In Korean, it’s called gogi-gui, literally ‘meat roast’. It’s got a long and complex history (we’re talking thousands of years) but these days it means essentially one thing – meat that’s grilled, often at the table by you, and enjoyed with banchan (Korean side dishes, kimchi being the most famous) and booze. In Korea it’s massive; these are places where big nights are had and memories made. You could say they’re as much a part of Korea’s social fabric as pubs are to the English, the izakaya to the Japanese and the hot pot to mainland Chinese.
In Sydney, the experience is much the same: you choose the meat, grill it on a barbecue set in the middle of table (if this step scares you, all the below places will do the grilling for you), douse it in any combination of sauce, and chase it with soju, beer or a cup of makgeolli (a cloudy Korean rice wine).
Most barbecue joints will serve the same set of classics. An unmarinated selection including pork belly (long strips, medium-thick-cut), steak (probably rib-eye, skirt and chuck) and thinly sliced ox tongue. Plus a few marinated pieces, always galbi (either beef short ribs in soy, ginger, garlic, sesame and pepper; or pork spareribs in rice wine plus either soy or chili paste), and maybe some saucy chicken thighs and pork neck too.
These are our picks for the best. Barbecue restaurants with high-quality meat, genuine charcoal under their grills, service good enough to know when you need a waiter or a literal chef at the table, house-made banchan and a decent menu of non-barbecue options too.
If you scored all these restaurants on the above criteria, Gyeong Bok would hit ten for almost all of them. The short BBQ menu offers both offal (a rare sighting of ox intestine) and the complete other end, wagyu so comprehensively marbled it fizzles like on the pan like butter. Before any of that arrives you’ll see one of the best banchan offerings in Sydney, 12 different dishes all made by the restaurant's owner and occasional maître d'. And those are probably not even the best bits. That honour goes to the $25 lunch set, an absurdly sized seasonal feast focused around your meat of choice - bulgogi, either chili-paste lathered squid or pork, or simple rissole-like beef patties.
A glossy menu with styled pictures of marbled beef and glistening pork-belly slabs. Pastiche Korean interiors featuring mock temple awnings and custom-built barbecue tables. Overly professional service. And a banchan service that includes a hunk of chili-marinated raw crab (eat it raw, chuck it on the grill, whatever). No doubt about it, Bornga is the fanciest Korean BBQ in Sydney. Thank Jong Won Paik, a Korean celebrity chef with a number of franchise restaurants including this one, the first Australian opening of an international chain on a mission to make Korean food accessible to foreigners. The dish he’s chosen to lead that mission: woo samgyeop, paper-thin sliced beef brisket grilled at the table (medium is the usual for this cut) and eaten in a lettuce wrap with ssamjang (a thick, pungent chili and bean paste) and maybe some raw garlic. That’s the go-to order.
Maroo is famous for barbecue and Korean rice paper rolls. A quick run down on each. The BBQ menu is small and best approached via galbi and the $60 combo - ox tongue, thinly sliced skirt steak, soy-marinated pork neck, mussels and a small octopus. Korean rice paper are a Korean-Australian invention that’s adapted Vietnamese DIY rice paper rolls with different ingredients and Korean sauces and they’re a good foil to a full plate of chargrilled meats. Either way your table will be so full of house-made banchan, you’ll need a waiter’s tray to hold it all.
The second celebrity Korean chain to be represented on this list comes courtesy of comedian Kang Ho Dong. The meat here is no joke, though: they do a bit of their own butchery, and some of the beef comes from Australia’s Jack‘s Creek and other premium Wagyu farms. Unlike the other barbecue joints on this list, neither 678 branch has a scroll-length menu with every category of Korean cuisine represented. They’re confident enough in their BBQ menu they don’t need hot pots and fried chicken. Here it’s just beef with an 8+ marble score, a small but high quality banchan offering, maybe some cold noodles on the side, and a few cans of Cass.
The small restaurant is so popular with the local Korean community, it’s packed almost every night. They don’t care about the austere fit-out, they come for the ribs: marinated in garlic, soy, ginger and sesame; grilled by you or for you at your table (they’ll help if they see you struggling); and sold for a few dollars less than most other restaurants on this list. There’s not much else on the short menu but we’d encourage an equal parts gooey and crunchy leek pancake, and a bowl of cold buckwheat noodles to finish.
Two options. Head to the Campsie branch if you want old school mat-seating and a homely vibe. If you want beats, booze, the permanent aroma of smoking meats stuck to your clothes and friendly crowds of international students, try the Strathfield or CBD branches. At all three you’ll find some of the most tender, marbled beef in Sydney; a longer-menu of pork cuts (intestines, thick-cut jowl and loin making appearances), the occasional free helping of raw crab doused in chili paste and same, busy crowds.
Open the menu and the first thing you’ll see is a $160 platter with five different cuts of Wagyu beef with a marble score of 8+. That’s a good indicator of what kind of restaurant this is. While most Korean restaurants are looking to harness the loud, beer-fuelled side of BBQ; Danjee is aspiring to sell you wine, marble scores, marinated seafood for your grill, more professional table service and $2 banchan refills. Check out their sister restaurant, Madang for a slightly lo-fi experience that costs you fewer dollars and more decibels.
This is where to go for the rowdy side of BBQ – good quality beef that isn’t $38 a serve, a few less common cuts (lamb cutlets, baby octopus and tripe) canned beer under $10, soju for $15, charming waiters that are eager to cook your meat for you as soon you show the slightest hesitancy or lack of ability, and an atmosphere that’s somewhere between midnight at a house party and your work’s Christmas lunch. The rest of the menu is tiny – it’s basically a seafood pancake and/or a pot of steamed egg to the side; and a cold noodle soup or a fermented bean paste stew to fill those extra bits of stomach space. Check out Stone Age in West Ryde and Jo Ja Ryong Korean BBQ in Strathfield for more from the same owners.
First, your table will be invaded by banchan, up to ten of them. Then your meat (pork belly with matured kimchi is good fun, cook them together for a fat-sour-spice mix in one mouthful) arrives, greens along with it and the dips (salted sesame oil and soy) too. You’re already running out of table space but then your side orders (probably a rich hot pot of spicy beef ribs, rice cakes and maybe some fried chicken, too) arrive. It’s a constant problem here but the waiters, oddly smiley for those who wield buckets of burning charcoal at 400°C, will sort it out for you in between dexterously grilling and cutting your meat.