Whatever concerns one may have about visiting Seoul, getting a good meal shouldn’t be among them. Koreans are famously obsessed with their hearty, often fiery, cuisine, and this being the capital of the country, with the highest concentration of culinary talent and greatest number of potential customers, there’s an astonishing variety of restaurants to choose from.
By some estimates the city has among the highest number of eateries per capita in the world. Even the remotest blocks will have at least a handful of bunsikjeom (casual diners) dishing out the local equivalent of fast food—noodles, rice rolls, and the like—and many areas boast far more, from succulent, smoky barbecue joints where the meat is grilled in front of your eyes to stately old homes serving elaborate set meals to evoke the dining experiences of royalty.
Intense competition keeps standards high and prices reasonable, and in general service is surprisingly prompt and helpful for a place where tipping is all but outlawed.
Decades ago, when foreign faces were thin on the ground, luxury hotels were the only places serving capable non-Korean food, but that’s certainly not the case now. Restaurants featuring top-quality Italian, Mexican, Indian, vegetarian, and other cuisines have mushroomed in recent years to cater to an increasingly affluent and well-traveled population, and they’ve been accompanied by a full-scale invasion of Western fast food and coffee shop giants.
Diners should find themselves reasonably well provided for in Seoul regardless of predilection or dietary requirements.
Of course, as in any city, Seoul’s dining scene is not pitfall-free. English menus and speakers are still a rarity in many venues, especially the humble back-alley restaurants and markets that (unfortunately for non-Korean speakers) offer some of the city’s greatest culinary experiences.
Some places, particularly fancier barbecue and seafood outlets, are reluctant to cater to solo diners. Koreans tend to put a premium on speed, and at more popular casual restaurants foreign diners may sometimes feel rushed out the door by a whirlwind of brusque service and long lineups. On the other end of the scale, servers at top-end international eateries sometimes exhibit a surprising lack of knowledge about foreign cuisine and expectations.
But with a little persistence and understanding, none of these issues will detract from what is one of the world’s great culinary experiences. Don’t be afraid to seek out local advice or explore flavors outside your normal comfort zone—the results will rarely be anything short of delicious.
© Jonathan Hopfner from Moon Seoul, 1st Edition