(Used with permission from Dustin Cole, a Seoul-based photographer)
If you’re traveling to Korea or are newly living in Korea, you’re most likely going to want to go to a Korean restaurant in Korea. But even a simple thing like asking for the check can make your servers chuckle. Make sure you don’t look like a fool by following this guide on how to eat Korean food like a local!
Note: These tips are for typical, local Korean restaurants in Korea. Western restaurants in Korea (i.e. Italian, steak, etc.) and more upscale (aka expensive) restaurants in Korea may not apply.
Walk into a local Korean restaurant and take a seat. Most Korean restaurants in Korea, if not filled to capacity, won’t have a host or hostess to seat you. If there’s an open seat, it’s yours for the taking.
Sitting at a table waiting for the waitress to come around? Raising your hand hoping to get their attention? Chances are you’ll be just as unnoticed as the quiet and nerdy kid sitting in the back of the classroom.
First thing’s first, look for a button on the table. And just like Field of Dreams, “if you press it, they will come.” If there is no button, make sure you’re not sheepish about calling them over. To get their attention, do as the Koreans do and say a nice, hearty jeogiyo (저기요 – excuse me) — be firm and confident. Don’t worry about being impolite. As long as you’re not screaming it, they’ll take it in stride.
Tip 1: Waiters/waitresses share in the serving duties (you’re not designated a server).
Tip 2: A friendlier way to address a waitress is to say eonni (언니 – older sister) or emo (이모 – auntie). Don’t worry, most men don’t care what you call them (seriously).
At local Korean restaurants in Korea, utensils are typically found at the table you’re sitting at. Look for a box with a lid on the table. Once you do find them, place a napkin on the table and put your utensils on top of it. Most Korean locals do this to ensure whatever is going into your mouth is clean. It’s not that the restaurants in Korea are unclean. It’s just an added level of security. Germaphobes unite!
Tip 1: Can’t find the utensils? Don’t forget to look under the table as well—they might be tidily placed in a drawer.
Although this is an oxymoron for protecting oneself against germs, if you’re eating with locals at a Korean restaurant in Korea, be prepared to share your food. Korean culture places a lot of emphasis on sharing, and that means you’ll see a lot of different spoons in the same pot and ripping up large pieces of kimchi with chopsticks that were just in someone’s mouth. Don’t be freaked out, it’s bound to happen!
Tip 1: If you’re uncomfortable with this, people will understand. Ask for an extra dish (ap jeobshi – 앞 접시) and take what you need.
For local Korean people, water at a restaurant is usually only good for dabbing at that kimchi you spilled on your shirt. That is until the end of the meal when Koreans actually drink it. If you want to eat like a local at a Korean restaurant in Korea, wait till the end of your meal to drink water. Korean people have a belief that drinking too much water is bad for digestion, and most Korean people only drink about a cup or two at the end of their meals.
Tip 1: If you’re a human-camel, don’t worry. There’s nothing culturally wrong with drinking a lot of water at the table. It’s just not what local Koreans do. Drink up!
Tip 2: If you’re not given a container of water, water is most likely self-serve. Scan the restaurant, find the water cooler and get it yourself. Sorry, lazy people!
If you call over the waitress asking for the check and/or hand over your credit card to pay, you might get a laugh or two out of her. At most Korean restaurants in Korea, the check is already at the table. They just mark whatever you ordered and leave the tallied check on the table. And at most restaurants in Korea, you’ll have to bring that check to the front door to pay on your way out.
Tip 1: At a galbi restaurant in Korea? Check the metal ventilation tubes atop the BBQ. Sometimes the check is magnetically attached. Clever!
Got any other tips for eating like a local in a restaurant in Korea? Share with us in the comments below!