Any resident of South Korea’s capital can tell you Seoul is an evolving mecca of restaurants that come and go. The trendy Korean barbecue restaurant you visited just two years ago might have lines out the door one week and be shut down the next. With restaurants stacked against one another like sardines, the dining scene is a cutthroat battle for the freshest ingredients and authentic flavors. From hole-in-the-wall restaurants to elite culinary experiences, Seoul has it all — but which offer the best of the best? Here’s our list of winners proving that they are here to stay.
Best Old-School Restaurant: Woolaeoak
This bulgogi (marinated beef) and mul-naengmyun (buckwheat noodles in iced broth) restaurant is a veteran in the capital’s dining scene. Woolaeoak was originally established by a family escaping North Korea during the WWII era, and crowds of seniors still wait in line to get their weekly fix at the legendary eatery. In the past few years, naengmyun’s popularity has been revived with the younger generations – meaning you’ll see plenty of hashtagging hipsters in addition to silver-haired foodies. Never fear as their naengmyun does taste as good as it photographs.
Best Ingredients: Mokmyeok Sanbang
Although bibimbop is one of Korea tourism’s most heavily-promoted dishes, few visitors have had the rice and vegetables concoction as fresh as it is at Mokmyeok Sanbang. The restaurant boasts quality you can taste in each bite – vegetables are brought in from the Gimjae Plains and each sauce is matured the traditional Korean way. There are six types of bibimbap and several side dishes, but the bulgogi bibimbop and seafood leek jeon (fried pancake) are two essential dishes in Seoul. Despite subtle seasoning and absence of additives, it’s amazing how much flavor each ingredient punches.
Best Hole-in-the-wall Experience: Gwanghwamun Jip
Run by a group of ladies in their sixties and seventies, Gwanghwamun Jip is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that specializes in kimchi stew. Following the same recipe since the ‘80s, the ladies serve the spicy stew in a communal pot until the pork is cooked through and the dish starts to bubble. Pair the dish with a bowl of rice and the signature scallion-topped omelet for a meal just like you’d get at a Korean grandma’s. For added hole-in-the-wall ambiance, climb up the rickety staircase to the floor seating on the second level – the ondol (floor heating) is a heavenly bonus during the winter.
Best Mountainside Eats: Jaha Son Mandu
A high-end mandu (Korean-style dumplings) restaurant that highlights family recipes, Jaha Son Mandu wraps quality ingredients with care. While soup dishes like their mandu jeongol (dumpling hot pot) are consistently popular, their Pyunsoo Mandu – filled with shitake mushrooms, beef and cucumber – dares to bring a rare freshness to the normally salty dish. If possible, add a scene to your lunch by requesting a second-floor table facing Inwangsan Mountain to the north.
Best Korean Fried Chicken: Ddobagi Chicken
While there are hundreds of fried chicken joints in Seoul, this Sangsu-dong haunt still manages to stand out with its extra juicy, crispy poultry eats. Each platter is served with a mountain of shredded lettuce “salad” and pickled white radish, and paired with cold Korean beers for the classic Korean fried chicken experience. Regular-fried, sweet-marinated and soy are three of the bestselling chickens and many customers choose a half-and-half version for more variety. Since Ddobagi is walking distance from the Han River Park and the restaurant offers discounts for take-out, it’s also an easy picnic option for chicken and beer in the park.
Best Traditional Market Eats: Gamegol Son Wangmandu
The Namdaemun Market venue with the largest crowds; middle-aged ladies line up at this restaurant’s storefront to take home pink boxes of these luscious, fat dumplings. Smaller, hand-rolled dumplings are available in short-rib and shrimp flavors but the larger kimchi- and meat- flavored dumplings are what the establishment’s known for. Although it costs an extra 1,000won to eat in, catching a glimpse of the mandu magic happen on the first floor kitchen is worth it!
Best Side Dishes: Parc
Boasting authentic flavors and upscale, minimal aesthetics, Parc offers home-style Korean food using recipes from Heo Junghee – the owner’s mother. While the menu is seasonal, each meal features a simple bowl of white or brown rice and several bottomless side dishes. The namul dinner of root vegetables and leaves never disappoints and adding a side of japchae (stir-fried glass noodles) is always a good idea. Parc is also one of the few non-temple food, non-vegetarian Korean restaurants that always has a vegetarian choice on the menu.
Best Quick Meal: Joseon Gimbap
While Koreans wouldn’t normally go out of their way to have gimbap (rice and other ingredients wrapped in dried seaweed), Joseon Gimbap is an exception to the rule. There are only two types of gimbap on the menu – one stuffed with odeng (salty, ground fishcake patty) and the house signature filled with ugeoji (seasoned, dried cabbage). The terms don’t translate well in English, but the flavors here are on-point.
Best 24-Hour Eats: Gam Namu Jip
One of the country’s famous gisa sikdangs (restaurants for taxi drivers), Gam Namu Jip became known after appearing on a television show called Infinite Challenge a few years ago. Open 24-hours a day and 7-days a week, this dive’s specialty is the dwaeji bulbaek (sliced pork and rice combo) served with a side soup, a small bowl of noodles and a basket of lettuce in addition to the standard fermented side dishes. While veteran cab drivers complain that the restaurant isn’t what it used to be, each meal is hearty, tasty and comes with a fried egg.
Best for Hangovers: Gwanghwamun Ttukgam
Trying to recover from a hard night of partying in Seoul? Gamjatang or pork back stew is a spicy, mouthwatering dish perfect for curing hangovers and Gwanghwamun Ttukgam does it better than any other gamjatang joint in town. A meal for one means a hot bowl of tender pork and aromatic potatoes while group-sized portions are served in a bubbling pot over a portable gas stove. Larger portions are topped with a generous helping of perilla leaves to cut the fattiness of the pork broth and a second course of fried rice in the post-broth pot is a must.
Best Fine Dining: Jungsik Seoul
A two Michelin-star restaurant in Cheongdam-dong, Jungsik offers modern Korean cuisine with French influences. The restaurant is run by a pioneer in Korean fine dining – Chef Yim Jungsik, who also runs an acclaimed eatery of the same name in New York. The menu, which changes every season, elevates familiar Korean dishes with local ingredients and elegant plating. Look for the Dolhareubang, a green tea mousse shaped like a rock statue from Jeju Island, at dessert time and opt for the lunch course to sample Chef Yim’s flavors for half of dinner prices.
Best Regional Cuisine: Tamra Sikdang
This watering hole-cum-restaurant specializes in authentic Jeju-style cuisine, sourcing ingredients and regional alcohol from the island. Unlike other Jeju-inspired eateries in Seoul, Tamra Sikdang takes the long route with their dishes – integrating buckwheat powder into its sundae (blood sausage) and letting their broth simmer for hours. The dombe gogi (boiled pork served on a wooden board) served with soy-dressed garlic chives and extra-fermented kimchi gives any pork dish in the capital a run for its money. Tamra Sikdang also has a second location across the street called Tamra Badang that offers seafood in addition to the original location’s pork menu.
Best Korean Barbecue: Samwon Garden
An upscale Korean barbecue restaurant in the heart of Gangnam, Samwon Garden cooks top-grade hanwoo (Korean beef) over hardwood charcoal. Open since 1976, the venue’s stellar ambiance – opening up to a traditional garden with a waterfall – has made it home to state dinners and high-end company meetings. The beef ribs and the bulgogi are doubtless stars of the menu but each cut on the menu will melt in your mouth. Marvel at the marbling of the meat before it sizzles into edible beef bliss and make sure to count costs as this culinary experience doesn’t come cheap.
Best Dessert: Suyeonsanbang Tea House
Previously home to late 20th century poet Lee Tae-jun, Suyeonsanbang was made public and turned into a traditional Korean tea house by his descendants. While the home could be admired for its historical significance alone, the tea here is worth every drop and their sweet pumpkin bingsu (shaved ice with red bean) is must-have during hot Korean summers. Topped with a hefty serving of red bean, pureed sweet pumpkin and three pieces of mochi, the bingsu is cold, satisfying and saccharine-free. Their sweet pumpkin ice cream is also surprisingly delicious.
Best Foreign Food: Morococo Café
One of Seoul’s most delightful surprises, Morococo Café is a Moroccan restaurant run across the street from its brother sandwich joint Casablanca Sandwicherie. While both restaurants are filled with the warm scents of coriander, cumin and pepper, Morococo Café is more of a sit-in venue with thought-through interior design and glasses of wine. The restaurant’s signature Morococo over rice – your choice of shrimp, chicken, lamb or vegan with seasoned rice, lettuce and lemon – is a steal under 10,000won, but all of the dishes will have you dreaming (or drooling) for North Africa.