The 2018 Winter Olympics will take place in PyeongChang, South Korea, from February 9 to 25, bringing with it a slew of skiing, bobsledding and ice-skating competitions.
But while all eyes are on the games, our stomachs can’t stop thinking about the country’s amazing food. The dining scene in Seoul, the capital city just under 80 miles from all the athletic excitement, is a playground for gourmands, with thousands of hole-in-the-wall spots, a burgeoning cocktail scene and more than a few celebrated fine-dining addresses.
If you’re not sure where to start your marathon in munching, here are a few of our favorite dining and drinking locales in the South Korean metropolis.
The Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Four Seasons Hotel Seoul opened in 2015 in the city’s financial district, just a few blocks from photogenic Gyeongbokgung Palace. It’s been lauded for more than a few of its seven dining options, including two Andre Fu-designed eateries: Kioku Japanese restaurant and Yu Yuan for elegant Chinese fare.
But for tipplers, the highlight is Charles H., a New York-prohibition-era-inspired speakeasy meets Korean royal palace that’s named after celebrated writer and bon vivant Charles H. Baker. Hidden away in the basement of the hotel, this AvroKO-designed bar transports you to another time and place with its travel-inspired cocktails.
The experience begins with an amuse-bouche and a welcome sparkling wine to enjoy as you browse the menu. The selection spans everything from a range of Manhattans to a tropical Hotel Nacional (aged Caribbean rum, apricot brandy, pineapple, lime and angostura bitters) — all based on Baker’s trips to Shanghai, Havana, New York City, Paris and Hong Kong.
The Timber House
Tucked away in the basement of the Four-Star Park Hyatt Seoul, The Timber House greets you with a wall full of vinyl records — a promising indication of what’s to come. Conceived by celebrated Japanese designer Super Potato, the discreet bar resembles a traditional wooden Korean house where you just so happen to be enjoying craft cocktails, sushi and analog music. Thanks to the comfortable woody décor, leather couches and a live DJ spinning LPs, this is the kind of place that you’ll never want to leave.
As for food and drinks, there’s a 150-deep whisky list, premium sake and soju, a sushi counter and an izakaya-style snacks menu (think Peruvian-style lobster ceviche and Hanwoo beef empanadas) should you get a bit peckish.
While there are a few signature sips (such as the Danza Amour, made with Kyoto gin, sparkling wine and sakura cherry-blossom syrup), you can also opt for a custom cocktail. Choose your base, a fruit or an herb and preferred flavor profile (sweet or bitter, for example), and the bartender will stir you up something special.
Earlier this year, the 1,819-foot-high Lotte World Tower opened within the highly anticipated Signiel Seoul. Housed on the 76th to 101st floors, the hotel boasts some of the best views in the city. It has also teamed up with acclaimed French chef Yannick Alléno, who designed the menus for casual-chic restaurant Stay.
But when it comes to fine dining, the highlight is Bicena, which is officially the highest Korean restaurant in the world thanks to its 81st-floor perch. The menu stays true to local tradition — the kitchen uses lots of fermented products and nourishing soups — but creates a more contemporary experience with the artistic plating and elegant atmosphere.
To get a feel for the philosophy, try a few of the signatures, such as the 48-hour boiled red ginseng and black silky chicken, Hanwoo sirloin mandoo (dumplings), sweetened dates and seasonal fish.
After dinner, hit up Bar 81 on the same floor, which provides the largest champagne selection in Asia.
Jeonju Jungang Hoegwan
The Myeongdong district might be most famous for its Korean beauty shops, but there are a few hole-in-the-wall eateries tucked down the narrow lanes that are worthy of the detour. So, put down the Tonymoly mascara and head to Jeonju Jungang Hoegwan for some authentic bibimbap (mixed rice).
Opened in the 1950s, the cozy eatery has all the signs of a family-run place with pared-back styling, retro details and wooden tables (a mix of Western and in-floor Korean seating). There’s a picture menu to help non-Korean-speaking guests, but if you’re still unsure, go with the signature Jeonju bibimbap (rice topped with vegetables, oozy egg and red chili paste) — it’s served in a hot stone bowl with a peppering of banchan (side dishes).
A heralded fine-dining restaurant inside Four-Star The Shilla Seoul, La Yeon draws a following for its sophisticated take on Korean cuisine. Chef Kim Sung Il harnesses traditional cooking techniques and seasonal ingredients to create elevated updates to staple dishes.
The set menus change with the seasons, but they could include the likes of gujeolpan (a platter of nine delicacies), Hanwoo beef short ribs and royal hot pot (made with abalone).
In addition to the exquisite cuisine, you also will delight in the optional wine pairings and panoramic views of Namsam Park.
It’s far from upscale, but Han Chu is a favorite after-work hangout that tends to fill up come 7 p.m. as city dwellers descend on the address for one of South Korea’s surprising specialties: fried chicken (aka chimaek). Get there early to avoid the lines, as this is one of the most famous KFC — sorry, Colonel, we’re talking Korean Fried Chicken this time — restaurants in Seoul.
Once you get inside, you’ll notice that there are a few types to try, including the original (with a spicy kick) or a sweet-and-spicy alternative. You’ll find both to be mouthwatering examples of the local delicacy.
The menu is short but tasty, featuring an assortment of fried foods, such as stuffed green chili peppers and squid. But don’t expect any wine pairings here — this is a beer- and soju-sloshing kind of spot.