Seoul is a city of rich traditions and rapid innovation and this combination is most apparent in its thriving food scene. Choosing a place to eat in the South Korean capital is a delicious conundrum. Are you in the mood for traditional or contemporary? Home cooked or high end? Local institution or the latest thing? Here’s our guide to the best restaurants in Seoul, from vegan temple food to unmissable Korean barbecue.
Best Korean barbecue: Mongtan / Geumdwaeji Sikdang
Koreans don’t queue for barbecue – unless it’s at Mongtan, one of the most exclusive barbecue joints in Seoul. Beef ribs seared over charcoal and organic rice straw are a meal in themselves, but save room for onion-fried rice. For something more casual, try Geumdwaeji Sikdang – the Golden Pig – whose YBD (a specialty breed of pig, a cross between Yorkshire, Berkshire and Duroc) samgyupsal (grilled pork belly) lures in K-pop stars and passersby alike.
Mongtan: 50 Baekbeom-ro 99-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul; 02-794-8592
Geumdwaeji Sikdang: 149 Dasan-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul; 0507-1307-8750
Best chimaek (fried chicken and beer): Two Two Chicken
It would be a crime to miss Korean fried chicken, especially when paired with its soulmate, saeng maekju (draft beer). Myeong-dong shopping district has lots of options, but Two Two Chicken has the classic, thin-batter style. Get a ban ban (half and half) order of original fried and spicy sweet yangnyeom style.
5 Toegye-ro 20-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul, 02-772-9377
Best samgyetang: Tosokchon
What can’t be cured with chicken soup? Tosokchon, just west of Gyeongbukgung Palace, makes samgyetang – a local favourite at the intersection of traditional cuisine and oriental medicine: a whole chicken in a complex broth of ginseng, jujubes, ginkgo and walnut. Served boiling, it’s a traditional remedy for the summer heat, but is delicious all year round.
5 Jahamun-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul; 02-733-7444
Best traditional cuisine: Bicena
From the 81st floor of the Lotte World Tower, Bicena has the city at its feet. Sweeping views are balanced by the intimate warmth of the multi-tonal timber décor. The food is intimate too. Chef Kwangsik Jun transforms traditional Korean cuisine into works of art, elevating humble staples like sikhye (rice punch) and soybean soup to the fine-dining table.
300 Olympic-ro, Songpa-gu, Seoul; 02-3213-1261
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Best fine dining: Mosu
Mosu’s sprawling wine list opens with an epitaph: “Innocent grapes died for you.” The unspoken assumption is, it was worth it. The same goes for the food. Korea-born French Laundry alumnus chef Sung Ahn uses native Korean ingredients such as burdock and seaweed to create his own cheeky fusion cuisine. Abalone taco or preserved and roasted sweet allium (onions) for dessert, anyone?
45 Itaewon-ro 55ga-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, 02-793-5995
Best vegan temple food: Balwoo Gongyang
Balwoo Gongyang’s seasonal five-course meals are feasts for all the senses. Vegan and organic, the menu features classic dishes like water kimchi, brown rice porridge and stir-fried lotus root and mushrooms. Afterwards, step across the street to visit striking Jogye Temple.
56 Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul; 02-733-2081
Best spot for kimchi jjigae: Eunjujeong
Tucked in the alleyways near Bangsan Market, local favourite Eunjujeong takes traditional home cooking to the street, serving blisteringly spicy kimchi stew just like any Korean mother would make. There’s one menu for lunch (pork belly kimchi jjigae) and one for dinner (kimchi jjigae and pork belly Korean barbecue). Pickled sides are included and, yes, you’ll want rice. For more carbs, hit the noodle vending machine by the door.
32 Changgyeonggung-ro 8-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul; 02-2265-4669
Best place to try North Korean-style naengmyeon: Woo Lae Oak
Woo Lae Oak has been serving North Korean naengmyeon since before North Korea existed. In the south, these cold buckwheat noodles usually come in chilled radish broth, but Woo Lae Oak lets its pure beef broth shine. Topped with Korean hanwoo beef (move over wagyu), daikon radish and Asian pear, it’s as satisfying as a Sunday roast.
62-29 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul; 02-2265-0151
Best place for fresh seafood: Noryangjin Fisheries Market
With 150 varieties of fresh seafood, Noryangjin draws in everyone from restaurateurs to hungry travellers. Choose your fish from live stalls on the ground floor, then head upstairs where it will be prepared to order. Hwe (Korea’s answer to sashimi), spicy stew and salt-grilled shrimp are always good. The daily fish auction starts at 1am and the market is open 24 hours every day of the year.
674 Nodeul-ro, Dongjak-gu, Seoul; 02-2254-8000
Best traditional teahouse: Traditional Teahouse Insadong
A moment of serenity in the bustle of Insadong district’s main shopping street, this café serves teas brewed from native botanicals such as ginger, pine needle, mugwort and quince. Relax in the cosy interior with a plate of toasted rice cakes, or take your cup outside to the traditional hanok-style courtyard.
33-1 Insadong-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul; 02-723-4909
Best Middle Eastern: Saffron
Light pours through arched windows into a room of white and gold. Saffron's extensive halal menu has all the usual favourites: hummus, falafel, curries and kebab. The show stealers are the signature lamb handi and chicken biryani. Mint and apple shisha (fruit-flavoured tobacco prepared in molasses and smoked through a hookah pipe) is available, should you wish to stay a while.
362 Samil-daero, Jung-gu, Seoul; 02-6112-1054
Best craft beer: Magpie Brewing Co.
A driving force behind Seoul’s craft-beer wave, Magpie never stops innovating. The eight core and seasonal beers on tap at its Itaewon brewpub are joined by a rotating cast of experimental brews. When in doubt, grab a fruity Juicy Box or the award-winning sour Ghost. The pizza’s great too.
244-1 Noksapyeong-daero, Yongsan-gu; 02-749-2703
Best cup of coffee: Anthracite Coffee Roasters
In a country fuelled by instant varieties, Anthracite takes coffee seriously. Choose your style – hand drip, cold brew, latte – then select your beans. The six house blends have a literary twist: William Blake is dark and bold, Natsume Soseki subtle and sweet. The hazelnut and cranberry-tinged Pablo Neruda is always a good choice, particularly with housemade madeleines on the side.
10 Tojeong-ro 5-gil, Mapo-gu, Seoul; 02-336-7850
Best bingsu: The Library
This luxurious take on a humble shaved ice dessert sparked a city-wide craze thanks to its decadent flavour combinations and Instagram-ready presentation. Located on the ground floor of the Shilla Seoul Hotel, The Library serves one specialty bingsu every season, showcasing ingredients from around the country like Jeju apple mangos and Jirisan honey. Bring a friend; it’s made to share.
249 Dongho-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul; 02-2230-3388
Best place for street food: Gwangjang Market
Korea’s oldest market has two claims to fame: silk and mung bean pancakes. Gwangjang’s bindaetteok are crispy on the outside, fluffy in the centre, and stuffed with pork or seafood. Eat them on the go or grab a table in the tiny restaurants behind each food stall to enjoy them with a bottle of makgeolli (rice wine).
88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Image credits: Stephan Valentin; Geumdwaeji Sikdang