Dining out in Korea can be a challenge, especially if you’re not familiar with the language. If you're looking for authentic local food away from the tourist spots, knowing some key phrases can be really helpful. Who knows, you might even manage to impress the staff and get an additional serving of side dishes!
This will probably be the first thing you hear when you enter a Korean eatery. Literally translated to “come quickly,” this phrase actually means “Welcome!” Especially in small family restaurants, the communication between the owner of the restaurant and the customer is almost family-like so they will be always more than happy to see you walk in. Don’t get startled if you hear “어서오세요!” instead of the usual “안녕하세요” and instead, you can be the one to reply with “Hello” and a slight nod to this type of greeting.
What might follow up is the question “몇분이세요?”[myeot-bun-i-se-yo]. Most Korean restaurants can be pretty busy sometimes or if they are a small family business, they might not actually have more than 10-20 seats available; so knowing if there will be more people coming is a must before entering the restaurant. The Korean languages uses two counting systems which can be confusing at times, so just showing the number of people you are bringing with you, on your fingers will make things clear enough.
Pro tip for solo travellers: Usually most restaurants require at least two people because their portions are rather big so make sure to bring at least one buddy, instead of going alone!
“저기요 / 여기요!” [jeo-gi-yo / yeo-gi-yo]
Sometimes, in the hustle and bustle that we all know is so typical for the Korean lifestyle, the staff might not notice that a new customer has entered their place. To draw attention you might want to call out “저기요 / 여기요!”[jeo-gi-yo / yeo-gi-yo], which translates to “Over here, please!” Keep in mind that it might sound a little bit mannerless to do so in a fancier restaurant, but it is absolutely okay to use it at smaller local places, where — as already mentioned — the atmosphere is very family-like.
“뭐가 맛있어요?” [mwo-ga ma-shi-seo-yo]
When ready to order, the way to do it is by saying the name of the dish and adding “...주세요”[ju-se-yo] at the end. The translation goes “Give me … please”. Don’t worry if the menu turns out to be in Korean only, you can simply point at the photo and say “이거 주세요.”[i-geo ju-se-yo] or ask the waiter or waitress “뭐가 맛있어요?”[mwo-ga ma-shi-seo-yo] (What — out of the things on the menu — is good?)
In cafes or most places that provide on-the-go-service, you could get confused with the prices of things, more or less if everything is in a foreign language to you. In that case, asking the staff “얼마에요?”[eol-ma-ye-yo], which means “How much is that?,” can show them that you are not absolutely clueless in the situation, and they will be more than willing to help.
“잘 먹었습니다!” [jal meo-geo-seum-nida]
Good manners expect us to show if we liked the service or not. Since the tipping culture in South Korea simply does not exist, tipping the owner of the restaurant or cafe with good words is actually more than enough! On your way out of the place, you can say “잘 먹었습니다!”[jal meo-geo-seum-nida], which in Korean culture is not only a common sense to do, but it will actually make the staff more than happy to hear as a validation from a foreigner!
Knowing essential vocabulary when traveling abroad is always a good thing to do before your departure. Dining out is a big part of Korean culture and it will be a shame if you miss the chance to experience it just because you were afraid of misunderstandings. Be bold and attempt to speak Korean as much as you can.
Do you already know some of these phrases? Or maybe you’ve dined out in Korea and you might want to share other useful phrases that saved you in a situation? Leave a comment below and let us know!
Written by Monica Boyadzhieva