This is by no means an exhaustive or even expert list. I grew up in Seoul, but left when I was 18 and I had bad taste in food as a teenager (too many meals at TGIF), so I don't know it as an adult. But I come back every winter to visit my family and I got some great tips from my cousins this year, so I thought I would put in my own two cents for all the queries I see here about Seoul.
Seoul is definitely not an easy city to eat in if you don’t speak or read Korean, especially because the city doesn’t have street names. Every restaurant’s card will include a little map on the back and people give directions in terms of major buildings, subway stations, and other landmarks. But at the same time, it’s hard to have a bad meal, especially if you are adventurous and like spicy, pickled, strong flavors. Unless you’ve extensively explored LA’s Koreatown, there are many, many things to eat that you can’t get anywhere but in Korea. Every department store has a wealth of food in its basement, including very affordable food courts with classic Korean standards even at the toniest of department stores. I am particularly fond of the food wonderland at the Shinsegae Department Store next to the Marriott Hotel and near the Nambu Bus Terminal. Other good places to poke around are Insadong, especially for traditional street food, and Myeongdong, which is a young, shopping and hanging out mecca. In general, a chowhound with a good chowhound nose can eat very well in Seoul; I hope my tips can help some chowhounds eat even better. Most of the places below are south of the river, as our families live here. There are many more wonderful places to eat; these are just a few I know and love myself.
So that my post is not ridiculously long, I’m going to assume some knowledge of Korean food and not go into long descriptions of major dishes, but of course, feel free to ask me if you have any questions.
1) A TRUE CHOWHOUND EXPERIENCE: The best galbi-tang, or short rib soup, in the world at Budnamujip. This is a classic, Korean barbecue place, with several locations, though my family always goes to the one near Yangjae subway station. The grilled beef is fantastic, though expensive, so a good way to sample its high-quality meat is to go for lunchtime short rib soup. This is a good example of how a basic, hearty Korean dish can be transcendent—a steaming hot bowl of golden, rich soup crowded with short ribs to pick up with your hands and gnaw. This is an experience people line up for, and they only serve 100 bowls a day at lunch, so to be safe, get there by 11:00 on weekends and holidays, a little later on weekdays. I don’t know if anyone there speaks English, but they do have menus with English translations and some information in English on their website.
1340-5 Seocho-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul 137-072
2) Sawhuleh Boleebap
Great bossam (steamed, fatty pork), great spicy kimchi to eat with the fatty pork, and nutty, warm barley bibimbap, or rice with sautéed vegetables to mix in.
No address but it’s in Apgujeongdong and the phone number is 02-540-5292.
3) Sandong Kalguksu
Fantastic handmade knife-cut noodles, wonderful kimchi, so-so dumplings.
About 300m from Yangjae subway station going towards Nambu Bus Terminal, turning right into an alley right by Hanna Bank.
Old-school, traditional restaurant, not cheap but not super-expensive either. $20 per person Korean noodle hot pot, the best mul naengmyon (cold buckwheat noodles) in the world, and pretty great bibim naengmyon (spicy buckwheat noodles), too. Another place with menus in English.
91-18 Nonhyun Dong, Kangnam-Gu
Tiny place with a loyal following for my favorite thick-skinned, traditional Korean dumplings filled with tofu, meat, and kimchi. A wonderful place for an affordable meal in super chi-chi Apgujeongdong.
Right across the street from Galleria Department Store, tucked into the alley on the right side of Uniqlo (which used to be a McDonald’s and THE meeting point in this neighborhood).
Another old-school place, slightly more upscale but not expensive, specializing in bulgogi based on the owner’s super-secret, no-sugar formula. A good place to try bulgogi, naengmyon, and other Korean classics.
1321-7 Seocho Dong, Seocho Gu
7) TO:UR Fried Chicken
Good fried chicken, Korean-style, which means very crispy whole chicken fried without batter and then cut up. Really excellent accompaniment to beer. You can find this kind of fried chicken almost anywhere in Seoul; just look for the signs that say “HOF,” which is a Korean-take on a German beer-related word. But if you're in Myongdong, on a side street across the main road from Shinsegae Department Store, you can find this place where I had a very enjoyable meal with my cousin.
And for more expensive dining, especially if you’re getting tired of Korean food:
For Japanese sushi with a Korean twist, meaning fresh raw fish (best at the bar) and wonderful Korean spicy fish stews and braises. The 40,000 won (about $42) lunch set is a great value, a parade of high-quality food.
1302-47 Seocho-Dong, Seocho-Gu
If you’re going from Kangnam subway station towards Kyobo Tower, make a left right past Kyobo Book Center, and then turn left by the LG store into an alley where you will soon see Sushiko.
9) Palsun, Chinese restaurant in the Shilla Hotel
This is probably the best, most refined Chinese food I’ve ever had in my life, though I've never been to the best restaurants in Hong Kong. Very expensive (~$120 or more per person, without drinks, if you get a set menu). But the food is truly special, made with particular care, and perhaps interesting for Americans since there are many dishes you will never see in 90% of Chinese restaurants in the U.S.