A decade ago, a person who walked into a restaurant in Seoul and asked for “han myung-I” —a table for one — could be declined service.
That’s because restaurants in South Korea prefer groups of two or more, owing to a complex mix of local social dynamics, profit margins and simple logistics — a tableside grill has to be cleaned whether it serves one patron or four, after all.
Solo rejections commonly occurred at family restaurants and barbecue outlets, two quintessential spots to sample some of the country’s best cuisine. Solo diners could circumvent it in two ways: by placing an order for two or agreeing to a minimum spend.
However, with the growth of one-person households in South Korea, more people are choosing to dine, drink and travel alone — embracing the “honjok” lifestyle trend that has visibly taken root in the country.
Hongojib is unlike most barbecue places in Seoul.
Located in the lively neighborhood of Yeonnam-dong, the restaurant — and its predecessors, such as Sinssi Express and Hongo — have swapped traditional communal dining for the growing trend of honbap, or eating alone.
Diners eat at counters rather than round tables. And dishes aren’t served family style — each diner is given personal settings for condiments and cutlery along with their own grill.
Orders are placed and paid for with tablets. And food — alongside a cluster of classic banchan, or side dishes — is served within minutes.
Marianne Lee, a Korean education consultant, said this style of eating is a change from the days when “everyone has to eat in teams, everyone has to drink together, everyone has to go for the same menu.”
“If you wanted to have a Chinese meal, but if your manager says let’s go for Japanese noodles, you’d have no choice but to go,” she said. “But nowadays, people respect having their own time.”
With a following of more than 40,000 on TikTok, Lee — who said she’s spent equal parts of her life in the United Kingdom and South Korea — is popular for her videos about Korean culture, from bus etiquette to the best time to visit the country.
In her videos, she recommends solo travelers try restaurants such as Labap for fine dining, or Gimbap Cheongu and Pomato for their wide variety of Korean food.
The latter two “are open 24 hours and sell tteokbokki, rice dishes, soup and other hot cooked meals,” she said, referring to Korean spicy rice cakes.
Lee suggests visiting the popular tourist spots first, such as Namsan, Myeong Dong, Insadong and Itaewon, where people often speak some English. Multilingual tourist guides dressed in red coats and hats are there to help with travelers’ questions too, she said.
“It also helps when you add in a few Korean words, like hoksi (maybe) before you ask your question in English,” she adds. Koreans listen better than they speak, so she feels that it helps to “soften the approach and we really appreciate it.”
Where to stay
South Korea is popular with visitors from Asia, especially China and Japan, but visitors from Western countries, namely the United States, are on the rise. American travelers were the fourth-largest source market until 2019, but catapulted to the top demographic in 2022, according to Tourgo, a research initiative of the Korea Culture and Tourism Research Institute.
Earlier this year, South Korea announced a new visa for digital nomads is in the pipeline. The visa, which would allow foreigners to stay in Korea while working remotely for an employer in another country, is slated to start later this year, according to The Korea Herald.
Luckily, it’s now far easier to find a place to stay than it was in the past.
New co-living companies, like Episode and Mangrove, were created in response to the rise of single-person households seeking affordable places to live in Seoul. Some residential buildings allow short-term lodging, which solo travelers can book.
I stayed at Mangrove Dongdaemun for a month in a clean and compact room that came with a workstation, private bathroom and a view of Mount Namsan.
Unlike hotels, there are communal kitchens and coworking spaces, plus a gym, yoga rooms, library and even free laundry self-service. An app links residents with chat boards and activities like “New Joiner Nights.”
The concept is popular, said Mangrove staff member Kim Serin, who added that the building is full most of the year. She said short-stay requests are increasing, and that the company is working to meet this need with new projects coming in two other popular destinations, Busan and Jeju.
Celib Soonra is another residence designed for solo residents and travelers. Stays under three months can be booked via Airbnb, which is how I booked my stay.
My room was less cookie-cutter and came with local touches like a traditional tea room, and the rooftop has panoramic views of Changdeokgung palace and Jongmyo Shrine.
Its neighborhood, Gwonnong-dong, is more intimate too, and the hip cafe-filled Hanok village of Ikseon-dong is but a 10-minute walk away.
Business hotels too
Business hotels, like those from the hospitality brand Accor, are also working to create hybrid living spaces where travelers and locals can “live, work and play,” according to its website.
Accor’s Ibis brand offers an example of this. At the Ibis Styles Ambassador Seoul Gangnam, I could see how small changes can make a huge difference, such as the communal garden on the hotel’s 15th floor, where I worked on days I had tight deadlines.
I also slept in an ondol room at the hotel, which had heated floors and traditional bedding, something that is usually found only in traditional houses and hanoks that caters to groups. Near Gangnam’s Coex Mall, it was also a steal at less than $55 a night.