The best of San Sebastián tapas and pintxos

by mary on March 25, 2013

San Sebastián, blessed with unbelievable natural beauty, great architecture and fabulous food. Add to the this the lively Basque street culture and you are really going to want to go here! Not enough tourists to Spain head north or west to Basque country and they are missing out! There is so much to see and do but today I’m focusing on San Sebastián tapas, or pintxos as they are called here. This is the ultimate expression of tapas culture: hundreds of tapas bars concentrated in a small area, people spilling into the streets with their bites and drinks….a delight to behold! It can be overwhelming for the uninitiated however, so read on for how to best enjoy yourself….

There are so many great places that you could wander around and just do fine, but if you are really looking for some great places read on! There are two peak pintxo times, the first starting before lunch around noon, and the second starting before dinner, around 8PM. The day time one is packed on the weekends but not so great on the weekdays. I’ve always preferred the evening session, as you usually stay and make a night of it!

Most of the bars are standing room only and can be quite full. San Sebastián is know for many bars that display their wares directly on the bar and are self-service. These operate on the honor system. You would help yourself to a tapa or two and order your drink from the staff behind the bar. The sharp staff are usually keeping an eye on what the is being taken by whom! They pintxos may all be the same price or there may be a different color toothpick indicating price….in which case, keep your toothpicks. When you pay you bill, you simply use your fingers or the toothpickss to indicate how many tapas you’ve had. These types of bars, though. they have many pintxos on the bar, also usually have raciones (larger tapas) or hot tapas that must be ordered, and are often listed on a chalkboard on the wall.

Spectacular tapas on display in San Sebastián, Spain

Pintxos and Txakoli wine in San Sebastián

Not all bars are operate on the honor system, some pintxos displayed on the bar, may have to be finished or heated, so when in doubt observe the other clients or ask.

It is typical to stay at one bar just for a few pintxos and one or two rounds of drinks and then move on, in a sort of tapas route. Most bars have a particular specialty and often patrons go from bar to bar just enjoying the specialty of each bar.

Tapas in San Sebastián, Spain

Some bars do have a few tables and though they may seem empty, they are not alway available, see the staff before you sit down. They are usually reserved for those who want to make a full meal of tapas and stay for a while. This can be a nice option if it raining outside…which it frequently is!

The old part is the easiest part to wander and do a tapas route, with the greatest concentration of tapas bars. This is the area between the port and the Cathedral through the Plaza de la Constitución and ending at the old market building, which is now mostly converted to a shopping center. There are lots of other great areas, especially Gros, across the river by the Kursaal, but this is one of the easiest to start in.

Txakoli wine in San Sebastián Spain

The art of pouring Txakoli

The drink situation is usually pretty basic in the pintxo bars. Most people have beer, which can be ordered in a few sizes, but most typical with pintxos is a mini size called the zurito in Basque Country. The bigger normal size is called caña. Another typical drink is sidra, or cider, which is a lightly alcoholic, slightly fizzy version….very different than English hard cider. Finally, my favorite is Txakoli, which is the iconic Basque wine…a light, fresh, slightly spritzy wine not dissimilar in style to vinho verde from Portugal. It is often poured from high into low tumblers, as is the sidra, to bring out the fizz.

I’ve written about how much of the Txakoli wine served in the pintxo bars is not actually from the appellation and the quality can vary a lot, but it’s refreshing, cold and goes really well with the tapas and the moment!

There is a great website called Todo Pintxos, both in Spanish and English, that has all the best bars, pictures of their top pintxos, contact information, maps etc. It also suggests routes and the top pintxos of the week. It is really is very useful.

I’ve just read a great article about experimental tapas in San Sebastián from The Guardian newspaper, suggesting places where you can get some tapas that are a little more sophisticated and cutting edge. Their suggestions all sound great and I’ve added them to my list to try next time I’m up in Donostia. Two I particular stand out. One is Borda Berri, which was opened by a former owner of Cuchara de San Telmo, one of my all time favorite pintxo places, and already very sophisticated indeed. The other is A Fuego Negro, which has been on my go-to list for a while, as I’ve enjoyed their unique food at sister location, Kulto al Plato, in Madrid for some time. Unfortunately a bad location and unrelenting months of bad economic times did Kulto in and they recently closed.

The favorites: I always say I’m going to try new ones and I do but these are the ones I always go bad to for sure so far. Few of these bars have websites but the link I provide is to Todo Pintxo page where you can find a map. All the bars below are in the Parte Viejo or old part.

1. Bar Txepetxa: If there is one pintxo I dream of, it is the Anchoa Jardinera…the perfect fresh, salty, crunchy, silky bite. I love it. This place specializes in vinegar cured anchovies, called boquerones in most of Spain, prepared in different ways on toast. Some are simple, some quite exotic, all are unique and delicious…but my favorite remains the Jardinera! Txepetxa has been around for decades, has won many awards and is always packed! Txakoli is the perfect beverage to wash down these boquerón pintxos, though apparently part of their secret is curing the anchovies in cider!

La Cuchara de San Telmo: A tiny, tiny place with a long list of innovative tapas and decent wines (a rarity here!). This place is always packed like sardines, so it’s a challenge, but well worth the effort. If the weather is good, you can snag your food and eat outside. These are miniature plates, each a delightful and sometimes quite complex bite…or two. There is usually some lovely variation of seared foie, and an arroz cremoso, a Spanish take on risotto, often with a local cheese, such as Idiazabal. There can be costillas (ribs), beef cheeks, squid…all seared and braised to perfection. This is a place to be adventurous…because you’ll love it! The wine list is usually short but solid, Rioja mostly, but nice.

Bar Ganbara: This is one of my favorite honor-system places. There is a wonderful selection of pintxos displayed on the bar when you enter. My favorites are the mini-baguettes and croissants stuffed with jamón ibérico….they make they in fresh batches, so they are often still warm…heaven! When it’s the season, the bar specializes in wild mushrooms so you can order a ración of whatever is on offer and all year they have a version of the Basque specialty, txangurro (crab), in mini-tart form, which is scrumptious!

Egosari: This places specialize in brochettes or skewers. They are all displayed on the bar. There are all also other nice tapas, but these are really unique and delicious. There are many variations, many are a mix of seafood, veggies and pork. You pick out the ones you want and they send them downstairs for grilling. It takes a while so you can try another pintxo and round of drinks while waiting. This is one of the few bars with tables and they have a more extensive menu available, so if you want to make a full meal of it, consult the staff.

There are so many options but these four are always on my list! There is no doubt that San Sebastián is tapas and pintxo heaven! What are your favorite pintxo bars in the city?


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Pintxolari May 30, 2013 at 4:55 pm

I would add the bar Goiz-Argi, where they serve a very good prawns brochette…and the Foie of the bar and restaurante Urola! Both in the old town.


mary June 4, 2013 at 12:33 am

Thanks for the great suggestions! I’ll have to try them next time. I always have so many great places I want to tyr and then I end up going to my old favorites….I’m resolved to try some new ones.


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