San Sebastian and its vicinity has the most Michelin-starred restaurants of any city in Spain, but you came to eat pintxos, right? For a fraction of the cost, you can easily fill up on a staggering variety of delicious little bites as you make your way through this picturesque cobblestoned city. But for all of the fine dining fans out there, I’ve included a bit of both.
PINTXOS (PINCHOS OR TAPAS) BARS
In this Basque neck of the Spanish woods, people eat “pintxos” (pronounced “pinchos”, Basque for tapas), and there are plenty of places in the Parte Vieja (old part of town) to make a proper “txikiteo” (pintxos-crawl)...many of the best can be found along the Mayor and Calle 31 de Agosto, which radiate perpendicularly from in front of the gothic Eglise Santa Maria.
Barrio Gros, which is across the Rio Urumea from Centro and Old Town.
General Artetxe, 8. +34 943 27 50 26. (Spanish and Basque only)
A San Seb institution for the more classic selection, ie spreads on bread on platters at the bar, and then order the hot items separately. The signature creation is the so-called false lasagna, which is a layered anchovy and ratatouille slice. Table seating available.
Stone’s throw from Bar Bergara in Barrio Gros. Calle Bermingham, 24. +34 943 290 818.
An absolute must, this is exquisitely presented, MODERN eclectic “alte cocina en miniatura” (“haute cuisine in miniature”, just take a look at some of the pix on their website, stunning stuff). Signature plates are the Chipiron en Equilibrio (see right) and the warm sea urchin served in its shell. Please don’t miss out on this truly awesome dining experience. Bar and table seating.
Other top pintxos places by popular consensus (never enough time!)
Parte Vieja (Old Town)
La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28. +34 943 420 840.
One of the most popular bars among locals and tourists. The foie “cuchara” (seared foie gras) is the speciality of the house.
Calle 31 de Agosto, 7. +34 943 426 394.
THE place in town to sample Jabugo hams, with scores hanging above the bar, and there’s a wide selection of bocadillos (sandwiches) too.
Calle de San Jerónim, 21. +34 943 422 575
Wild mushroom dishes are the main draw.
Calle de Pescadería, 5. +34 943 422 227
The anchovy specialist, the signature dish is the fresh anchovies marinated in olive oil and served on toast, but the humble sprat is interpreted in dozens of different ways.
Bar Goiz Argi
Calle Fermin Calveton, 4. +34 943 425 204.
Brochetas de gambas (skewered shrimp) and morcilla (blood sausage) are the specialities here.
Calle Zabaleta, 55. +34 943 321 656.
This place nabbed top prize at the 2009 El campeonato de pinchos (Pintxos Championships of Gipuzkoa) with their Vieira con Berberechos, Citricos y su Aire (scallop with cockles, citrus and air).
Bar Patio de Ramuntxo
Calle Peña y Goñi, 10. + 34 943 321 661
Dishes might include foie gras risotto, razor clams with lemon sorbet.
Calle Zabaleta, 55. +34 943 320 329.
Huevos estrellados (“broken” eggs, which comes as an individual casserole of potatoes and mushrooms topped with a fried egg).
FOR A “PROPER” SIT-DOWN MEAL
River end of the Old Town. Euskal Herria, 6. +34 943 422 852.
This was a local recommendation from the people we met at Zapirain (where we stopped for lunch on the way from Santander to San Seb), after we told them we wanted the best place in town for a proper chuleta buey (beef chop). These people are the chuleta specialists! and it was nothing short of perfection: charred salty crust and meltingly tender inside. We also had a terrific order of almejas a la marinera (clams) to start, steamed in white wine, garlic and tons of parsley. The other speciality is the rape en salsa verde (monkfish with green sauce).
THE MICHELIN CROWD
Avenida Alcalde Elosegui, 273. +34 943 278 465.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a reservation at this family-run (father Juan Mari and daughter Elena are the chefs) three-star (since 1989), but it’s acclaimed worldwide for its innovative ‘nueva cocina vasca” (new Basque cuisine), of which many consider Juan Mari to be the godfather. Closed: June 14-July 1, Nov 1-25.
Martín Berasategui ***
Loidi Kalea, 4. Lasarte-Oria. +34 943 366 471.
Three more Michelin stars here...but to be honest, the food was so good just kicking around town, we were kind of underwhelmed by the pricey, fussy food in a pretty staid, soulless environment in a random residential neighborhood 20 minutes from San Seb. That being said, we did have a few interesting dishes but were traumatized by a squirting squid ink ravioli that blacked out our tongues (not the most appetizing look) and then the hake “pil pil”, a regional speciaiity with a very gelatinous consistency that’s definitely an acquired taste/texture. To be honest, I’ve kind of gone off the whole production line approach of these kinds of places.
P Padre Orcolaga, 56. +34 943 311 209.
Yet another three-star spot, Pedro Subijana’s acclaimed culinary “witchcraft” consists of seasonal seafood dishes with floor-to-ceiling views of the Cantabrian Sea.
Otzazulueta baserria. Aldura aldea 20 zk. - Errenteria. +34 943 522 455 /943 518 343.
Though lagging one Michelin star behind the others, this highly acclaimed two-star ranked #4 in The 2009 San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants behind compatriots El Bullli (#1) but in front of neighbor Arzak (#8). Former El Bulli apprentice and ex-head chef of Martín Berasategui Andoni Luis Aduriz is at the helm.
*Other notable Michelin-starred restaurants in town include:
-Kokotxa (Campanario, 11. www.restaurantekokotxa.com)
-Mirador de Ulia (www.miradordeulia.es/)
-Miramon-Arbelaitz (Mikeletegi, 53. www.arbelaitz.com).
OUTSIDE SAN SEBASTIAN
c/ Igualdegi, 3. Lekeitio. +34 946 840 255
On our way to San Seb along the coastal drive form Santander airport, we made a pitstop here mid-afternoon. A couple locals we flagged down at the harbour literally led us to the front door of this place. Totally quiet because at the tail end of lunch and the food was just UNREAL. The best grilled Dover sole (lenguado a la plancha) we’ve had to this day (and that’s huge considering we lived in London for 4+ years where it is done very well), simply grilled with a wedge of lemon, and then an order of grilled clams. Nice range of homemade desserts and intriguing decor too as the owner is a big jai alai fanatic.
Plaza San Juan, 1. Axpe-Marzana. +34 946 583 042.
In 1989, chef Victor Arguinzoniz took over the then-abandoned and crumbling 18th century farmhouse and gave it a simple, modern facelift. His speciality is “la brasa” (the grill), and he employs many different woods to impart distinct flavours to his seasonal cuisine.
Where to Eat: Shanghai
Like a kid in a candy store! Our first stop on the crawl was all-time classic Bar Bergara
Chowing down at Bar Bergara
Alona Berri’s famed “Chipiron en Equilibrio”. To be eaten in this order from right to left: squid risotto disc, pink peppercorn lacy caramel, skewered confit onion-stuffed calamari, then the squid infused soup shot.
Lots of freshly cured and salted anchovies at rustic Bar Bergara
More artful elegance at Alona Berri (who doesn't love whole sea urchin!)
Is this for real? A whole nother level of refinement at our all-round favorite Alona Berri
The barkeep/server at Bar Bergara
Precious food and pressed tablecloths at the sedate Michelin-starred Martin Bersategui, but we preferred the more relaxed, convivial pinxtos bars back in town
Pinxtos bar in the Parte Vieja