As promised, I’d provide a little list of my favorite places to eat & drink from my last trip to Spain. My last post perhaps seemed a bit strong and slightly negative about Italy. But feelings, like the moon, have their phases and moments. It’s safe to say I have a justifiable love-hate relationship with lady Italia. I think all of us who have spent more than 5 minutes on the ground can relate.
I personally prefer honestly rather than having a happy-go-lucky game face all the time. We’re all human experiencing ebbs and flows in life- why pretend everything is peachy keen all the time?
Moving on back to San Sebastian aka Donostia- I’ll be super clear to remind anyone reading I’m no expert on Spanish or Basque food culture. I live for marvelous food and research where to eat more than which museums are open. What I was amazed by was how advanced the Spanish (or Basque) are in terms of food culture compared to the Italians.
The pinxto bar culture puts the Italian unappetizing aperitivo buffets down the toilet. As I mentioned in the last post, the food scene in Donostia tends to be dominated by pinxtos (basque for snacks) and haute cuisine fine dining. After Kyoto, Japan- San Sebastian is the city with the highest concentration of Michelin star restaurants.
While I did have the pleasure to eat at one star Mirador de Ulia for my birthday, I’d say my most memorable bites were had at the bustling traditional bars & simple restaurants, which will be the focus of this post.
Most of my meals were had standing, unless I lucked out at one of the few tables but you get used to it and learn not to wear cute strappy high heel shoes lest you like achey ankles and feet.
I did take a food tour on my first night with Mimo San Sebastian and then a Haute Cuisine Cooking Class led by a chef with a Michelin-star restaurant background. I would recommend them for tours and classes.
I miss those 5 days perusing local bars, strolling the waterfront, getting way too much sun and getting put to sleep thanks to Txakoli. Can I please go back in time?
In San Sebastian, the old town is packed with bars (and tourists, but the hungry kind) lined with snack plates of finger foods like toasts topped with hand-cut sheets of jamon or seafood, grilled meats, gildas (spears of pickled peppers, olives & anchovies), cheeses, fried baby squid, etc.
The way it works is you ask for a plate, pick out your pinxtos which range from 2-4eu a pop and order wine, ideally Txacoli which is a local white bone-dry wine with a hint of fizz. Honestly, pinxtos weren’t always my thing and I preferred to order raciones (small plates) off the menu. After eating at nearly every bar possible in the historical center, here were my most memorable picks:
Bar Sport- I loved pretty much everything here from the pinxtos to the raciones, especially the cheese and jamon tower kebab pinxtos, salmon & crab toasts and raciones (pictured above) of grilled baby squid (txipis a la plancha), fried calamari & blistered peppers (pimientos de Gernika) covered in flake salt which is the only salt worth having. Address: Fermin Calbeton, 10
Atari Gastroteka- Come here for one dish: Carrilera, veal cheeks that practically fall apart in the wine sauce it was cooked in. They seemed to have a few vermouths worth pining for but you may have limited bar time and vermouth is best consumed before lunch around these parts as an appetite primer. Address: Calle Mayor, 18
La Cepa- Great spot for bocadillos (Spanish for sandwiches, especially go for the warm ones with local cheese and jamon iberico) and I personally enjoyed their pinxtos of tomato-rubbed jamon finger sandwiches and grilled sardines. Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 7, http://www.barlacepa.com
Sirimiri Gastroleku- If you’re a vermouth enthusiast like me- promise me 2 things: only have vermouth before lunch or if you insist, before dinner with a couple spears of gildas (small peppers, anchovies & olives) and stop by Sirimiri for an inviting selection of small-batch Spanish vermouths. I found it somewhat of a struggle to find spots who had an ample selection of local vermouth and who didn’t default to industrial Martini vermouth which I think is sugary cola spiked with rubbing alcohol. Address: Calle Mayor, 18
Gandarias- Holy moly, I could have stayed here all night eating plates of buttery soft savory jamon iberico, tomato salad and pimientos de piquillo (roasted peppers). I had a steak pinxto I could have lived without, to be perfectly honest. Great meat quality, poor butchery skills at least the night I went. Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23
La Viña- Go here for dessert as it is famous for a local version of crust-less cheesecake, tarta de queso. Some locals told me that aside from the cheesecake, the locale isn’t worth much else of your hard-earned appetite. Pair with some sherry and you’ll be mighty merry. Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 3
Borda Berri- This was umami heaven for me. They weren’t afraid to play with soy, sesame, bacon, crab and other 5th flavor glutamate rich delights. I suggest being patient and holding out for a stool and counter space to eat your heart out one small plate at a time. My favorites here was the bacon lobster pastry pocket ravioli and the sesame soy seared tuna belly. Address: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12
Goiz Argi- I went here for one thing brocheta de gambas (grilled prawns on a stick with a sort of savory compote atop) but ended falling in food lust with another- Mari Juli: a toast of smoked salmon, anchovy and pepper. They are so flavor rich, you could split one and cheers with another. Address: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 4
Bar Txepetka- This is quite possibly my most memorable snack bar. I love anchovies and this spot is known for doing flavor-packed toasts of anchovies slathered in a spider crab cream. It was small but it was 3 minutes of tasty heaven for me. I also thoroughly enjoyed their anchovy toast with sea urchin. Address: Calle Pescaderia 5
La Mejillonera- I didn’t make it here because it was constantly crowded, but I fawned over other more patient souls who snagged portions of patatas bravas and they are supposedly the best place in town to the mayo tabasco covered potatoes. Calle del Puerto, 15
If you’re into Basque cheese (if you aren’t you should be), I liked the plates they did at Zumeltzegi, as it came accompanied with fresh walnuts and quince paste. Address: C/ Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 15
Getting to San Sebastian is really easy, you can fly into Bilbao or Biarritz and take a bus into San Sebastian/Donostia. They have a tiny airport which is usually connected with other Spanish cities. I flew from Barcelona to Bilbao and took a bus (which was pretty scenic albeit long) but going out I flew from San Sebastian/Donostia to Barcelona which was a lot easier. If I could do it again, I’d fly in/out of Biarritz unless I wanted to spend time in Bilbao, which is an art mecca for those whose lives don’t revolve solely around food.
Where to stay: I’d say stay in the historical old town if you don’t mind noisy streets,I was on Calle Puerto and the noise didn’t bother me. Could have been that I was knocked out from enough Txakoli every night to not be bothered.
I don’t recommend Airbnb unless it is your last resort, there is a problem in Spain (and well, everywhere) with locals turning their apartments into Airbnb business/revenue streams. You may feel like you’re staying in a small hostel, with unexperienced hosts. I.e. hotel concierge are professionals and scrappy Airbnb hosts who are just looking to turn cash on their apartment are 2 different experiences.
Most hosts in Spain seem to snatch up flats with multiple rooms, rent out other rooms dedicated to other travelers rather than ONE private room in an flat with other locals. There is some local hostility towards airbnb as this “platform” is pricing out locals and causing rental and property costs to skyrocket.
The caveat with San Sebastian is being a small (perfect) city, accommodation fills up quick. I’d suggest to book as far as in advance as humanly possible, at least 3 months for prime accommodation for reasonable rates.
I highly recommend anyone who loves food, life, ocean and lively people to make a trip over the Spanish Basque country. San Sebastian is just a blip in all that coastal area has to offer. I will be back!
In your viva la vida trust,