Seoul has more eateries per square mile than most large cities in the world, and there is a great deal of turnover. With so many places opening and closing, it's hard to keep an accurate count. All manner of Korean food from the affordable to the incredibly expensive can be had. However, if you're looking for familiar Western-style dishes and menus in English, you'll have a harder time finding suitable options. That said, if you head over to Itaewon or the restaurants in some of the upscale hotels, you can get delicious world-class Western-style cuisine. It's also getting easier to find a juicy hamburger or just a good old-fashioned steak. Vegetarians will find an increasing array of options as dining has become a healthier affair in South Korea.
American chains like Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Krispy Kreme have popped up all over the city, but don't expect the menus you find at home. You'll get a pizza, but it'll arrive with pickles and peppers, and the pasta may have squid in it. You'll also pay more to make up for the fact that many Western-style ingredients have to be imported. If you want an authentic experience and don't want to spend all your cash, you can stick with purely Korean dishes and still have a different experience at every meal. Tip: Most of the higher-end, non-Korean restaurants charge an additional 10% VAT on your meal, while most Korean restaurants price their items with the VAT included.
The only thing that may take getting used to is the fact that Koreans don't distinguish between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So, it's rice, rice, and more rice all day with little besides noodles to break up the monotony. You'll be hard-pressed to find good ham and eggs first thing in the morning, and free breakfasts are a rare find, even in luxury hotels. You will find bakeries on practically every corner, but don't expect the bread and pastries to taste the way they do at home. That's not to say they taste bad, but while Korean-style bakeries may describe themselves as "French" on their signs, their goods don't offer the same flavors you'd find in Paris.
Food trends here come and go. Seoul is the origin of the Pinkberry/Red Mango yogurt craze, after all. The good news is that there's great food in every neighborhood, and for all you night owls, plenty of 24-hour places where you can get something yummy into the wee hours (some of whom deliver). Wherever you decide to eat, don't forget you don't have to tip. In traditional Korean joints, there's no tipping at all and some of the newer restaurants just take the liberty of adding the service charge (and the VAT) to your bill.
In the past few years, cuisine in Seoul has gotten more sophisticated as chefs work up new innovations with traditional Korean fare or other Asian dishes. The Seoul Finance Center has become a hub for gourmet restaurants. Its basement floors are filled with practically anything a gourmand would desire. You can spend days trying each of the places here and not leave for weeks (though your pocketbook will be considerably lighter).
Inexpensive -- If you're looking for the perfect meal on a sticky, hot summer day, nothing beats a cold bowl of naengmyeon, a dish that originated in North Korea. The best place in town to get it is in "Naengmyeon Alley" in the Ojang-dong neighborhood. Take Seoul subway line 2 to Euljiro 4-ga Station (exit 8), walk toward Jung Ward office, turn left, and you'll find the alley across from Mukjeong Park. Most of the restaurants in the area serve mul naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles in beef broth) or bibim naengmyeon (spicy mixed buckwheat noodles) for about W7,000 a bowl. One good place is Ojangdong Hamheung Naengmyeon (90-10 Ojang-dong, Jung-gu; tel. 02/2267-9500), whose interior is cafeteria-style at best, but they do have good broth. The name out in front isn't in English, but look for the large blue sign with white lettering.
Dine in the Sky at Top Cloud -- Located on the 33rd floor of the Jongno Tower (Millennium Plaza) building, Top Cloud (1-1 Jongno 2-ga. tel. 02/2230-3000. Subway line 1, Jonggak Station), run by the owners of the Shilla Hotel, is an elegant restaurant with the best view in all of Seoul. The food is expertly prepared and the steak is particularly outstanding (they do bill themselves as a "bar and grill," after all). It's a great place for a romantic night out or to impress a date. Start out your meal or end it with a cocktail in the bar with live jazz daily from 7:30 to 11:30pm. The lunch set menu costs W45,000, and dinner set menu is W108,000; buffet prices are lower. Reservations are recommended, and arrive early and request a window seat. It's open daily noon-2:30pm (buffet closes at 2pm) and 6-10pm (buffet closes at 8:30pm); the bar is open noon-midnight. Free 3-hour parking is available in the building.
Insadong is a good area to get a traditional Korean meal. Many of the restaurants are down small alleys, tucked away from the main drag. There are also traditional tea shops and great coffeehouses (although they actually let a Starbucks open up here, they insisted that the sign be in Korean), where you'll pay as much for the ambience as the beverage.
Insadong Street Food -- If you get hungry while browsing the ceramics and paper wares on Insadong street, there are plenty of places to grab a quick bite from one of the many street vendors here, while barely breaking your stride. An unusual sweet snack is kkultarae (sometimes called dragon's or king's beard), sold from an open cart. They look like fine white strands of silk wrapped into balls, but are in fact edible threads made from honey, pine nuts, chestnuts, peanuts, and cornstarch. My favorites are the peanut and almond. The cart is open daily 10am to 9pm. Farther down on the same side of the street, you'll find another cart, Sambodang Hoddeok, selling little dough cakes made with glutinous rice and stuffed with black sugar and peanuts. Delicious at only W700 each, once you've tried them, you'll know why there's such a long line. They're here most days from 10am to 8:30pm (closed the first and third Mon of each month). You'll also find men in traditional clothing selling yut (Korean hard "taffy" made from pumpkin), various rice cakes, and Korean cookies. On hot days, you may find the vendor selling shikhae slushee, an icy version of the traditional sweet fermented rice beverage, for W3,000.
It was only in the past decade that the South Korean government let businesses develop here, and that they did. Contemporary fusion restaurants have opened up in remodeled hanok (traditional houses) alongside established old favorites. To get to the main drag, take subway line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station (exit 5). Walk around to the other side of the palace (or cut through if you're visiting anyway). Then walk across the street to the main road, turn left, and walk about 400m (1,300 ft.) until you get to the three-way intersection, where you'll turn right. This is where the main road for Samcheong-dong starts. Or just grab a taxi and ask the driver to take you to Samcheong-dong.
Linger over a Cup of Tea -- There are so many wonderful traditional tea shops in Insadong and Samcheong-dong that it's really hard to choose. One of my favorites is the hard-to-find Cha Massi-neun Ddeul, 35-169 beonji Samcheong-dong (tel. 02/722-7006), hidden on the hillside (follow the signs to the Silk Rd. or Tibet museums). In a traditional house with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, the interior is a small courtyard garden, while the surrounding tables look out over the city. Teas range from W6,000 to W10,000 and they bring you your own thermos full of hot water to keep refilling your teapot. Hours are daily 11am to 10:30pm. Another lovely teahouse is the Jeontong Dawon (tel. 02/730-6305), located inside the Gyeongjin Art Gallery in Insadong. In this hanok setting, you'll be surrounded by a spacious garden while you enjoy a yuja cha (citron tea) or one of their other traditional beverages. It's open daily 10am to 9pm. So sip and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere while your stress melts away.
Although American fast-food chains have popped up all over Seoul, it's still difficult to get a great non-Korean meal in other parts of the city. Although prices will be a little higher than normal, Itaewon is one of the few areas where you can find authentic international fare. Most of the good restaurants are found in the alley behind the Hamilton Hotel.
Street Food & Other Cheap Eats
Affordable Korean food is everywhere in Seoul, and pojang machas (tent-covered super-casual eating joints) are pretty ubiquitous. At practically every bus stop and subway station, you'll find an ajumma (middle-aged woman) stirring up a spicy red swamp of ddeokbokgi or frying something on a stick. Some of the tastiest options are hoddeok (pan-fried dough cakes stuffed with brown sugar and spices), gimbap (rice rolled in sheets of seaweed with a variety of different fillings), and beung-uh bbang (goldfish-shaped "cookies" filled with red bean -- they also come in other shapes).
The best places to find good street food are near Namdaemun or Dongdaemun markets, in front of boutique shops in Myeongdong, and in Insadong's main drag. If you're not such an adventurous eater but are still budget-conscious, head on over to the basement floors of any of the multistory department stores found all over the city. There you'll find plenty of items on display where you can just point and buy what you want. Some places have Korean "fast-food" courts where you can get a meal for about W5,000. You place your order at the counters, but pay at the cash registers. They'll call your number when your order is ready.
When visiting bakeries in South Korea (like most Asian countries), remember that looks can be deceiving. That gorgeous chocolate cake beckoning from the display case may have the consistency of a dried sponge. Or those delectable-looking baguettes arrayed so nicely in the basket generally lack the fabulous crispy crust and the chewy inside you'd expect -- instead, they're spongy, and the flavor is unique, to say the least. Many of the Korean-style patisseries will have delicious-looking confections; they just might not taste as good as they look.
That doesn't mean that there aren't any great bakeries in town. Here are a few bakeries that make good pastries and breads. The best for overall baked goods is the bakery/deli in the Grand Hyatt Hotel, 747-7 Hannam 2-dong, Yongsan-gu (tel. 02/799-8167). They have great muffins and cakes (that actually taste as good as they look), and their sandwiches are delicious because they're made on good bread. Speaking of bread, if you want a genuine baguette, stop by Wood & Brick in Gwanghwamun or Jae-dong. For a fantastic pain au chocolat or croissant, go to the Paris Croissant (tel. 02/594-4227) across from the subway station in Gangnam. There are many Paris Croissants and Paris Baguettes as part of this chain, but unfortunately not all of them have the same menu.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.