The ultimate foodie playground is not a title to bestow lightly on a city. Yet San Sebastian more than lives up to this greedy claim.
What’s more, it is refreshingly inexpensive to eat here, especially if you balance pintxos (mini tapas) crawls with a couple of splurges at its internationally acclaimed Michelin star restaurants.
The city is host to several Michelin star restaurants, our favourites being Arzak Restaurant (three Michelin stars) and Mugaritz (two Michelin stars) just outside the city in a beautiful oak-tree dotted valley.
But some of the best dining can be found at the local pinxtos restaurants, you just need to know where to look!
A San Sebastian pinxtos and tapas tour
Over the last year I’ve visited San Sebastian three times. Yes, it’s that good. On my first visit we took at tour with Eli of San Sebastian Food (SSF), which is a great way to get local knowledge of the different bars and restaurants.
SSF does day tours, cooking classes and gourmet shopping experiences.
Jon Warren, the founder of SSF, spotted an opportunity after falling so madly for the town that he decided to leave his City job and decamp permanently from London to San Sebastian.
I’d advise a day tour at least as the maze of streets in the Old Town, where most of the pintxos bars are situated, can be incredibly confusing.
It is very easy to miss a recommended bar when there are such lively swarms of people eating and drinking outside.
My SSF tour was huge fun. Jon introduced us to bars in a concentrated hub of the Old Town that each had their own speciality, whether pintxos-sized bites of chuleta (beef chops from Galicia cattle, served rare and incredibly juicy), succulent brochettes of squid, langoustine and bacon, or incomparable tortilla.
Each was suitably accompanied by a different drink from txakoli (a light, petillant wine made with locally grown grapes) to local cider, to Truss, a rather special red wine.
Another great pinxtos stop is in the narrow San Telmo. Dramatically painted in deep pink, the bacalao cheeks and grilled octopus are excellent although the service is a bit gruff.
Far more down to earth is old-school Gandarias with the friendliest staff, best wine by the glass selection and best deal on a ratione (a largish plate) of velvety, acorn-fed Iberico ham.
New bars in San Sebastian
Among the more contemporary pintxos bars, I would return again and again to the inventive Fuego Negro.
Try the spider crab ice cream with avocado in a tiny, stripy paper pot, their deconstructed take on traditional fish stew marmiteko, and dramatic squid ink black ‘bolas’ rings.
Everyone likes to finish with the legendary, ethereally light cheesecake at La Vina, even after a heavy evening of pinxtos indulgence.
Three Michelin star Arzak restaurant
Juan Mari Arzak first put the city firmly on the culinary map with his radical shaking up of traditional Basque cuisine, and Arzak Restaurant continues to lead the way in glo-cal (global meets local) creativity in the stylish yet cosy surrounding of what was a former inn that’s long been in his family.
The restaurant has celebrated its 25th year of three-star status and goes from strength to strength with playful and exciting combinations including chorizo presented on a bashed up tonic can with a bitter raspberry cordial to white tuna with rhubarb and lily.
Strictly seasonal and vegetable-centric dishes include oyster, vegetable and sea pil-pil with anemone and seaweed, or roasted lobster dishes with sweet herbs.
Elkano: the world’s best fish restaurant?
According to Juan Mari Arzak, the best fish grill restaurant in the world is Elkano.
Located in the delightful fishing town of Getaria (an important centre of anchovy fishing) Elkano is less than half an hour from San Sebastian.
It’s now run by the son of its esteemed founder, who pioneered cooking local fish specialities such as kokotka (hake throat) with Basque pil pil (garlic and parsley sauce) on a charcoal grill.
The day’s fresh catch, including gorgeous whole grilled turbot was on the menu when we visited.
There are regular buses or you can grab a taxi from San Sebastian.
The beguilingly simple fish soup, a recipe from their grandmother, is ambrosially intense, and the crème caramel is one of the finest I’ve ever tasted (and I’ve sampled a good many).
San Sebastian jazz festival
For celeb spotting, plan ahead to visit during July’s jazz festival (most concerts including headline names are free and on La Concha beach) or September’s film festival.
Try to cram into Café Oquendo (their Canaries-style potatoes with mojo sauce are delicious) or be content to gaze at photos of the film stars who frequent the old-fashioned cafe with its marble-topped tables.
Asking for a plate and simply collecting a range of cold pintxos as if at a buffet is the height of naffness.
Most people hop from bar to bar, simply having one or two pintxos at each place, singling out specialities or what’s new. However, It is perfectly acceptable to prop up the bar for an afternoon.
You can eat inside or out and it’s OK to throw used paper napkins on the floor.
Don’t ask to pay after each plate: pay at the end and keep a mental note of what’s been eaten and drunk, as the frenetically busy bartenders rely largely on honesty among their customers.