I first visited this gem of a town in 2006 and have been back on an almost yearly basis since. From trips including weekend breaks, work trips, my 30th, my parent's 60th birthdays, a 40th and even a very civilised stag do thrown in for good measure and most recently this past month. For me, it's one of the greatest food cities on earth. I'd like to think I'm the only person that knows about it and only I have the knowledge of where to go and what to eat but alas, it's just not so. See lots of us have been and If you like your food or work in the industry then you've probably have been and have had a taste of how great this town is (for those of you that haven't been. GO, just book it!). So I thought it was about time I shared some of my favourite places of where to eat whenever I'm in town.
Peak times in San Sebastián are between May and October and it can get very busy on the weekends so flying out mid to late April or late October for me is the best time to go. It's just starting to get busy or slowing down with mainly locals out, you can get a table/perch within 10 minutes or less in every bar, car hire and accommodation are at a better rate and flights can be nearly half price. The only thing you will be missing out on is a bit of summer sun.
We (the wife and friend's Matt and Carolina) booked our flights a month before flying from Stansted Airport to Bilbao with Easyjet (£48 return), and had arranged to a hire car at the airport (£6 per day) and our accommodation being a two bedroom apartment in the Old Town from Airbnb. Make sure to grab yourself acoomodation in the Old Town or nearby to keep it all within walking distance and personally I feel an apartment gives you a little more freedom especially if you plan to do any cooking as we did and it can work out more than half the price of a hotel room.
The drive to San Sebastián takes about 90 minutes with a toll on the way or a non-toll drive taking around 2 and half hours. A secured parking can be found around town for €12-€20 a night. There is also a bus you can catch directly from Bilbao airport to San Sebastián for €15 each way but with four of us in tow it actually worked out the same price to hire a car including parking and petrol for four days as it was to get 8 single fares on the bus.
WHERE TO EAT?
Most pintxo bars are to be found in the Old Town, but never dismiss the Centre and Gros (new town) as many a delight can be found there too (I highly recommend the volcano of black pudding from Hidalgo 56. The 'lava' is an egg yolk on the top ;). An essential guidebook to take which can also can be purchased at many of the bars is 'The Pintxo Trail' which lists each bar's 'hero' dish and is a really helpful guide especially if it is your first visit. Most bars are self-service with cold offerings, picking your own pintxos, eating and then paying with an 'honesty policy' of how many you devoured off the bar. Although these tasty treats look like a 'little picker's dream' all layered in neat rows, taking up the entire space of the bar, screaming different colours and amazing flavours at you, the trick is to order hot pintxos from the menus chalked on the walls and this is when the food really steps up a gear. With hot offerings such as octopus, veal cheeks, pigs ears, hake cheeks, salt cod, foie gras, morcilla (black pudding), baby squid and offal... it's a foodie's utopia. Pintxos will generally cost you around €1-3 each.
Before we begin, this isn't so much of a guide to San Sebastián but more like my 'Perfect Night Out in San Sebastián'. A gluttonous eating and drinking journey, one meal spread across five bars which are all based in the Old Town with no more than 2-5 minutes walk between each (obviously many of you who have been will have different views but this is not about you, this is my perfect meal ;). I hope you find the idea of this as appealing as it was to us, on the walk/waddle back to the apartment we all concurred that this was the most epic of meal adventures we had ever embarked on. And just so you know, be prepared to stand. Apart from the first meal we happily stood up for all the courses resting on high tables or bars. And leave your manners behind and follow Basque tradition, once finished with your napkin, raise into the air and throw it to the ground or under the bar.
So let's begin... As always my first stop upon arriving is La Cepa, I think this may have been the first bar I ever came to in San Sebastián and there are many other bars like it but it will always be my first port of call, the staff are really friendly, food is great and they have the traveller's god-send, free wi-fi so a great place to check in after traveling. As a tradition I always kick off with a large plate of Jamon de Bellota, (acorn-fed pure breed Iberico ham) the flavour is rich and complex and a real delicacy paired with a plate of manchego cheese. The buttery texture of the manchego working so well with the ham. All rounded of with a chilled bottle of rioja to wash it all down. Ham, cheese and wine BOOM... What a start!
Next, it's onto Bar Borda Berri and it's all about extremely intense slow cooked dishes using Basque and international flavours and technics. I can vouch for this and they certainly do not disappoint creating tasting dishes like the famous 'crunchy' pig's ear, pork rib kebab, cod tripe, melt in your mouth veal cheeks, mushroom risotto, squid ink ravioli and the most tender octopus I have ever tasted all served on little plates seasoned perfectly with sauces, garnishes and the most flavoursome of local olive oils. The pig's ear is one of the best dishes I've tasted and Matt with who we travelled with returned on a daily basis just for this dish. I believe we ordered one of each and supped half pints of local beer all poured with that perfect European frothy head. The place has attitude in the coolest of ways, rock-n-roll cuisine if you know what I mean. To the owners; Iñaki Gulin & Marc Clua, I salute you both. WOW!
For the third course and having to peel ourselves away from Borda Berri! We head to Ganbara, who are known to have one of the most varied and mouth-watering menus in the town. Famous and in high demand for their baked spider crab tartlet (A must!). They have a restaurant out back and it's always busy packed with locals with an oven in one of the corners adding even more drama to the bar. As we muscle our way through the crowds we found a corner on the bar and stumbled upon a mountain of seasonal mushrooms. We looked at the barman and gave him a look of 'we'll have some of that please' he nodded knowingly, wrote something down and poured us theatrically from a height some local white wine called txakoli. A couple of minutes later our dish arrived and it's a purist's dream. A plate of sliced and fried wild mushrooms perfectly seasoned garnished only with an egg yolk. Simple and brilliant!
So now for mains and Bar Néstor was where we were to head. Established in 1980 and famous for their potato tortilla where only two large ones are made a day at 12:00pm and 8:00pm and they sell quickly so best to get there early. It's a fairly limited menu and in no way is that a bad thing. I recommended trying two dishes, their aged steak and heirloom tomato salad. We managed 'luckily' to grab a table, standing on the street directly by the serving hatch. We mentioned steak and before we knew it our friendly barman had thrust a platter full of Cote de Boeuf in front of us. All aged, dark with perfect marbling. We chose, well, the biggest one of course and ordered the tomato salad and gernika peppers for sides with a belting big bottle of rioja thrown in for good measure. A lot of chat and a second rioja later, through the hatch a sizzling skillet of sliced steak and bone appeared. Perfectly cooked and swimming in its cooking juices. We hastily ordered more bread so nothing would be lost. The sides were on par too, tomato salad being simply chopped tomatoes in quarters soaked in extra virgin olive oil and seasoned with salt only (For you non-tomato fans, salt really does change how a tomato tastes folks, try it) and the gernika green peppers sautéed and salted (differing from padrón peppers with the Russian roulette of sweet and spicy, gernika are always sweet and a little longer in appearance too). It's probably the first time I've ever had a steak without chips or mash. But don't fear, I got me carbs from that extra bread we ordered to mop up all those juices remember. Rustic cooking with big earthy flavours we couldn't have been happier. I remember one of us saying when finishing our last mouthful and placing knives and forks down 'that was quite something eh?!' It couldn't have been put better. A big nod to the owners; Tito, Nestor and staff who are extremely friendly and are part of what makes this place so great and why people keep coming back.
And for the last hurrah... Dessert! The girls had declared they were 'too full for pudding' but I knew we had some room in us and there was only one place to go, La Viña. Run by Santi Rivera this traditional bar offers traditional Basque fare like croquettes, classic fish soup and clams in green sauce. The Russian salad is a favourite and the cheese and anchovy cone (looking like a mini flake 99 with the cheese as the ice cream piped into a cone and a whole anchovy as the flake) is a fun and tasty bite. But most people are here for one thing, the tarta de queso or baked cheesecake. A well-guarded secret that they will never give out "we don't give out the recipe" is said with an almost 'how many times do I have to say...' It's an utterly dreamy, no biscuit/crunchy base, just a baked filling, I'll try to describe... From the outside in you start with a burnt crust, then the filling starts with a little soufflé like around the edges and then into a super smooth set middle. And the taste is sweet, creamy with a touch of sourness to it. But what makes it even better is that it perfectly matches with Pedro Ximénez, just ask them and they will know what to give you. The two together are insanely good with the sweetness from the wine against the cheese. Our journey was now complete, JOB DONE! On the walk back to the apartment I couldn't stop thinking about the taste and texture of that cheesecake and it continued into my sleep, so much so that I dragged the wife there early doors for a cheesecake breakfast. But to be fair she hardly put up much of a fight. FYI as it was too early a glass of wine you'll be pleased to know it worked just as well with coffee.
To recap my 'perfect meal' in San Sebastián's pintxo bars are...
La Cepa - plate of Iberico jamon & Manchego Cheese with bottle of rioja
Bar Bordi Berri - Crunchy pigs ear, octopus, pork rib, sweetbread ravioli (just order everything)
Ganbara - Fried seasonal mushrooms and egg yolk
Bar Nestor - Aged beef rib chop, tomato salad and gernika green peppers (eat on the street if possible ;)
La Viña - Baked cheescake with dessert wine
WHAT TO DRINK?
A slightly sparkling Basque white wine called txakoli – this is a light and dry wine that goes hand in hand with most pintxos. When txakoli is poured, the bottle is held from a height creating an impressive two-foot stream into a tall glass. This helps to aerate the wine, creating more bubbles. Other choices include rioja or 1/2 pint beers, they will ask if you want a full pint (probably asked because I am British) but I would recommend sticking with the halves, while a glass of wine or beer will set you back a mere €1.5 - €3.
Craft Beer too? I was lucky to find Basque Brewing Project. I'm never one to say no to a local independent brew and this hoppy little IPA is a winner. A few bars stock it the fridge so watch out for it.
Gin and tonics. Served in those ginormous gold fish bowl type glasses with a tiny bit of tonic to go with your gin ;) A must for all G&T lovers.
Other than eating and drinking, make sure to walk about and explore the streets or even take a walk on either of the beaches. In fact, you might need to as be aware that nearly all the pintxos bars shut between 3-7 leaving you choices of either finding a bar and drinking through until everything opens again or sightseeing or taking a deserved siesta yourself. You can even try some surfing at San Sebastian's Zurriola Beach which offers courses for beginners and also holds national and international championships, attracting surfers from all over the world. But back to food again and a must to try is La Brexta Market situated in Old Town.
It is an underground cave filled with chef and foodie delights split into three sections; fish, meat and delicatessen. The fish section is especially beautiful and eye opening with offerings of monkish, hake, sole, snapper, roes, cheeks, salt cod and just about every type of shellfish and mussel you can imagine all laid out in ‘shop window’ esq displays worthy of an award. The markets perfect for you to stock up on cured meats, cheeses, wine and other countless goodies from the region. There’s even a well-known supermarket down there which is really handy to pick up on staples for the weekend. Upstairs and outside is where local traders sell fruit and veg with many proudly claiming that it was picked that morning from their own gardens. It's impossible not to be inspired by the produce available, the region is so fertile that you can’t help but want to cook with it. We spent about two hours walking around tasting and asking questions before finally filling our bags and heading back to the apartment to prepare a feast all cooked with usual sparse rented accommodation utensils of 1 baking tray, 1 chopping board, 2 saucepans, 1 frying pan and 2 very blunt knives.
SIDE TRIP TO GETARIA.
Between San Sebastian and Bilbao, I cannot recommend highly enough the fishing port of Gretinia. I make an obligatory stop there for Sunday lunch on every visit for what we have come to refer to as ‘Basque Fish and Chips'. See down by the harbour in this little port town are about 4-5 restaurants that all specialise in whole fish (usually turbot and monkfish) cooked over coals outside on asadores. They arrive directly from the boats, placed over the coals, then whisked to the kitchen where they are quickly filleted and seasoned with dressing of lemon juice, olive oil and fried garlic. I always order a side of chips to complete the dish and a bottle of local txakoli. The fish is cooked to perfection and eating outside with friends next to the sea is never a bad thing is it.