On my fifth day in San Sebastian, I was perched in a seafood restaurant at the tiny port of Bahia de la Concha on a rickety wooden folding chair about the size of a postage stamp. With a personality that requires elbows often to be airborne, I quickly found myself talking to the people on the next table, and partook of some tips when they said they were eating at this same place for the third time. After ordering a whole grilled monkfish tail, my husband and I explained that we were only here because we had near pintxosed ourselves to oblivion. We had craved a proper seat (well, almost proper), a large plate, and a table to rest our wine on so we did not drink it in three breaths. Our new friends had tried eating pintxos (pronounced pin-choss), they told us, but thought they were “pretty boring”.
Well, that was a disgrace I had to remedy.
Many call San Sebastian the food capital of the world. It sits only behind Kyoto for the highest concentration of Michelin stars on the globe, has four of the World’s top 50 restaurants either in town or within easy taxi distance, and it now has one of the top ten food tours internationally, according to Tripadvisor (and authenticated by the Hedonista). The fertile surroundings, exceptional land and sea produce and artistic nature of the Basque region and its natives have propelled it to this standard, and the main reason is not the fine dining, but the plates you can buy for €4 from a caravan-sized bar in the old town.
To waste a trip to San Sebastian eating (albeit quite good) grilled monkfish with lemon and olive oil on a dusty port-front, night after night, is a travesty. I armed the Melbourne couple with a list of tasks and menu items that they needed to complete to do the town justice (I stuck with the old town to keep it simple), and you’ll find the same below, plus a few extra tips from days 6, 7 and 8. Luckily I haven’t had 4 glasses of txakoli so this time I may make sense.
- Ignore everything you learned about tapas in Barcelona. In San Sebastian, the best dishes are not necessarily found on the bar impaled on a toothpick (pintxos were named after the toothpick ‘spike’, but there’s been so much evolution since). Although there are a few that are worth gnawing on (especially the “Gilda” – four skewered marinated peppers with preserved anchovy and an olive), most have bread underneath them (bocadillos), and that’s just a waste of your taste buds and calories. The real treats are more likely to be found written on black boards. If you can’t read Spanish and the bartender can’t chat, look for the board that says “calientes” (hot dishes) and just have a stab in the dark.
- Lose your focus on “Spanish food”. Forget pan con tomate, paella, empanadas and churros (although you should definitely order gazpacho at least once or twice). Many of the dishes in San Sebastian pintxos bars are unique to the region, or even to the bar itself. Amongst others, you will find elements of Japanese, English, Argentine and French cuisine, along with the occasional splash of molecular gastronomy. I had a tuna burger that blew my socks off (that’s Australian for “it was delicious”), and cheesecake that was out of this world.
- Don’t expect to eat sitting down. It’s hard enough to get a table to stand at sometimes, so be content with 10cm or air space between you and your neighbour, and a ledge on which to perch your Rioja between sips. Some bars also have a separate restaurant area, where many of the dishes are served in larger portions in a normal dining ambience – if you need to give your feet a rest, seek these out (book in advance if you can).
- Always take a friend to the bar with you. In busy times, these bars absolutely heave, and it’s very common to wait 20 minutes before you get service. The only way to combat this is to order as much as possible at the same time. Remember that most of the dishes are only 5-6 mouthfuls, and txakoli is as easy to drink as water. You’ll need someone to help you carry it all back to the table (if you’ve been lucky enough to snag one).
- Forget that everybody has told you that all the Spaniards eat at 10. This is Basque country, and this is not dining, it’s pre-dining (although it’s definitely satisfying enough for dinner). Cocktail hour starts at around 7, and all the good dishes get sold out first. By 9pm the streets are well and truly full, and by 11, the pintxos bars are shutting up.
- Don’t save your bucket-list bar for the last day. There seems to be no standard closing days or times, and if you hold off on a place, you might find it’s all barred up on the day you seek it out. It’s always good to have a couple of alternatives planned in this case too.
- Know your jamons. The big deal in San Sebasitan is jamón ibérico de bellota, which will have a black hoof and black or red label. We’re talking free-range pork (pure-bred for the black label), that, once out of its infancy, feasts entirely on acorns. This makes the meat sweeter, with a nutty, floral undertone that is not found in any other ham, plus, the high levels of oleic acid (the same fatty acid found in olive oil) assist with better quality fat production – it’s soft and beautifully marbled.
- Brush up on local drinking customs. Txakoli, (pronounced chuck uh lee) is the light, slightly spritzig, dry white wine that is served like an Indian tea ceremony, into water beakers for about €2-3 a glass. Sagardoa (or sidre) is cider, also fairly dry, and less fizzy than British equivalents; a perfect drink if you are going to be spending many hours on the pintxos trail, as it is only about 5% alcohol. Vermut (vermouth) is not necessarily as prevalent here as it is in Madrid or Cataluña, but it’s an excellent aperitif, or a palate cleanser when you think you can’t eat any more salty, rich and unctuous foods. It’s usually the bittersweet red version, served over ice with an olive and orange rind. For the less adventurous, “caña” is draft beer, “Cava” is (very good) Spanish sparkling wine, and gin-toneeks are more than just a mixed drink, with boutique producers, herbs and unusual botanicals appearing as garnishes.
- Follow the standard tourist rule and go where it’s busiest. I know, its annoying because it makes everything harder. But these bars are usually busy for a reason. You can eat with time and space when you get home.
- Yes, that pintxos tour is 100% worth it. Some may balk at the €100 price tag, but I would emphasise that this is all of your food and drink for around 3-4 hours, plus some key up-to-date tips from locals (Our guide was very accommodating, even caving to a round of tequila shots on demand). We are not just talking ham on baguette here, but really serious cuisine, some of which will beat dishes you try at nearby three-Michelin-star restaurants. Portions are generous, tour groups small, and you will be armed with knowledge for the remainder of your trip (so do it on your first day in town). Both lunch and dinner tours work well.
And, to follow, the list of bars I sent my fellow diners to, with some dish recommendations from Summer 2016:
- Borda Berri – Possibly the most famous. A small venue with great gazpacho and smoky Idiazabal cheese risotto
- Casa Urola – Double-fronted with an upstairs restaurant, stupendous foie gras, mushroom and egg dish, also green beans with bacalao, and scallops with almond cream. List goes on, we dined here many times.
- Goiz argi – Killer prawn skewers, tiny and packed to the gunnels. Home of the knock-your-socks-off tuna burger
- Atari Gastroteca – Heaving bar and restaurant opposite the church (meaning you can sit on the steps with your plate and glass when the chairs and tables are full). Favourite dishes were melt-in-the-mouth beef cheek and a provolone fondue with chimichurri, but also well worth going just for the drinks.
- Gandarias – This is carnivore heaven. Prime jamon, perfectly cooked steak (also available in pintxos size portions), roasted lamb and suckling pig, you get the picture. Interestingly, my favourite dish here was the boletus mushrooms. Also has a (very busy) restaurant.
- La Vina – Not just me, but everyone will rave about their cream cheesecake (tarta de queso), a baked, firm yet oozy delight that is perfect with a slosh or Pedro Ximinez (Him-i-nez), dark, aged, molasses-like sherry, either to partner, or poured over the cake.
- Txepetxa – A small bar known for their anchovy dishes (antxoas), which are supposedly the best in the town (I did not find better). This is where you should also have your “Gilda”, and the fried calamari was pretty good too.
- Zeruko – You wouldn’t know it to look at, but this is where to go for an out-of the box selection. I was struck by a mushroom and PX cannelloni and their bacalao, but for a recommendation, I’d find it hard to pinpoint. It’s all about experimentation, presentation and personal taste.
- Paco Bueno – A very old-school, comfort food bar known for their fried prawns, but also home to a very decent fish sandwich, and one of the places where you can break the rule about choosing a pintxo from the bar-top (as long as it’s early – you never know what might had dripped into it by the end of the night).
Below, a gallery of some of my favourite dishes. If that doesn’t make you want to holiday in San Sebastian, then I really don’t know why you are following a culinary travel blog….