San Sebastián is many things as I discovered on our recent trip late last year: A beautiful city with stunning beaches; an area of cultural heritage with history seeping out of its cobbled streets as well as museums, art galleries and churches; and it’s also extremely family friendly with plentiful playgrounds to amuse young children, a buzzing promenade and even a fairground.
But it’s San Sebastián’s world-famous cuisine that’s the main reason why millions of visitors flock to this Basque region of Spain. San Sebastián houses some of the best Michelin-starred restaurants on the planet, including Martin Berasategui, Arzak, Mugaritz and Akelarre. While I would have loved to have had a plush dinner in one of these revered establishments, they’re not exactly child-friendly. Diners book many months in advance and pay a small fortune to enjoy their meals at a slow, pleasant pace, plus the food would be too rich for young palettes.
No matter, because it’s the everyday food eaten in the local pintxos bars, over 50 of them and counting, that can also take you to culinary heaven. They’re loud and busy, and open to children at all times of the day. We didn’t have one bad dining experience… and that’s no exaggeration.
Back in the early noughties, San Sebastian was a relatively unknown Spanish City – but surely and quickly, the secrets of its divine cuisine was revealed to the world and, even though I’ve read prices are now hiked up, while standards have slipped, I would have to disagree.
Sure, the pintxos are a little more expensive in the Old Town rather in neighbouring Gros – but they still only cost around €2-€3 each. Meanwhile, I’m told the crowds can be trying and claustrophobic during the high season, so my advice would be to avoid the scuffles and visit outside the Summer months – these pintxos bars are pretty tiny.
We sampled quite a mountain of delicacies over our week in the city – mostly in the local bars but in some restaurants, too. I was concerned that Monkey would struggle to eat a decent meal, but luckily, he was open to trying new things and in the end croquettes (potato, cheese and ham), pulpo (octopus), tortilla (egg and potato omelette) and beef cheeks became a firm favourite for our little guy.
If you’re unsure of the etiquette of going into a pintxos bar, firstly let me explain what exactly a pintxos is. You’ve all heard of tapas – well pintxos are similar. They’re small snacks made with the finest of ingredients. Things such as iberico ham and soft boiled egg on bread, cod cheeks, or gildas (a classic Basque combo of fat olive, anchovy and pickled pepper on a stick). Apparently, the etiquette is to only have a few pintxos per one drink, but where’s the fun in that?
It’s as simple as wandering into a bar, grabbing a plate, helping yourself and finding a good corner to stand in – seats are quite hard to come by. Let the bartender know, and order any hot dishes, too, and amazingly, they’ll remember what you’ve eaten and even deliver your hot food to you without batting an eyelid. It works on a honesty policy, so you pay for your food and drink after you’ve eaten.
The fun and exciting part is popping into as many bars as possible or as much as your stomach can take. And if you’re greedy like me, it’s impossible not to order just a little something to be washed down with the fabulously fragrant and moreish wine that is so inexpensive and of a high calibre.
With a fabulous location across from the stunning Santa Maria Church, Atari attracts the crowds. We came here for both lunch and dinner, and enjoyed the buzzy ambience alongside the colossal gin & tonics. Foodwise, we ate salty squid, revueltos – scrambled eggs and great patatas bravas for Monkey. Sitting outside is a great treat if you’re lucky enough to get a table – which we did one afternoon. Monkey happily ran around on the church’s steps while we sipped our drinks and nibbled.
Mayor 18 Nagusia
Bar Borda Berri
This tiny bar hasn’t got a huge selection but we really enjoyed drinking the draught beer, while we tucked into their famous carrillera de ternera (braised calf cheeks in wine) with fresh bread and their creamy mushroom risotto made with idiazabal – a local cheese made from ewe’s milk.
Fermin Calbetón 12
We first heard and saw the crowds after arriving back to our apartment one night. Situated on our street, we made a point of popping in the following day. Award-winning Zeruko is known for its experimental take on the traditional pintxos and there’s an ecclectic mix on offer in this trendy Old Town bar. I really enjoyed the langoustine, octopus, and the La Hoguera – a smoked cod cooked over coal. My husband loved the black pudding.
Pescaderia 10 Street
A traditional institution and considered one of the Old Town classics. A great selection of simple pintxos made from local ingredients. We just went for the main fare on offer, and in fact it was the mushroom and cheese croquettes that went down a storm with us all – they were certainly the best we tasted. Ganbara is also well-known for its wild mushroom plates.
San Jerónima Street
Another old-school pintxos bar, we adored the relaxed atmosphere and the hanging iberico hams above the bar. Monkey loved it in here – he attracted a lot of attention and scoffed two platefuls of the sublime, melt in your mouth beef cheeks. We liked the sirloin steak pintxos and black pudding and tucked into a lot of charcuterie. There’s also a restaurant at the back for more formal dining.
31 de Agosto Street
La Cuchara de San Telmo
We actually stumbled upon this bar hidden away from the main thorough-fare and saw it was fit to bursting with people. So we knew it was a good find. There are no pintxos on display here, instead you order from the blackboard and watch the chefs prepare in the kitchen. The bartender was very helpful and we went with her suggestion of the foie gras with compota de manzana (apple compote) and the pig’s ear. Very meaty, very rich and simply sumptuous.
Calle de 31 de Agosto 28
Okay, so this isn’t a traditional pintxos bar and is in fact located on La Concha beach but it has the most wonderful views across the sea on their two terraces – and an extensive international menu. So if you’re feeling a little weary of Spanish morsels, this is a good alternative. We went here for lunch when Monkey insisted he wanted a burger and chips. Price-wise it was a little more expensive but not wildly so. We spent a pleasant few hours taking in the scenery – and it was nice to be able sit at a table for a change.
Edif. La Perla, Paseo la Concha s/n
You can’t go to San Sebastián and not try La Viña’s legendary baked cheescake loved by locals and tourists alike. We were stunned to see at least 20 of them lined up on the shelves near the kitchen and even more so when people were coming in to buy them whole. It’s creamy, light and mousse-like in texture was out of this world. We devoured ours in an instant – and went back again for more!
31 de Agosto Street
Situated at the Hotel Nizza, this amazing find was the only restaurant we went to that came close to fine dining. We decided to opt for their three course lunch menu – and were blown away by the execution and experience. I went for pork, seabass and a chocolate mousse cake. We ordered Monkey mushroom tortellini but it wasn’t to his taste – so we happily finished it for him. Narru may not have any michelin-stars but our meal and the service were excellent and, at such a reasonable price – €30 for three courses – it won’t break the bank.
Calle Zubieta, 56 Paseo de la Concha s/n
Touted as one of the best bakeries in San Sebastián, I would have to agree. The little tables nestled outside not far from the main promenade are perfect for watching the world go by (if you’re lucky enough to grab one), the sweet treats, pastries, and cakes all look divine. We enjoyed the lemon meringue and almond tart. Monkey couldn’t resist the ice cream and chocolate truffles. Oiartzun also does good, strong coffee and is open for breakfast.
Ijentea Kalea, 2
After a whole morning enjoying the San Sebastián Aquarium, we came across Portaletas on our way back to the Old Town near the harbour. We were desperate to get out of the rain and were drawn to the large seating area (so rare in most pintxos bars). What we also noticed was several families with young children enjoying the substantial selection of dishes on offer. The pulpo was particularly tender and tasty, as was the pimento cod. We liked being able to sit down in more of a restaurant setting and the staff were friendly and helpful.
Puerto Kalea, 21
Sirimiri Atari Akademy
The sister bar to Gastroleku, Sirimiri is much smaller in size and is well-known for cocktails. It’s a popular night spot but nevertheless, this was the first pintxos bar we went to after we arrived. It was a quiet time in the afternoon, but the staff were friendly and explained what we had to do. As soon as we chowed down into the ham rolls filled with cheese, and the fresh anchovies, washed down with wine, we knew we were going to enjoy our holiday.
Calle Mayor, 18
Have you been to San Sebastián and eaten your weight in pintxos? Are there any pintxos bars and restaurants that you would add to the list?