Musings: Stew's 2014 Predictions for Food and Drinks Trends in Seoul

Personally, I can't wait for 2013 to be gone forever but on the gastronomic front in Seoul, it was a good year with lots of strides and growths in the culinary scene in Korea.

Seoul's food scene often bounces into unpredictable directions at times and 2013 was no exception (a re-popularization of bubble tea?) so it's not so easy to try and foresee the future here. But here are my simple guesses as to how eats and drinks will go in Seoul for 2014. It'll be fun to see what I predicted right and wrong as well as what other surprises will come about a year from now!

Stew's 2014 Seoul Food and Drinks Trend Predictions:

1. Breweries, foreign beers and craft beers (oh my!)

Korea has long suffered from sub-par beer (there's more reasons than getting drunk faster for the soju+beer combinations to be so popular in taste) but as more Koreans have developed a taste for finer beers abroad, demand (and an active market) for craft beers have grown tremendously in the last year and a half.

The self-serve beer cellars (맥주 창고) were one of the early signs of this with increasing number of foreign bottled beers sold to cater to this growing taste. This then led to small to mid-sized breweries biting their thumbs at Hite-Jinro and OB (the big Korean beer duopoly) and opening wildly successful breweries and pubs of their own. Hite-Jinro has noticed and responded, in turn, with a new line of ales and don't be surprised if more come along the way in the future.

While wine, with its luxury connotations, will still be immensely popular in the new year, expect good beers to really emerge as a popular choice, especially for the mid 20s-early 40s crowd. and more breweries and more hot spot eateries adding local brews to their offerings or even jumping into the brewing business themselves.

Sampler craft beer platter from the wildly popular Craftworks
(Photo credit: Lee Sang Sub - The Korea Herald)

2. Gastropubs and Small Bites

Distinction between popular eat spots and traditional drinking places are seeing lines blurred. Nights out for Koreans have typically been done in rounds with eating, drinking and playing spots all done in separate but consecutive turns. An increasing number of the young working crowd though are finding such traditional  ways denting not on the wallet but taxing on health and time as well.

Taking a cue from popular trends elsewhere, gastropubs have burgeoned recently with handmade burger joints, pubs and other eat spots becoming versatile players that work well for eating, drinking or both.

Rather than dish out big money at HOFS and other similar places for big servings of mediocre anjoos (dishes you order while drinking which are compulsory for Koreans), good quality burgers, pizzas and other traditional pub grubs, often available to order in smaller portions, are seeing a big boom in popularity.

Places like the Booth, which offers craft beers and pizzas by the slice, and gastropubs in and around Itaewon, Sinsa, Gangnam are fast becoming a popular option for gatherings of the working professionals.

Yakitori and other small Japanese bites such as ones offered by places like Ageba or Azutsu in Noksapyeong will also see a modest growth in line with this trend. These joints emphasize smaller portions and bites and cheaper prices that aren't too burdensome to eat (especially after a full meal right before elsewhere) to go with drinks.

Joints like Azutsu making high-quality and made-to-order anjoos, 
but in smaller portions and prices, are seeing a rise in popularity

3. Makgeolli Continues to Grow.... in Unpopularity

Though high quality, artisan makgeollis are a personal favorite of mine, it'll sadly see flatter sales locally in 2014 as the flickering and finicky tastes of Koreans will continue to move towards craft beer and cocktails. Its reputation as a major hangover inducer the next day is definitely not helping its cause. The only way I could imagine it picking back up some steam is if a new, light cocktail catches popularity with the younger crowd but I say those chances are low too.

Oh makgeolli, I do so love you but alas, less are sharing that same sentiment with me...

4. Gangbuk's Renaissance Goes On While Garosugil Steadily Declines

It's no secret that among the elite, the fashion folks, trend setters and whatnot, Garosugil in Sinsa has long been passed on as the "it" place. The neighborhood, which was once known for independence, creativity and trend setting has rapidly commercialized leaving a wake of sterile H&Ms, Starbucks and overpriced, uninspired pasta joints and the dwenjang smudged, elite-aspiring-but-not-quite-theres with inflated egos to takeover the nooks and crannies of what was left behind.

Garosugil, and Gangnam for that matter, will still be popular areas but to find the really hot and trend-setting spots, look to north of the Han River as Gangbuk will continue its renaissance and emerge as the leading creative and innovative cultural and gastronomic trend makers.

Itaewon will continue its rise but the bulk of the new places making ripples in Seoul will come from nearby Hannamdong or Noksapyeong and most likely from off-the-beaten paths of these two neighborhoods. Inner Noksapyeong (off Kyunglidan and in the alleys and neighborhoods on both sides of the main Kyunglidan street) and inner Hannamdong (behind the main Itaewon streets) are two spots where you'll currently find many of the culture/fashion trend setters who originally made Garosugil popular. As someone who lives in this area, I can tell you firsthand that not a week goes by I pass by yet another old Korean store, pharmacy or mart that's suddenly being renovated into a new and hip eating and/or drinking spot.

Moon Ori in inner Noksapyeong is an example of these seemingly random but extremely popular joints in the completely residential parts of Itaewon that have become hang out grounds for Seoul's cultural elite

Pushed off from the commercialization of Hongdae near-by, Yeonnamdong has also emerged as a dark horse to catch the attention of many. Expect a continued expansion in new hot spots in this area and also in nearby Habjeongdong.

As for Gangnam? Expect more uninspired Italian joints and eateries advertising things like "European fine dining" complete with misspelled English menus and grossly overpriced and uninspired eats. With its crazy real estate prices, Gangnam will continue to yield fewer places taking creative and inspired endeavors and more places playing it safe to make profit.

5. A Shift Away From Europe To South, Central and North American Flavors

Koreans have increasingly begun expanding travels from traditional favorite locations, like Western Europe, and to more "exotic" places elsewhere in the Americas and beyond.

Correlating with this shift, expect western European cuisine (French, Italian, Spanish, etc) generating less buzz and more flavors sought elsewhere. Particularly Mexican and other South American flavors will see growth with new shops and an increased attention to authentic details like fresh tortillas, cilantro, "new" sauces like mole, etc.

Joints like Gusto Taco, Vatos Urban Tacos, etc have caught on in recent years for offering much more authentic flavors and details. 
It's definitely not Choi's Tacos quality seen a decade ago in Korea *shudder*

Premium burger, pizzas and other standard "American" cuisine will remain popular while a few other comfort dishes such as shepherd's pie, macaroni and cheese, etc rises from Korean obscurity into the limelight.

6. Juice Craze

It took a few months but the various lemon detox cleanses did reach a fad in Korea after coming in from abroad. Similarly, I'm thinking the various power juice cleanses, smoothies with alleged super food ingredients will also pick up steam sometime this year in Korea. Interest in juicing and various associated cleansing diets will pick up and perhaps even companies capitalizing on this trend by offering fresh juices delivered to the doorsteps of patrons or alternative fresh bottled juices.

7. Growth of Organic and Non-GMO Foods

Interest in organic and non-GMO produce and foods will gain traction among the upper class but will probably take a few years to really gain interest as a whole by the mass. Already a few places like Longbread in Myeongdong has largely built their business model around the farm-to-table and organic model while movements such as one like WWOOF, being led by my friend Joon, is spearheading the movement in Korea. With the increased interest, expect more exposé and news/magazine focus stories from the Korean media highlighting the movement. Slowly, businesses will take note too and begin capitalizing on the "farm-to-table" movements but probably not so much for a few more years.

8. Seafood and Japanese Brand Food and Drinks Continues to be Shunned

Stemming from fears and concerns over radiation contamination from Fukushima, seafood and Japanese brand food and drinks have taken a big hit in consumer confidence here in the past year (there's a reason so many Japanese brand beers including the frozen beers were on sale so often this year). Don't expect Koreans to be flocking back so soon just yet. Japanese brand food and drink products will continue to be offered on sale prices to offset losses as the general public will remain spooked.

News stories on potential radiation contamination continues to air time-to-time in Korea

Fishery and seafood associations and eateries will campaign hard to mitigate fears but 2014 isn't looking to be a year for seafood to be big. Sushi joints and such will also remain largely unpopular this year.

9. Renewed Interest in Tea

Coffee is still king but like the comeback of boba, tea will see a modest revival with young adults. A few tea shops targeting the demographic will pop up staying away from traditional hanok styles and more modern and urban decor. New teas, tea blends and tea concoctions will begin popping up on the menus of cafe and restaurants.

10. New Energy Drink Cocktails and Mixes

Energy drinks and various cocktails and concoctions made with these stimulant drinks gets even more popular in 2014. Agwa bombs, Jagermeister and more are the popular shots with the young and hip now but expect new cocktails and drinks in 2014. Korea's big soju/beer companies may even try and capitalize on the energy drinks trend by suggesting new mixes with their alcohol or even coming out with a new bottled alcohol drink.

Agwa bombs and other similar cocktails and drinks made with energy drinks 
were all the rage this year

11. More New International Restaurant Brands and Lines Set up Shop in Korea

From On the Border to even Lawry's recently, an increasingly number of big name restaurants have been showing up in Seoul and expect others to get in on the game in 2014. Perhaps a few casual dining brands, steak houses, maybe even a premium burger line or two? (In-N-Out and Chipotle, are you listening?)

12. The Beginning of Itaewon's Commercialization

After having cemented its hot spot status for a few years, Korea's major brands have taken note and begun opening their own branches in Itaewon. Coffee Smith, Taco Bell another Starbucks, major cosmetic shops... even an A Land.

Other major corporations are sure to want to make their presence known in Itaewon as well (especially in Itaewon's main district) and in a few years, the main streets of Itaewon will sadly undergo the commercialization so many other trending areas of Seoul already went.

13. Southeast Asian Flavors In, Indian/Middle Eastern Flavors Out

In addition to European places taking a dip in popularity, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine will also see a decline in interest from Koreans. Expect to see plenty of restaurants of the latter two variety show up on social commerce sites as they draw less folks than before.

Southeast Asian cuisine, such as Vietnamese and especially Thai cuisine, will, along with South and North American cuisine, become the trending region foods in 2014. Expect more of these joints popping up around Seoul and Koreans finally moving on to dishes beyond pad thai and pho to other "exotic" ones. Authentic tastes, flavors and ingredients will increasingly be scrutinized and demanded. Prices will sadly remain high, similar to the prices of Italian joints (which, as you will know, is considered "premium" in Korea), reflecting their trending status.

Thai joints like Kkaoli Pochana have become mega popular in the last year, 
as Koreans have taken note of their attention to details and authentic flavors.

14. Premium Desserts and... Ice Cream!

Desserts will continue to grow sweet on Koreans, who aren't exactly known to be a big desserts crowd. More desserts previously not commonly seen in Korea will begin creating waves and more restaurants will include or expand their desserts section.

In particular, premium ice cream shops I predict will be a big thing this year and generate a lot of buzz.

15. Premium Boonshik Food's Ascent

The Korean food trend that took me by surprise in 2013 was jokbal (pig's feet). Traditionally a food that's associated with an older crowd and vibe, I was stunned to see so many jokbal joints pop up in Hongdae, Myeongdong, Gangnam and more, with modern decor and a clear targeting of the 20s to 30s crowd.

I'm thinking in 2014 we'll see many premium boonshik joints pop up, targeting the same crowd by taking classic Korean favorites (kimbap, ddukbokki, dupbap, etc) and going for bolder flavors without msg, healthier choices and fresher ingredients. One such example of such a place that's been a real winner with the locals is Robot Kimbap (review coming soon). Their takes on kimbap are not only creative but their substitution of white for brown rice and use of more fillings and less rice have really won over the young adults crowd. While teens have their kimbap naras and other boonshik chains, these "premium" boonshik joints provide the young adult crowd with a hip and healthier take on classic Korean boonshik fares and expect more of these sorts of joints and boonshik menu items popping up around the popular hoods of Seoul.

Premium boonshik joints like Robot Kimbap goes for healthier and fresher ingredients and emphasizes on more filling and less rice in their kimbap. 
This caters well to the young adult crowd who are increasingly looking for healthier and economic eating choices but still want classic Korean comfort food.

Whew, there you have it! My predictions for 2014. We'll see what I get right, wrong and completely surprised by in twelve months! 

Do you have any predictions? Think I'm dead wrong about something? If so, sound off in the comments!