If you are a foodie traveler heading to Europe who cannot wait to explore the delicious offerings of Italy, France or even Denmark, then you my friend, have been completely blindsided. Europe’s foodie destination is also one of its best kept secrets and is nestled in the quiet, unassuming Basque region of northern Spain. Here, bite sized pintxos rub shoulders with the mighty Michelin restaurants and you can savor both ends of this dining spectrum in the beautiful city of San Sebastian. Although this guide is focused mostly on where to find the best pintxos in San Sebastian, I will also be sharing my dining experience at Michelin star restaurants, one of them being extremely budget friendly! So without further ado, let us get started on a self guided San Sebastian pintxo tour where I will be talking more about San Sebastian pintxos, pintxo ordering etiquette 101 (based on my experience) and of course some other tasty spots that I hit up during my visit to this beautiful Basque city as part of this Basque dining guide. The idea is to open up your eyes to the deliciousness that awaits you in Spain’s Basque country, which is an absolute foodie mecca and is well suited for all budgets!
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What are pintxos and why are they worth losing sleep over?
Pintxos (pronounced “pin-chos“) are these tasty bite sized morsels of deliciousness that define the food scene in Basque country. Not to be confused with Tapas/shared small plates from the south that are way more popular internationally as Spanish cuisine, pintxos are finger food consisting mainly of toppings of different kind on a base piece of bread, their deliciousness somehow held together by a tooth pick. These toppings can be anything, i.e., meat, fish (people go nuts over anchovies in this part of Spain), vegetarian (cheese and cooked/roasted/charred veggies) and several combinations thereof. Besides this basic anatomy of a pintxo comprising of bread, cooked/roasted toppings and toothpick, you can also have salad or stew or soupy pintxos served in small bowls. Heck, I even had some paella (the famous Valencian rice dish) served “pintxo style” in one of the bars here! In other words, when it comes to pintxos in San Sebastian, there is no telling on what you will find and given the zillion option, your best bet is to simply go on a pintxo tour to hunt down each and every one of these lip smacking entities! Best of all, they are budget friendly (the price per pintxo being 1.5-3 Euros at most) and hitting two or three pintxo bars in one night will ensure that you leave smiling and satisfied with a full belly! If you happen to be at one of the many San Sebastian pintxo bars offering happy hour, buying a beer/glass of wine gets you accompanying pintxos for free, which means more happy dance for your purse/wallet!
Best pintxos in San Sebastian and where to find them
Now that you know about the miracle that are pintxos, the logical question to ask would be, where can you find these bites of happiness? Although San Sebastian has no dearth of pintxo bars all over, any local worth his/her salt will promptly direct you towards San Sebastian old town where the tiny cobbled lanes are brimming over with pintxo bars and other amazing restaurants. Some of the best pintxo bars in the city are located right here and so this gastronomic hotbed is also the perfect venue for your San Sebastian pintxo tour! I have provided a Google map with this post (scroll below) for all the pintxo bars that I managed to hit during my stay (which was well over a week for work and then vacation) to assist you in your quest for the best pintxos in San Sebastian. I started my pintxo tour with Borda Berri, the super popular bar which is famous for its pig ears (yes, I tried them and lived to tell the tale) in case you are feeling really adventurous. This dish comes as a soft, tasty slab of meat (nothing visually gross to turn you off) and I loved the fatty goodness! Then I ate my way through old town over the next few days at another popular bar Astelena 148, had a nice and quiet meal at the trendy Al Fuego Negro, savored even more pintxos at Bar Ganbara, went bonkers over the amazing spread of colorful pintxos at Sirimiri (a very popular spot right next to the Basilica of Santa Maria), washed down some more of these tasty delights with house cava (Basque’s version of champagne) at Zeruko and jostled with hungry folks to eat my share at other spots like Paco Bueno, La Viña, Gandarias (Gandarias has both a pintxo bar and a restaurant which requires prior reservation). Two other spots that are mention worthy and are not in old town are the laid back Drinka (near the university) and Ama Lur Jatetxea in the neighborhood of Gros, which is the only pintxo bar that serves decent paella in the north! Savvy pintxo lovers will tell you the urban legend of Bar Nestor, a pintxo bar in old town that is famous for its legendary tortilla (that fluffy Spanish omelette people cannot get enough of) which make an appearance at precisely 1 and 8 PM everyday and is gobbled up within minutes of said appearance, thanks to prior reservations by famished folks from as early as two hours ahead of time. I am not a big fan of eggs and given how much we were out and about, we had to give Bar Nestor’s tortilla a miss since we could never be there on time. However, Bar Nestor is considered one of the holy grails of pintxos and so if you are a tortilla lover with the patience of the Buddha, by all means go for it!
I spent a good 7-8 days in San Sebastian, thanks to a conference followed by my personal vacation which is why I could go pintxo crawling at so many of these pintxo bars in old town. If you are short on time, I highly suggest booking a good pintxo tour with a knowledgeable guide or gourmet pintxo tour or even better, a private pintxo tour through old town! For those who love to cook, this pintxo tasting and Basque cooking class tour is another option.
Of all the yummy spots that I hit up during my San Sebastian pintxo crawl, Zeruko and Sirimiri stand out as my favorite ones with some of the best pintxos in San Sebastian. Both of them enticed me with their array of colorful pintxos laid out in the bar (as is the norm for all these places) and each pintxo was delicious! Special mention goes to Al Fuego Negro for its chilled out atmosphere (apart from the tasty food and drinks) that was a big plus after jostling for counter-space with hordes of pintxo enthusiasts everywhere else, thanks to this bar being tucked away in one corner of old town. Read on for more details on how to navigate the hungry crowds and order pintxos, specially if you are a visitor with nearly no knowledge of Spanish!
How to order pintxos: A beginners guide to pintxo bar etiquette
“There is many a slip between the cup and the lip ” is the familiar old adage that sort of applies to ordering pintxos in crowded bars in San Sebastian. Slipping a pintxo in your mouth at a San Sebastian pintxo bar can be a bit of an intimidating task, especially if crowds are not your jam and your Spanish is nothing to be proud of. I am a resilient San Franciscan willing to wait patiently in long lines for my cruffin, but this pintxo ordering game is at a different level altogether where you have to flex some serious ordering chops in a chaotic bar packed with people. However, since I did survive and hit up some odd 10-12 bars with success (and very little knowledge of Spanish), here are some of my handy tips on how to order pintxos in San Sebastian, based strictly on my experience. Everyone does this a little differently and it will vary depending on your temperament and language prowess, but if you love food but hate the sight of a packed bar, you might find these tips helpful in your best pintxos in San Sebastian seeking sojourn.
Tip #1. Arrive early
Here’s the thing: people eat pretty late in this part of the world, aka, Spain. Although the pintxo bars are open by 5:30-6 PM and raring to feed you, people start trickling in only from 8 PM onwards. So before the crowds start swelling at popular places like Sirimiri and Borda Berri, go around 6:30 PM, order a drink, choose your pintxos from the bar (or order off the menu or the daily specials on the board), get a table or stand at the counter and keep munching away!
Tip #2 Reach for the counter
The bar counter is the epicenter of action and you have to make your way up to it to get hold of the menu or choose from the daily spread or simply get the bartenders attention. This last part is of utmost importance since these bartenders are like ninjas: serving drinks, taking your order, keeping an eye on what you are eating and then ringing you up. They are not only unbelievably busy but equally efficient in managing the hundreds of orders placed by waves of hungry folks swelling behind the counter, clamoring for those pintxos.
Once you find a suitable empty spot to wedge yourself at the said counter, hold your breath till you make precious eye contact with the bartender and grab his attention with a wave or smile (be patient and respectful since they are incredibly busy and zipping back and forth with food and drinks). Once ready, the bartender will either toss a menu your way or will ask you to order off the chalk board or will simply point towards the pintxo spread on the counter and ask you to choose. When you figure out the lay of the land (i.e. where to order from), place your order quickly since there are literally many mouths to feed around you. Don’t be shy to ask around, see what others are having and just go with the flow. You will never taste a bad morsel in these above mentioned pintxo bars at San Sebastian, I guarantee it!
Pintxos are often washed down with a drink and it is customary for the bartender to ask you what you’ll be drinking (this is a bar after all); just go with a house wine or beer or the Basque specialities like cava (their sparkling wine) or a tarty sidra (basque apple cider) if you do love a drink or better still, ask the bartender for house specials. After you place your order and get your drink, stay put at your well earned corner or hover around the counter to catch the name of your order when it appears (the bartenders will shout it out since not everyone can be at the counter). Don’t forget to grab napkins since pintxos are greasy finger food and despite this Rick Steve’s San Sebastian video telling you to drop those napkins on the floor, it is absolutely OK to wipe your fingers and then place them on the plate after you are done eating (I did that like others around me and did not get any eye rolls). The bartenders will take the plates away with one fell swoop once you indicate you are done.
Tip #3 Counter spread vs board vs menu
All pintxo bars have commonalities like a nice spread of pintxos on the counter welcoming you as you enter as well as daily specials written on the board. Many of them have menus and if popular enough, they also offer an English menu to visitors who cannot speak Spanish to save themselves (such as Borda Berri, Ganbara and Al Fuego Negro). If you know Spanish, you can confidently order off the board or ask for daily specials that may not be at the counter. Since I did not have the language advantage, I simply used my amazing guesswork (I do eat everything by the way and so it was not a risky move) based on the visuals and literally filled my pintxo plate by pointing at the spread on the counter such as at Zeruko, Ganbara and Sirimiri where beautiful pintxos of all shapes, colors and sizes were vying for my taste buds. When my husband (who prefers vegetarian food) joined me in the latter part of my visit he asked the friendly bartender about the toppings (several bartenders in the popular bars speak some English) and chose the vegetarian pintxos. At other places like Borda Berri and Al Fuego Negro, I was given an English menu to order from. Order the way you are asked (follow the bartender’s instruction) or feel comfortable in, put the pintxos on your plate (or point at them and the bartender will fill it for you), enjoy them and pay after you are done. Most places that I visited accepted credit cards except Borda Berri, which is cash only.
Tip #4 Don’t feel overwhelmed
Eating in Europe is an immensely satisfying culinary experience that should not be rushed and the foodie mecca San Sebastian is no exception. A San Sebastian pintxo crawl needs to be savored and done at leisure, so arrive early, select those pintxos, grab a drink and find a seat. Enjoy your pintxo platter while soaking in the hustle bustle of old town and do not be deterred by the crowds as you hit up the different pintxo bars in your quest for San Sebastian’s best pintxos. Pintxo bars have this mini festive atmosphere with people of all nationalities brought together by the shared love of food. So take it all in between bites and sips and just have a good time like everyone else around you.
Beyond the pintxos: Michelin star restaurants and other yummy spots
I’d be remiss if I did not end this post with a “starry sprinkle” aka Michelin star restaurants because San Sebastian does have the largest number of Michelin star beauties per square meter, next only to Tokyo, Japan. Unlike other parts of the world where dining at such an establishment may cost an arm and a leg, Basque Michelin star restaurants are comparatively more affordable. Case in point being the delicious 34 Euros meal that I had at the charming, yet unassuming Bodegon Alejandro in old town. My dinner included a glass of sparkling cava, a hearty inky seafood stew (gotta get some seafood when on the coast) and some sheep milk dessert which is a regional speciality and which was coagulated in-situ by pouring renin (coagulant) on the milk. Of the several other Michelin star restaurants, the two that stand out prominently are Arzak (considered one of the top 50 restaurants in the world) led by the legendary chef Juan Mari and his daughter Elena Arzak and Akelarre where San Sebastian born Pedro Subijana heads the kitchen. We failed to get a seat at Arzak but had a sumptous tasting menu at Akelarre, overlooking the beautiful Bay of Biscay. My husband got vegetarian and pescatarian substitutions for red meat since he had made the request in advance while reserving our seats. The food was a modern and innovative take on Basque cuisine, which is the mantra in all the Michelin star restaurants here, i.e. fusing creativity with traditional and local ingredients.
Finally, we departed San Sebastian with another excellent lunch at Gerald’s Bar in the neighborhood of Gros, which is a slice of Melbourne in Basque country. The owner Gerald, is an Australian expat who fell in love with this Spanish city three years ago on a visit and decided to open a restaurant in the trendy neighborhood of Gros. Apart from the cosy wood paneled interior, the food was lip-smacking good and our British server lady was super friendly! I highly recommend getting the three course prefixed option (appetizer, entree and dessert) if you are OK with meat (my husband ordered a la carte). My prefixed lunch had a light, flaky cauliflower head that was crunchy yet melted in my mouth, some juicy lamb chops with peas and a dense chocolate souffle type dessert at the end.
I hope this post provided you a glimpse into the delicious world of pintxos and that of modern Basque cuisine with enough ideas on where to find the best pintxos in San Sebastian. Your taste buds will thank you profusely for visiting this foodie haven and you will undoubtedly have some of the best meals of your life in this bustling city where good food and tasty treats await you at every corner. To assist you in your pintxo crawl, here is the Google map showing all the places which I managed to hit up during my stay. BUEN PROVECHO!
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