San Sebastian, located on the northern coast of Spain, centred in the middle of Basque country is definitely Spain’s foodie destination, and it was the city we were most excited about visiting on our entire holiday when we thought about food.
After a bustling preceding four or so weeks spent in Paris, Italy and the rest of Spain, we were looking forward to doing a whole lot of eating and not much else… and San Sebastian is the perfect destination for this. With nary a museum in sight to traipse through, San Sebastian is a coastal resort town, featuring a beautiful wide main beach and bay (La Concha). There’s actually not a lot to do in San Sebastian except laze on the beach, take a day trip into France (the border is 20km away) or into the surrounding Basque wine country, and eat lots and lots of food. San Sebastian actually boasts the highest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants in the world, which is mighty impressive.
We were on a budget holiday though, and didn’t have the foresight to book one of these restaurants six months in advance, and so we were more interested in the other foodie feature of this city, the pinxto bars located in the old town area.
Arriving in the old town on our first afternoon, we had been getting used to reading and attempting to pronounce Spanish in all other parts of the country (well, except in Barcelona where they use another language altogether, Catalan), however here we stopped short when coming across the local Basque language. This language features a few too many X’s for my liking, and as we found menus were written in either Basque or Spanish or both, and a lot of the servers had a very limited grasp of English, we resorted to a lot of pointing.
One thing to try in San Sebastian is Txakoli (pronounced cha-ko-lee), a lightly sparkling dry white made in the region. When it is poured, the bartender will make a great show of pouring it from a height to create extra fizz.
So what are pintxos? We had been eating tapas in other Spanish cities we’d been visiting, but had not come across anything quite like this. Pintxos are tiny versions of tapas, often just mouthful sized, and served pierced by a toothpick or on a small slice of bread for ease of eating. Pintxo bartops are literally lined with platefuls of the stuff, all kinds of varieties. Pintxo bar crawling in San Sebastian is a serious sport, drinking and sampling the pintxos of each bar before moving onto the next one. The bars were incredibly busy each night we were there, and it was difficult to even get inside some of the more popular ones! Don’t expect to eat sitting down either, you will have to find a spare corner to stand at the bar, and may get jostled a lot by other patrons. Plenty were just drinking and eating out in the small streets of the old town.
We actually took a tour with Basque Country Tours whilst in San Sebastian, a day trip into Biarritz and the French Basque coast, and our tour guide Jon was extremely helpful in providing us with some tips when dealing with the madness of the pintxo bars, and also a list of his recommended places to eat.
The best pintxo bars are actually those that don’t have the food laid out on the counter top (with one exception that we went to outlined below), bars that make the food fresh as opposed to laying the food out for hours. The best dishes to try are actually the ones on the menu or board behind the bar, rather than those on the countertop. The best bars are those that are packed out with people! Oh, and his final tip, only tourists drink sangria! (whoops).
Without further ado, here are 3 of San Sebastians best pintxo bars:
Located in the Plaza de la Constitucion, which used to be used for bullfighting, years and years ago. If you’re in the middle of the plaza, look up at the numbered balconies, which used to be reserved boxes to watch the bullfighting. Bar Astelena is extremely popular and you’ll be hardpressed to even get inside once its in the swing of things at night. There is outdoor seating in the plaza, but you’d probably expect to pay more to eat out here and won’t get the full atmosphere. Bar Astelena thankfully did have an English description of its dishes on the menu board. Don’t bother with the pintxos on the bar here, just order from the menu, which we did over a couple of nights. Our favourites included; Solomillo a lo Pobre (sirloin steak with onion, quail egg and fries), Carrilleras de ternera (beef cheeks), Taco de Bonito (tuna with salad), Costilla a la Barbacoa (BBQ Pork ribs) and Rabo de Buey (oxtail). All pintxos are around the 3-4 Euro mark. These meat dishes were particularly tender and juicy.
A Fuego Negro
This place is dark and extremely funky, and serves a modern take on pintxos with a little bit of molecular gastronomy involved. The menu is up on the wall and is only in Basque, but you can ask for an English menu from one of the bartenders. The food here was extremely interesting; we ate Makobe with txips, a tiny bite sized burger of rare Kobe beef mince served with crunchy little chips, Bakailu enkarbonao con pepitas de pimiento; which was mouthwatering ‘coaled’ cod with pepper pips. We also tried a couple of their glass dishes; Tigreton de Mejillon (tomato puree, mussels and bechamel), and Zebitxe con Granada (fish ceviche with a pomegranate fruity foam and avocado). Both of these glass dishes were recommended to be stirred and combined before eating, and were fresh and fabulous.
This place was the exception to the general rule of “don’t eat anything atop the bar”. Everything on the bar here was a visual masterpiece. Soft boiled eggs, foie and lots of seafood feature here, with everything done very prettily. Ask for a plate, then load up. Most of the bite sized bits require heating before serving, which they do for you quickly. Our highlight here was actually dessert; the ‘Bob Limon’. A very airy sponge of lemon made to look like tripe, lemon cream with a blob of passionfruit that bursts in your mouth that looks like an egg, and a fig roll designed to look like chorizo. Afterwards, a palate cleanser of a szechuan button flower bud will leave your entire mouth zinging in surprise!
Websites for more information: