Words and shots by Joe McPherson, Paul Matthews and Brian Dye

Korea has been spending decades catching up with what it perceives as the modern world. It has made it and then some. The great can-do Korean spirit has been going full octane for so long that the concept of leisure time is something new. The Wall Street Journal recently speculated on the vacation dearth on the peninsula. One leisure activity that has picked up in the past couple of years has been brunch. With the five-day work week starting to catch on, Koreans are finding ways to enjoy their hard-earned wealth. Brunch here combines notions of wealth and leisure, and it has gone through its own evolution from a pricey exclusive novelty to a more common outlet for coffee with friends.

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A few beloved watering holes started serving eggs-and-bacon breakfasts in the mid-2000s, but the brunch trend truly got started when Suji’s introduced pancakes and attached the brunch moniker to them. That’s when the Korean public started paying notice. It was also around this time that Sex and the City had infected the culture, and nouveau riche ladies and their admirers wanted to have that upscale New York experience in Seoul. That also explains why you won’t see a gaggle of ajosshis sipping coffee and sharing pancakes on a Sunday morning.
Here are 10’s picks for the ten best brunch spots in Korea (along with a few honorable mentions). We’ve jotted down notes on the aspects we most care about: outdoor seating and coffee service. What better way than brunch to enjoy a well-deserved spring?

10. Mignon – Now Closed
Best Outdoor Dining

Outdoor seating: lovely patio
Coffee: W5,000 (refills are regular price)
Address: 116-14 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan, Seoul
Phone: 02-792-7280

Prices are a little steep and portions are a little sparing, but the Belgian fare is excellent, and there’s one unbeatable aspect to Mignon that should have you sprinting there on one of Korea’s glorious Sundays mornings “its beautiful outdoor patio seating. Yes, you’re surrounded by buildings, but it’s a quiet little corner of Itaewon with beautiful wooden trim and plenty of vegetation. The eggs benedict is superb, as they know how to poach an egg and the hollandaise is spot on, although they do sub toast for the English muffin. The side salads that come with the omelets are a delicious healthy alternative to hash browns as well.

9. Gecko’s
Best Omelet

Outdoor seating: small terrace
Coffee: W2,000 per cup with brunch
128-5 Itaewong-dong, Yongsan, Seoul. (02-749-9425)
Uyeong Plaza, 1266-2 Bojeon-dong Giheung-gu, Yongin (031-262-9974)
2156-3 Saekdal-dong Seoguipo, Jeju (064-739-0845)

Gecko’s was one of the progenitors of Sunday breakfast. Way back when the news got out that Gecko’s was serving breakfast (something only hotels used to do), people would make the journey from the far reaches of Seoul’s spider web subway network to have that familiar taste of scrambled eggs and coffee. Now it serves breakfast every day. It’s now rare to find an Itaewon pub that doesn’t have some type of breakfast item. Yet Gecko’s continues to be a favorite. Their strawberry French toast piles on the sweet morsels. The omelet is hands down the best in town, loaded to dangerous levels with cheddar cheese. And for brunch, you can’t beat the price of their robust coffee.

8. A Story
Best Buffet

Outdoor seating: patio.
Coffee: Included with buffet
Address: 534-5 Garosu-gil, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Phone: 02-511-6179

A Story is the spot to satisfy your brunch cravings. The menagerie of pastas, risottos, soups, salads, pizza, omelets, bacon, ribs as well as a bevy of fruits and cakes at their buffet brunch will have you savoring each and every dish multiple times. Yes, the W25,000 price tag is steep, but when you can eat to your heart’s content, it’s totally worth it. Did we also mention the sparkling wine and the chef who cooks your eggs to order?

7. Indigo
Best English Fry Up

Outdoor seating: small rear patio
Coffee: W3,000 with W1,000 refills
Address: 46 Yongsan-dong 2-ga 1st floor, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Phone: 02-749-0508

The brunch menu hits all the bases just shy of a homerun. Pass on the quiche and head towards the more everyday offerings like the English breakfast and omelets. The portions are spot on as well as the service. It’s a friendly, laid-back kind of place, and the food comes quickly despite the sizable crowd.

6. Neal’s Yard
Best Coffee

Outdoor seating: small terrace
Coffee: included with brunch (refills are W1,000 each)
Address: 119-19 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Phone: 02-794-7278

Street signs, lamp posts, and awnings used for interior decoration give you the illusion of being outside, and it’s particularly nice on a day when the weather’s fine and the front windows are wide open. It’s the perfect Korean young lady’s hangout, with portions to match. The prices are reasonable, however, with a nice brunch going for W14,000, which includes a good-sized coffee. Waffles are good and they have some nice quiches as well. Be sure to add on W1,000 for an extra egg if you happen to eat more than your average 40 kg size 2.

5. The Holy Grill Reopened!
Best Breakfast Burrito

Outdoor seating: none
Coffee: W2,750 (free refills)
Address: 61-5 Gongpyeong-dong, Jung-gu, Daegu
Phone: 053-423-4048

This Daegu institution is known for its Tex-Mex and burgers, but it also has a whopping brunch menu, served all day every day. Yet it’s the perfect spot for post-revelry recovery on Sunday mornings in the 2nd floor restaurant or the 3rd floor sports lounge, dubbed “The Recovery Room.” They serve pancakes, full breakfasts and a super breakfast burrito packed with guacamole and smoky Canadian-style hashbrowns. They are also one of the few places in Korea to indulge in granola and yogurt. Despite its name, don’t expect any spam at the Holy Grill.

4. Butterfinger Pancakes
Trendiest Hipster Joint

Outdoor seating: none, Coffee: W5,390 (free refills)
Addresses :
9 Jeongja-1-dong Bundang-gu Seongnam (031-785-9994)
85-6 Cheongdam-dong Gangnam-gu Seoul (02-3448-1070)
1317 Seocho-dong Seocho-gu Seoul (02-532-5740)

Opened in 2006, Butterfinger Pancakes still has a line in the lobby of young Korean hipsters and Westerners waiting for tables. This is one of the priciest of the bunch and has a reputation for Soup Nazi service, but it specializes in comfort foods in a middle-American diner atmosphere. The menu is daunting, but favorites include the blueberry pancakes, meatloaf, and macaroni and cheese. Or try The Big Fat Special (W14,900): pancakes, breakfast sausage, white sausage, grilled ham steak, hash browns, choice of egg, choice of butter and choice of syrup. It’s a great place to satisfy one’s sweet tooth.

3. Flying Pan Blue
Most Creative Menu

Outdoor seating: none
Coffee: W4,500 with W2,000 refills
• 540-22 Sinsa-dong Gangnam-gu , Seoul (02-514-5585)
• 123-7 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul (02 793-5285)

Flying Pan Blue playfully brings the whimsy to brunch with unique ingredients and original flavors. Their fluffy perfect pancakes will have you dreaming, topped with caramelized figs, walnuts, bananas and ricotta cheese. Another favorite ride on their playground is the sauted mushrooms topped with a poached egg served with toast, roasted potatoes,
hummus and a grilled tomato.

2. Suji’s
Queen of Brunch
Outdoor seating: rooftop terrace
Coffee: W4,000 (free refills)
Address: 4 locations in
Apgujeong-Hyundai Department Stores,
Bundang-gu (visit sujis.net for details)
Phone: 02-797-3698(Iteawon)

Suji’s takes credit for starting the brunch trend in Korea. Headed by the dynamic and legendary Park Su-ji, the grande dame of brunch has come a long way from its pricey beginnings. The transformation comes complete with specialty cocktails for W8,000, helping you wash down brunch selections such as the french toast-themed Jack and Jill, the more traditional lumberjack pancakes, Mexican-influenced breakfast burritos, Denver omelets and New York bagels with smoked salmon. Choices can be made a la carte and are best enjoyed on the rooftop terrace.

1. Pancake Original Story
Best Overall
Outdoor seating: small patio
Coffee: W3,000
(refills are regular price)
Address: 261-6 1st Floor,
Seoul Building, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Phone: 02-794-0508

We have talked about Pancake Original Story in a previous issue and are still raving about it. POS showed that you can have a decent brunch in Korea without the exorbitant price tag. They serve twangy buttermilk pancakes with a wide range of syrups. They make their own perfectly spiced sage patty sausages, and if you order an extra sausage on the side it comes out in hamburger proportions. They also have a killer cloudlike veggie omelet with blue cheese and possibly the most affordable eggs benedict on the peninsula. They have felt the pressure to Koreanize their menu items by adding vegetables to their dishes, and they can suffer from bouts of inconsistency. But they have always been solid on their staples. Be prepared for cramped quarters. The sign jokingly says they can’t seat more than 8,000 when they really can only squeeze three tables inside the dining room. They have a patio out front that can seat a few more.

There you have it, 10 Magazine’s top ten brunch spots in Korea. It’s a sign of how rapidly the restaurant industry and the Korean public’s tastes have been changing. Not too long ago, a Western breakfast meant a half-cooked egg, spam and untoasted white bread. Then it exploded as an expensive novelty. If it had been a fad, we’d already be witnessing it fading. Instead, it’s adapting. More affordable places are venturing onto the scene while quality improves so that brunch can move from the realm of wanna-be Sarah Jessica Parkers to any young Park who wants a decent, filling breakfast with an honest cup of Joe.