Despite being a Socialist State with a heavily centralised economy the DPRK can at times be pretty canny businessmen and nothing quite proves this as much as the hugely successful Pyongyang Restaurant Chain or Franchise – that is right I said franchise.
What’s the story with the Pyongyang Restaurant Chain?
Initially it was formed essentially as a way for North Koreans posted abroad, particularly in border areas to be able to eat North Korean food. Hence most of the original locations were in places such as Beijing, Dandong and Yanji all of which have fairly large North Korean expatriate communities.
And what do you know? People started coming, a lot of people and thus an idea was born.
Why did it become so popular?
Aside from the fact that the food is great, all key staff, most importantly chefs and waitresses are North Korean. From a food side this meant that it was good authentic North Korean cuisine, but it was the waitresses that truly stole the show.
When you visit North Korea and go for a meal it is not uncommon for your servers to put on a singing and dancing show and this is exactly what they do in the Pyongyang Restaurant Chain, and the Chinese could not get enough of it.
The explosion of the Pyongyang Restaurant franchise in China
Firstly border cities such as Dandong started opening not only more franchises, but even other North Korean businesses decided to get in on the act, such as the Koryo Hotel who run one of the finest North Korean restaurants in Dandong.
Yet it was in other cities far far from North Korea that things really started to explode from around 2013 onwards. Now it is hard to visit any main city in China that does not have at least one Pyongyang themed restaurant. Shanghai even has two! We even managed to find one in Ordos. If you don’t know about Ordos it is the most famous “ghost city” in China – even they got a North Korean restaurant.
The Pyongyang Food Chain goes global
It was from about 2014-2015 that things really started getting interesting with Pyongyang Restaurants shooting up around the globe, initially in places that had decent relations with the DPRK, but eventually appearing almost everywhere. In their heyday there were as many as 130 worldwide locations of the Pyongyang Restaurant franchise. Famous restaurants included a number in Cambodia, as well as Mongolia, Vietnam, Dubai and most weirdly Holland.
The branch in Holland was particularly controversial as it was alleged that it breached numerous EU laws and ended up in a very acrimonious law suit between the Korean and local partners which ended up with its closure. It later reopened under a different name and was this no longer part of the main franchise.
All good things must come to an end…
When North Korea complain about sanctions it is very easy to just brush it off, but if you actually look at the conditions North Korea has been put under, it is not only unprecedented, but in many ways disgusting.
And it was these sanctions that were to be the nail in the coffin for the global Pyongyang Restaurant chain. As of December 2019, all nations were required to uphold the sanctions banning paying overseas staff from North Korea. And that was it! Restaurants around the globe started closing and where you would previously see a North Korean palace of great food and fun, now all you see is an empty building with the word “Pyongyang” outside of it. As you will see from our photo of the now empty, but formerly famous branch in Siem Reap the closures are indeed very real.
Thankfully, or stubbornly depending on how you view the sanctions on the DPRK you can still visit the numerous restaurants in North Korea, but alas not elsewhere.
How did the Pyongyang Franchise work?
We won’t go into huge detail about this, but it was rather similar to other franchises, but of course with a North Korean flair. The main factors were that the local (non-Korean) partner would provide the location, whilst the Koreans would provide all the kitchen and wait staff. The controversial element was that wages for North Korean staff were not only set by the Koreans, but was paid directly to Pyongyang rather than to the staff, a point which caused problems with the Amsterdam branch for example.
What was the food like?
The food was and indeed is (where it is still open) of an excellent quality, although fairly expensive by the standards of wherever the restaurant was located and considerably more expensive than South Korean restaurants. Particular specialties tended to be seafood, homemade kimchi and the best Pyongyang Cold Noodles outside of the good old DPRK!
Where are the best Overseas Pyongyang Restaurants?
Pre-sanction closures this was a subject I could have waxed lyrical about for a long long time, with Siem Reap particularly popping to mind. But the best restaurants were and obviously still are in China.
In Dandong, there are literally North Korean restaurants everywhere you look. Some are run by North Korean but some only serve Korean food made by Chinese Koreans or Han Chinese. The best ones is 2 streets back and opposite the train station. It is really small and appears like an apartment from the outside. When you get in you pass through a small corridor before hitting the small restaurant area. This is authentic cuisine surrounded by North Korean customers and served by extremely shy waitresses who whilst they will happily put on a show for you, won’t allow photos. To me that is a proper Pyongyang Restaurant.
Now what with sanctions and the coronavirus epidemic no now knows what the future will hold for North Korean food abroad, of course there are copycat restaurants done by other Koreans, but there will only ever be one Pyongyang Restaurant Chain or Pyongyang Restaurant Franchise.
To check out our favorite North Korean foods check this link, for a detailed explanation the cuisine of North Korea click here, or if you just wan to know about drinks in North Korea we still got you covered here.