SEOUL—For many years, dining in Seoul was distinguished mainly by mom-and-pop restaurants and a late-hours dining called pojang-macha in outdoor tents—all serving cheap Korean food.
But over the past few years, Seoul has quietly become a city for foodies. Just this spring, Zagat's, the U.S. publisher of survey-based dining guides, produced its first Seoul edition. The variety and sophistication of restaurants has exploded; foodies seeking Spanish tapas, Uzbeki shurpa and even New York-deli style pastrami sandwiches can now find them here. And Korean dishes are being revamped to mirror the broader upgrading.
So while gourmands from outside Asia are still more likely to stop in Tokyo, Hong Kong or Beijing than Seoul, a visitor who hasn't seen the city for a while will be stunned by the options, cuisines and quality that it now has to offer.
The change is largely shaped by the hundreds of thousands of South Koreans who have studied or worked overseas in the past decade, developing a broader palate and keener sensibility about the dining experience along the way. Among them are young Korean chefs who have gone off to train in culinary capitals like New York, Paris and London, then returned to start their own restaurants.
"Ten years ago, it was rare to see chefs who studied overseas," says Lee Yun-hwa, a food critic and chief executive of Diary R, a Seoul-based restaurant-guide publisher. "Now there are so many that people are no longer impressed by an overseas diploma. A great chef should have more than that, such as their own creative recipes."
Both Korean and foreign chefs are experimenting with multicourse menus—a typical Korean meal consists of many dishes served all at once—and more artistic presentation. Their aim is not only to increase its appeal to foreigners, but to show Koreans that their national cuisine, at its best, is on par with the finest French or Italian or Japanese food.
The food boom has also had its gimmicky side, such as the arrival of celebrity-owned restaurants.
Here's a snapshot of some of the people and places shaping Seoul dining now:
South Korea's success at exporting movies and TV dramas made many of its actors famous around Asia. A few have capitalized by opening restaurants, as Hollywood actors have for decades.
Movie star Lee Jung-jae started the trend in 1998 with an Italian restaurant, Il Mare, in the Daehakno neighborhood. More recently,actor Bae Yong-joon's "Gorilla in the Kitchen" restaurant near Dosan Park in Apgujeong was for a time so popular that it drew lines of tourists, particularly Japanese women.
The restaurant displays no photos of Mr. Bae, star of "Winter Sonata," part of the "Korean Wave" of TV dramas that became international hits. There's no hint at his involvement. But fans know.
Now, the celebrity-restaurant trend has reached a new stage with the return of 38-year-old Edward Kwon, star of a different sort—a star chef. Ten years of cooking achievements outside Korea have made him a name in food circles back home. In 2003, while working at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, he was named to a Top 10 list of young chefs by the American Culinary Federation. He went on to work in China and then as senior executive chef at the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai.
Mr. Kwon has opened three restaurants in the past year in Seoul. His newest, The Spice—in Seoul's expat-heavy Itaewon neighborhood—offers dinners for 40,000 won (about $34).
"Everyone thought that I would open up in an expensive area but I wanted to serve value without a high price tag," he says. "My target is not 1% of the population in Seoul. I can cook for the homeless. It doesn't matter who they are."
—Helen Seunghee Yoon is a writer formerly based in Seoul. Evan Ramstad and Jaeyeon Woo contributed to this article.