? Because they are awesome enough to merit waiting half an hour or so to sink your teeth in. Yeah, some lines are because a place just got mentioned on TV, but it can also be because the food is AMAZING!
    And the Korean/Japanese rule only holds true in certain areas, and isn’t even consistent there. Places like Ichon have lots of Japanese on the menu, and many a good eating experience is to be had there. Even in notorious tourist traps like Myeongdong there are some excellent places with Japanese on the signs and on the menu.
    Office workers can and often are wrong . . .
    And finally, Lotteria NEVER disappoints^.~

  6. Crowded is usually good…but watch the demographic of the crowd. The more stylish and fashionably dressed they are, the more likely it’s just the flavor of the day that got covered on TV, rather than actually being good. Ditto for lines of obvious tourists. Lines full of old people almost never fail me, and lines of middle to lower-middle class looking people are more reliable than lines of jet-setters.

    Agreed: avoid Italian restaurants here.

    I also really agree with what Paul says: the smaller the menu, the better, usually.

    Finally, if there are a bunch of restaurants in an area serving the same dish, they’ll usually be better than a solo spot without competition…but even (especially) then, go to the busy restaurant.

    Most of the best places I’ve been to, I found by wandering around, listening to my gut, and getting a feeling about a place.

  7. there aren’t many, but there are a few Nolboos that serve stuffed, roast duck, and it’s awesome. I know one by gosok terminal, and one by garak market. I’ve never had trouble with the nolboo budaejigaes, either, to be honest.

  8. Tip #9 is so true! I’ve never lived in Seoul, but having visited about 6 times in the past few years I’ve noticed a correlation with quality of food and the size of the restaurant. The smaller and more obscure the better. I usually wander down some back alleys until coming upon a small door (preferably sliding) and a small demure sign hung above.

  9. Fatman has to say though . . . the idea that small and crowded and run down hole-in-the-wall places (and only those!) will yield gold seems . . . well, mistaken. Yeah, there are some gems, but there’s a heck of a lot of really awful dreck too. Office workers gather at places where the food is served up fast, and Fatman has to dismiss many of those places as decidedly not good. And let’s not dismiss out of hand places where they *have* taken the time to really clean up and think about the offerings on their menu ~ and there’s more and more of those.
    Fusion? But what about our beloved Star Chef???
    We have to step up for some Italian places – like any one cuisine, there’s good and bad and indifferent restaurants. And while yeah, you might not be transported back to that magic summer in Tuscany when you lived in an 500 year old farmhouse and fell in love with that dark-eyed beauty by the ancient well and you two hand-harvested olives from trees her great-great-great grandfather planted . . .(we’ll stop now, sorry) you can still find some pretty decent stuff.

  10. My golden rules on what to avoid:

    Avoid any and all restaurants where the owner’s face is plastered all over the signage.

    Where SBS/KBS/MBC/local cable channel has covered the restaurant and evidence of such can be found framed and posted everywhere, I usually like to take a pass.


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