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Seoul | MM Travel Guide | 15

For my recommendations from 2014, click here.


★☆☆☆
Avoid, a waste of time.

★★☆☆
Good, but mediocre.

★★★☆
Great. Worth a visit.

★★★★
Exceptional. A spiritual experience.

 

$
Affordable

$$
Reasonable

$$$
Pricey

 

Small House Big Door
중구 다동 115
★★☆☆
$

As I’ve said before, I adore Park Hyatt Seoul but it does come with a hefty tag. If you’re on a budget, Small House Big Door is an acceptable choice. I primarily hate staying at hotels because so many of them are designed with no taste. SHBD may not be as clean, comfortable, and sleek as I’d like but it does have a sense of design, which seems to be a rarity. The rooms are clinically unadorned and have fun little touches like 3D printed keys and lamps. The hotels is also excellent in terms of location, with a subway station at its doorstep and just a 5 minute walk to Myeong-dong. Even if you’re on a budget, your eyes don’t deserve to be terrorized by tacky hotel decor. Go to Small House Big Door.

 
 

Auprés
서초구 서초동 1451-86
★★★★
$$

Being in Seoul, I didn’t think my most memorable dining experience was going to be at a French restaurant, but it was.  Auprés is a reasonably priced yet truly capable French restaurant with truly world-class dishes. The flavors are classic french, but with a light and fresh overtone. Everything was magnificent from the celeriac soup to the chicken stuffed with foie gras and mushrooms. Along with the stunning dishes, Auprés has a calm, soothing mood that makes it ideal for a date or a long dinner with a close friend. The mussel and paprika salad was a particularly notable dish and is a must-have if you visit.

 
 

XII
용산구 이태원동 278-8
★★★☆
$$$

There are several locations of XII (or Bar 12) in Seoul. This one is notable because of its open layout that faces the street. Being summer, the windows were wide open, giving the bar a cafe-like mood. It’s a refreshing change from the dungeon-like bars you normally see. The drinks are decent too and crafted in a delicate manner, right in front of your seat. XII is worthy of praise but I don’t want small talk or loud music when I’m enjoying my drink - which XII unfortunately has plenty of. If you’re going to visit, it’s worth noting that the bar only has 12 seats though (get it?), which can make the place busy on weekends.

 
 

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Ikovox
용산구 이태원동 118-71
★★★★
$$

This is one of the best coffee shops in Seoul and feels like something pulled straight out of Brooklyn. Thankfully, Ikovox isn’t just style and has substance - they roast their own beans (daily) and offer all of their drinks in any of their roasts. Espressos are pulled with expertise and lattes are rich and chocolatey when made with their Cello bean blend. Unfortunately, the barista I had at the Garosu-gil location was mediocre, so make sure you come out to Itaewon to experience Ikovox.

 
 

Botton
용산구 이태원동 140-861
★★★☆
$$

This is another solid choice for coffee in Itaewon. Botton is not a roastery like Ikovox but this isn’t a big deal because they seem to source good beans. The iced americano I had was great and I also appreciate the fact that Botton has flat whites on their menu. The cafe has big windows that face a quiet street of Itaewon, providing a rare opportunity of peace in the crazy neighborhood. It’s a pleasant place to bring a book or a good friend and kill and hour or two.

EDIT: This location is now closed.

 
 

만수네
용산구 이태원동 34-107
★★★★
$

Tteokbokki is a popular Korean dish that is often sold as street food, and is essentially rice cakes in a sweet and spicy chili sauce. I’ve been obsessed with this dish recently and have been looking for a restaurant that excels at it. 만수네 might be the best I’ve found on my recent visit. The tteokbokki is spicy without being inedible, and has enough sauce to dip tempura (which is the best part). What makes this place particularly great is their tempura, which is done in an unorthodox Japanese-style, making them extra crispy and delicate; it results in a tremendous texture when dipped in the chili sauce. 

 
 

Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP)
중구 을지로 281
★★☆☆
$

Philosophically, I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum from Zaha Hadid, but I must admit, the massive Dongdaemun Design Plaza is an impressive thing to see in person. The DDP features exhibition halls, historic artifacts, and shops but there isn’t necessarily much substance there, so visit primarily for the architecture like myself. Be sure to go at night when the entire structure is lit from the inside-out and the tacky plastic rose garden transforms into a sea of lights. The DDP has instantly become of Seoul’s most iconic landmarks so it’s worth a visit if you haven’t been. It really isn’t as tacky as you might think.

 
 

마복림 떡볶이
중구 신당동 292-112
★★☆☆
$

When talking about tteokbokki, 마복림 떡볶이 is a name that comes up often. It’s located in Shindang-dong tteokbokki town - an entire street dedicated to tteokbokki. I found it to have more hype than substance though. The food wasn't nearly as spicy enough, and doesn’t contain nearly enough rice cake. I love the efficient service though - payment is taken as you order. Regardless of their fame, I’d skip this one. 

 
 

Common Ground
광진구 자양동 17-1
★☆☆☆
$$

Conceptually, Common Ground is interesting. It’s built completely out of blue shipping containers and is filled with pop-up shops. The shopping center is surrounded by food trucks and has a nice diversity of restaurants and cafes on the rooftop too. Despite all this effort, I found Common Ground’s selection of shops dismal, and was bored very quickly. It also doesn't help that the place is designed like a maze and is a pain in the ass to get around in. It’s amazing how they’ve made an interesting idea so uninteresting. If you go, just expect to see a lot of tacky graphic tees and cheap Samsung Galaxy cases.

 
 

Alegria Coffee Roasters 
광진구 자양동 17-1
★★★☆
$$

When you’re at Common Ground and annoyed by the curation of shops, head over to Algeria Coffee Roasters on the rooftop. They roast their own beans, have a solid menu, and the baristas seem to know what they’re doing. They also showcase new roasts on a seasonal basis, which is fun for the regular. There’s a pretty good cold brew on the menu too, which isn’t super common in Seoul yet. The seating is uncomfortable but you should honestly just enjoy the coffee and move on to a more interesting neighborhood.

 
 

김선생
강남구 신사동 652
★★★★
$

“Fast casual” dinning seems to be a global phenomenon, and 김선생 is a perfect example of this formula done right. 김선생 specializes in gimbap (Korean makizushi), and focuses on the basics: a clean, streamlined experience, a focus on quality ingredients, and a low price-tag. And yes, the restaurant achieves all of these. I love how ordering is done on a touchscreen but the food is brought to your table by a server. It makes the dining experience streamlined but not too dystopian. The food is of course the highlight of 김선생, with gimbap rolled to order using quality ingredients you normally don’t see at this price point or category. My favorite on the menu is actually their cheapest gimbap, the 바른 김밥, which just contains a generous amount of vegetables and eggs.

 
 

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Mikkeller
강남구 신사동 544-22
★★☆☆
$$$

Mikkeller is a microbrewery from Copenhagen that’s well known for its unique collaborations. The Seoul location was launched recently and offers an impressive selection of beers on tap. First impressions were nice, with a playful interior sprinkled with fantastic illustrations Mikkeller is so well known for. I tried three different beers here and unfortunately didn’t enjoy any of them, as I found them too complex and fruity. That being said, I’m not a big fan of beer to begin with, so if you like beer, Mikkeller might be a different experience for you. I really did think the atmosphere really was spectacular though. I just wished it was a whiskey bar.

 
 

준’s 888
은평구 서오릉로 195
★★★★
$

Every country has their interpretation of cheap Chinese food, and if you’re looking to taste the Korean interpretation of the cuisine, this is the best I’ve found in the city. I’ve been to countless Chinese restaurants in Korea but none come close to 준’s 888. The tiny restaurant run by just two (the chef, and his wife) and although it can look off-putting visually, it’s one of my favorite restaurants in the world. The place can be a bit of a trek from central Seoul, it’s totally worth the trip. Both pillars of Korean Chinese cuisine, jajangmyeon and jjamppong (particularly good when you add abalone here) are amazingly executed here, as is the sweet and sour pork. You know that a restaurant has go to be good when pretty much every Chinese restaurant in the city offers delivery and you don’t. As a matter of fact, 준’s 888 doesn’t even allow take-outs. Badass. 

EDIT: Due to health problems, 준’s 888 has closed and has been replaced with a more simple dumpling restaurant. I have not yet visited.

 
 

동빙고
용산구 이촌동 301-162
★★★☆
$$

Bingsu is a Korean shaved ice dessert and is essential to surviving the humid Korean summers. 동빙고 is one of the Big Three’s of bingsu in the city, along with 옥루몽 and Mealtop (my favorite). 동빙고’s approach is about perfecting the basics. They only use Korean red beans and keep the recipe pure, using just ice, milk, condensed milk, and rice cakes, along with the mandatory red bean topping. The simple approach is effective, and there was a huge line when I visited. Thankfully, they offer take-out, complete with an insulating sleeve. Their bingsu was good, but I still prefer Mealtop, whom I’d give ★★★★, thanks to their richer, milk-based ice that's shaved smoother.