I've noticed that restaurants are everywhere here, but it seems that the tendency is for people to frequent those in high-traffic areas. There are restaurants throughout the side streets I've wandered, but I don't often see anyone in them. So, I was wondering how safe it is to wander into these off-the-beaten-track restaurants? Can they be a source of great food finds, or are they usually just serving what I can get in the places where everyone else goes?
I can't remember where I read it, but someone said (and I'm paraphrasing), "Koreans don't go to a specific restaurant, but rather they go out for a specific dish." That's dead-on, but doesn't necessarily mean that people don't frequent restaurants with good reputations. It means that if people want galbi, they're going to find some restaurant (probably local) that serves it.
Honestly, I love wandering into the sleepy looking restaurants. While the food is usually just as good as the busy establishments, it's the service that typically stands out. Extra side-dishes is a win-win for me which, ironically, is my biggest issue with these small restaurants.
Many of you know it or have at least thought about it before (just as many Koreans have): Do they really throw away uneaten/untouched food?
I suspected that they didn't and very, very unfortunately, I was correct. It was and still is a very common practice. Luckily, in July of this year, the Korean government thankfully decided to fight back against the insanely unsanitary way of saving a buck and sanction any restaurant that is caught reusing it's food. Despite swine-flu paranoia, I have a feeling that the practice will continue as long as food prices are increasing and the recession drags on.
I encourage everyone to frequent the small establishments. My favorite part of Korea is the insane amount of restaurants that are found on every street in every pocket of every city on the peninsula. If we all stick to the big places, then much of the charm of Korean eating culture will deteriorate to the point that franchises will take over and then I will be forced to leave the country. Also, they have the best kimchi.
So, get out there and check out the small joints and I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised. If you want more of a food guide for everything else, make sure you see what Zen Kimchi, Fatman Seoul and Seoul Eats have to bring to the plate.