Adjusting to Korean Life - Dining Out in Korea
Korea hosts a variety of local and international cuisines and new restaurants are popping up almost daily. Eating out is very popular in Korea and there are no shortages of restaurants or eateries. If you are worried about not being able to read the menus - in tourist areas, most restaurants will have multi-lingual menus with Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and English as the most common languages. Elsewhere you may not be as lucky. Depending on the restaurant, many have menus that have photos of the menu items.
Korean cuisine can be very affordable, even in restaurants, with certain dishes being only a few thousand won. While there are expensive Korean dishes, in general, eating Korean food is quite affordable. Local restaurant chains such as 김밥천국 (Kimbap Heaven) offer a variety of affordable meal options such as 찌개 (Korean stews) and all sorts of 김밥 (kimbap). Also, Korean fried chicken has soared in popularity and there are many well established chain and independent chicken restaurants.
Be aware that an area of town or even restaurant popularity can determine prices for basically the same food. For example, you may see 삼겹살 (pork belly) for KRW 5000 for 150 grams and then later the same amount for KRW 11,000 a few blocks away. In more affluent areas, menu prices may be inflated just due to it being a more affluent part of town.
International cuisine is becoming more and more common in Korea. Especially in Seoul, you can find many different international foods. However, it can be more expensive and is sometimes “Koreanized” or modified to appeal to Korean palettes. Certain foods may be found to be sweeter or spicier than their originals. For example, Korean breads tend to be sweeter and some pasta dishes may be made spicier to appeal to a Korean palette.
There are also a lot of foreign chain restaurants present in Korea. Chain restaurants such as Subway Sandwiches, Outback Steakhouse, McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, and Starbucks are common in Korea’s major cities.
Brunch is also increasing in popularity as shown in the photo above. Many cafes and restaurants will feature brunch on weekends.
Soft drinks are plentiful in Korea. Marts and convenience stores carry a wide variety of beverages - everything from teas and coffees, vitamin and energy drinks, to sodas and juices. In fact, a bottled soft drink may be more expensive than a bottle of soju.
Korean alcohol such as soju and local beer is inexpensive, especially at marts and convenience stores. Even at restaurants and bars, prices are reasonable. Other imported alcohol can sometimes carry a premium price. Price can also depend on where you are drinking - a club, bar, restaurant, etc.
One advantage of having a night out in Korea’s large cities is that instead of driving their own car, people can take taxis or public transit home. On the other hand, drunk driving remains an issue in Korea as according to the Chosun Ilbo, 1 in 10 traffic fatalities are still caused by drunk drivers. So be careful out there when you’re on the roads at night!
There is no shortage of cafes in Korea especially in large cities like Seoul or Busan. There are many different types of cafes besides the typical coffee and tea cafe. Pet cafes that feature cats, dogs, and even raccoons exist in Seoul. Others may focus on books or Korean comics called 만화 (manhwa). Many others focus on desserts such as cakes, pies, and the Korean shaved ice dessert called 빙수 (bingsu). Different theme cafes are also popular such as the Hello Kitty Cafe. The below table, showing different types of cafes, was also featured in my post about activities for families in Korea:
Prices in cafes can vary widely depending on neighborhood, cuisine, quality of coffee, teas, etc. You can find small cafes offering a hot cup of coffee for as low as KRW 1,500 but other cafes may charge more than KRW 5,000 for a similar cup.
Dining Experience in Korea
So, what makes dining in Korean restaurants unique? After being seated, it is up to you to get the staff’s attention. Rarely will staff continue to wait on you or check to see if you need anything. Sometimes the tables will have a small button to call the staff. If there is not a button, it is perfectly acceptable to call out to the wait staff. Remember to press the button just once; no need to press it multiple times, unless a few minutes have passed without any response.
When the staff does take your order, you can order everything at once - food and drinks. Water is normally self-serve or a refillable water bottle will be placed on your table. Also, the size of cups that are provided are normally less than 250mL (8 fluid ounces) in size.
When food comes out, you may also have a number of 반찬 (side dishes) given to you. Typically, basic 반찬 like Kimchi, or sprouts can all be refilled for free and are meant to be eaten with your meal, not as an appetizer (although if you are really hungry, feel free to dig in early). Some 반찬 like grilled fish may not be free for more servings, so make sure to check when asking. Some restaurants will also have their 반찬 as self-serve. 반찬 can vary from at the very least kimchi to sometimes ten or more different dishes.
A lot of restaurants will have food cooked in front of you at your table. 고기집 (Korean barbeque restaurants), 닭갈비 (stir-fried spicy chicken), 곱장 (pork/cow intestines), 샤브샤브 (Hotpot dish), some japanese restaurants, and some Korean style bars will have built-in table grills or portable burners for cooking. If you are not sure how to go about cooking the dish, normally staff will assist you and tell you when the food is ready to eat.
While some restaurants will have you prepay, most will have you pay after your meal at the door, not at your table. Simply go to the cash register and wait for a staff member to calculate your total. Sometimes a running total bill will be kept at your table. In that case, take the bill to the cash register when you are ready to leave.
The above can apply to restaurants in Korea that serve international food as well. It may be an Outback Steakhouse but the wait staff will still operate in a Korean fashion.
Expressions useful in a Korean restaurant
Try using them in Korean restaurants where you live:
제일 잘 나가는 것이 뭐예요? What’s your most popular dish?
뭐가 제일 맛있어요? What’s the most delicious?
추천하시고 싶은 것이 있나요? Do you have any recommendations?
휴지 좀 (더) 주세요. Please give me (more) napkins.
물 좀 (더) 주세요. Please give me (more) water.
김치 좀 더 주세요. Please give me more kimchi.
화장실 어디예요? Where is the bathroom?
예약 되나요? Can I make a reservation?
미리 예약했는데요. I made a reservation in advance.
주문이요/주문할게요. I’m ready to order.
맥주/소주/콜라 ___병 주세요. ___bottles of Beer/Soju/Cola please.
삼겹살/불고기/갈비___인분 주세요. ___servings of pork belly/bulgogi/rib meat please.
계산이요/계산하고 싶어요. I’m ready to pay/I want to pay.
We will continue this series on eating out in Korea during the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more! Contact the G.O.A.’L Community Mentor with any questions you have.