Dining out in Korea

It’s very common to dine out in Korea. One of the first things that a foreigner in Korea will notice is the absolute abundance of eateries. It can feel like every shop not selling clothes is selling food, and even the bars will encourage you to buy bar food (known as ‘anju’). In fact, many bars will require you to purchase at least some food in order to be able to drink in their establishment, something rarely, if ever, seen in Western culture.

As an ex-pat here I used to wonder how all these restaurants survived, especially because at first glance they all seem to be selling the same product. Low tables with central gas rings and floor seating grace eighty percent of the eateries you will see in Korea, but don’t be fooled into thinking that they all have the same menu. ‘Korean BBQ’ will be prevalent, serving strips of meat cooked in front of you and served with multiple side dishes known as banchan, but many may serve soups, or dakgalbi (spicy fried chicken and veggies).

You will always get side dishes with a meal in Korean

You will always get side dishes with a meal in Korean

Dakgalbi

Dakgalbi

Taking time as a foreigner to learn common menu items can be really useful when you’re in a new city, as this can be key to ascertaining what types of restaurants you have on offer. I often take pictures of local restaurant menus when I’m ‘out and about’ and work them out later at home, so I don’t look like a gawking foreigner.

Photo's are a great way to decode menus at your own pace and practice reading hangul.

Photo’s are a great way to decode menus at your own pace and practice reading hangul.

The Korean eating-out culture is driven by two things:
1. The low cost of dining out.
It is incredibly cheap to eat out in Korea, especially compared with the prices most ex-pats are used to. In fact, eating out is often only fractionally more expensive than cooking at home, especially given the high cost of fresh ingredients.

2. Food sharing.
Koreans love to share food. Big central dishes and little side plates are common in Korean homes as well as when dining out, and it is very unusual when eating out in Korea for people to order different dishes. One central dish is ordered and then everybody tucks in – there’s no room to be fussy! Eating alone is seen to be a very strange thing to do.

Eating together is a common Korean past time.

Eating together is a common Korean past time.

If you’re living in Korea then dining out is a great way to embrace the local culture. Korean’s love ex-pats to try their local dishes and will generally be more than happy to help you if you’re a little stuck. A few tips:
– Many restaurants, especially those with floor seating, will ask you to take your shoes off at the door.
– Don’t expect there to be a toilet, it’s not a requirement for establishments to have restroom facilities. If there isn’t one, then the staff will be able to direct you to the nearest public facility.
– Chopsticks and spoons are sometimes kept in drawers under the tabletop – have a check there if you don’t have any before asking for them.
– If you like the look of another table’s dish, just point at it. It’s perfectly normal, and they’ll understand that you want to order it.
– Pour drinks for your dining companions, and get them to pour yours. This is common politeness in Korea.

Hopefully these tips will help you embrace Korean restaurant culture; Korean food is tasty, healthy, and eating out saves washing up. What’s not to love?

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