Adjusting to Korean Life - Cultural Differences When Dining Out in Korea





Besides the dining experience itself being different in Korea, there are a lot of cultural differences as well. You may have heard about things like 회식 (Dinner/drinks with your coworkers) or that Koreans do not normally eat alone. In this blog post I will explain some cultural differences unique to Korea when eating out.




Cultural Differences

Service: Korean restaurants often offer you items that are free-of-charge. In Korean, this is called 서비스 (service). In barbeque restaurants you may receive free 찌개 (Korean stew) or 계란찜 (steamed egg) along with the meat you ordered. Sometimes you may be offered a free soft drink or dessert item. Other restaurants may offer you service If you are a repeat customer or spend a lot of money at one meal. Also, normally in Korean restaurants 물티슈 (wet napkins) are free and if they aren’t given to you at the start of the meal, simply ask and more often than not the restaurant will have them.


As mentioned in the last blog post, if you need to get the restaurant staffs’ attention, it is perfectly acceptable to call out to them. This can be done by saying 저기요 (Over here) or 사장님 (owners, boss). Some restaurants will have a call button on the table to call the staff.


반찬 (side dishes): You will be given various side dishes at Korean restaurants. Most of these side dishes will come with free refills. Sometimes the staff will offer to refill them for you. Other times they will be self-serve. You can continue to get refills throughout the meal. These are meant to be eaten with the main dishes and not as appetizers. Remember to take only what you can eat as some restaurants will charge you for excessive amounts of leftover side dishes.


Portion size and Sharing: Many dishes in Korea are meant to be shared. Even if you order something for yourself, many times it’s expected that everything is shared among all people at the table. Therefore, sometimes the portions you receive will be quite large. Other times portions may be smaller so you can order many different dishes to try. 반찬 is always shared among everyone at the table. So, you may be asking if everything is meant to be shared, what if you are dining alone?


Eating Together: While eating by yourself in Korea used to be uncommon, these days it’s becoming more accepted. As such, some restaurants are starting to cater to solo diners as opposed to requiring two or more people. However, many people still choose to eat with their co-workers at lunch or with friends and family at dinner time. In relation to the point about portion sizes and sharing, many restaurants are starting to scale their portions to individuals or offer different sizes.


Dining Experience: There are some general rules of etiquette to keep in mind when eating in Korea.

You should:

  • Let your elders sit and begin eating before you do.

  • Eat your rice with a spoon, not with chopsticks.

  • Know that tax is included in menu prices

You should NOT:

  • Leave the table until elders have finished eating.

  • Blow your nose at the table.

  • Stick chopsticks upright into food.

  • Dip a spoonful of rice into a soup that is being shared by others. Instead it is proper to use your spoon to ladle soup into your rice bowl.

  • Tip in restaurants


Effects of Age and Relationship: In Korean culture in general, people pay particular attention to each other’s ages. This is also important when having a meal together. In addition to age, your hierarchical position at work or school can also determine how a meal is experienced. I’ll attempt to summarize this in relation to dining out together.


Drinking: If you are drinking with Koreans, you should never pour your own drink. Typically the youngest person at the table will pour for everyone else and then the oldest will return the favor to the youngest person. If someone older than you offers a drink, use two hands to hold your glass.


Paying for the meal: You may see Koreans fighting over who will pay for the bill. You can also see the exact opposite where everyone just expects one person at the table to pay for everything. Why the two extremes?


Koreans may find it awkward to “go dutch” and split the bill evenly. If a group of Koreans are good friends or around the same age and status then they may fight over who pays the bill. More often it is the older generation that displays this type of behavior. They may also take turns paying. So if one day you go out to eat and you pay, the next time your friend would pay, and you’d continue to take turns. Another example is the person that didn’t buy dinner will buy coffee, dessert, or whatever the second round is. However, you shouldn’t always expect to only buy the coffee and your friend to always buy dinner. Be sure to share and take turns.


If you are out with your Korean co-workers or seniors from school, it’s almost a given that the oldest person is expected to pay for you. This stems from the feeling that someone senior than you has an obligation to take care of those younger than them. This practice comes from the Korean concept of 정 (Jeong) which has no real translation in other languages. It is a sense of connection, sympathy, and related to altruism. 정 is difficult to explain, even in Korean.


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회식: (Dinner/drinks with your coworkers): Your boss or team lead will pick a day to have a meal together as a whole team. After working, you will go out to eat with all your co-workers, this will typically also include additional rounds after eating such as drinks or even noraebang. It’s seen as a way of bonding outside the work environment and historically was encouraged. While people do decline these dinners, those that enjoy spending time with their boss at 회식 may also win their favor for promotions or other privileges. These days, in order to decrease favoritism and promote better work-life balance, some companies have said that 회식 can only be limited to dinner and must end at a certain time. Other companies have gotten rid of the concept all together.



Do you have more questions about cultural differences when dining out? Send your questions to the G.O.A.’L Community Mentor!