This is your ultimate Seoul food guide.
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 Ultimate Seoul Food Guide
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.
UPDATE: Noryangjin is in the process of moving to a newer building next door. As of this writing (February 2018) there are some vendors still in the old market. The new market is completely indoors. It's a different vibe. It's more organized and visitor friendly. It even has an escalator. The restaurants are better, in my opinion.
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.
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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 - Get Outside of Seoul
Seoul is a buzzing metropolis. But to truly know Korea is to go to the countryside. If you can't get out to the countryside, take a subway to the suburbs--to the other sides of the mountains. Restaurants near mountains and farm communities are the best.
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. 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.
Jangmo Jip 장모집
You may have noticed that a lot of places end in "Jip." That means "House." This is out near Pangyo, southeast of Seoul, in the middle of NOWHERE! It's still my wife's favorite place. She dreams of it. There really isn't a menu there. They just give you Ganjang Geijang (Soy Pickled Crab) and whatever side dishes are in season. It's an abundance of food at a great price. It is true Korea. You will not see any tourists here. The service is friendly and welcoming. The challenge is getting there. Buses do make it out there. Taxi is another option.
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.
Linus' Bama BBQ
Linus is a Korean-American from Birmingham, Alabama. He makes BBQ. He competes and has actually won in American BBQ competitions. It's possibly the best American BBQ outside of America.
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.
Maloney's Pub & Grill
Guilty pleasure here. This is my personal dive bar. I don't live in this neighborhood, but it feels like my neighborhood haunt. Everyone knows your name there. And if they don't know your name, they soon will. Friendly crowd. A lot of grizzled middle-aged expats there with loads of great tales. It's also the home base for Maloney's Brewery, which is craft beer for beer nerds. All the craft brew kings hang out there, so you know it's good. Say hi to Brendan and Bill.
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.
Chicken & Beer
Korea has more chicken hofs (pubs) than McDonald's has locations around the world. Chicken Republic. There are loads of them. My rule of thumb in finding a good chicken pub:
If it's full of pretty young women taking selfies, it's likely not good chicken.
If it's full of grizzled middle-aged men who look like life has kicked them in the teeth, GREAT CHICKEN!
Favorite chains: Two-Two Chicken, Chicken Baengi, BBQ, Kyochon, Bbo-Bbo. Really, if it smells like grease and Chinese five spice outside--or like a cinnamon doughnut--it's a classic chicken pub.
Chains I avoid: Frypan, Ne-Ne
I would be amiss if I didn't do any self promotion. We also conduct a popular Chicken & Beer tour at Korea Food Tours Seoul. More info and booking here.
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.
This is the other big high end modern Korean restaurant. This has gotten great reviews from the pickiest snobbiest of eaters I know.
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 - Hongdae
A lot in this post is in Hongdae. Yet the neighborhood itself requires more attention. Its' the Soho of Seoul. The anti-Gangnam. It's an experimental hotbed of restaurants.
One truly unique one is in the back streets. Flying Chicken. It's done up like a World War II bunker. You'd think that it's full of kitschy internet-bought replicas.
The bric-à-brac is the real deal. Real WWII museum artifacts. Some of the stuff was lent out to the production of "Saving Private Ryan." Their specialty is boneless thighs in spicy sauce with soft rice cakes and sweet potatoes all smothered in cheese, served on a sizzling plate. Also get the Rice Egg and the beer in a canteen cup. Yes, those cups are real WWII canteen cups.
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.
Experimental Street Food Alley
That's not the official name. I doubt there is an official name. It's a narrow alley. On one side is a bunch of grilled intestine restaurants. On the other side is a bunch of perpetually changing stalls selling classic street food and a lot of WTF street food. I worry that the area is getting encroached upon by gentrification. It may not be around much longer.
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.