Carefully, I unfold my list of must-try pintxo bars I’ve gathered from bloggers and fellow travelers and a new list from our apartment host, as I figure out just where we are in the Parte Vieja as I try to take a quick look at my map while not screaming, Guiri! I shouldn’t care, tourists abound and I hear more English in the streets and bars than Spanish or Euskara, my ears perk up deciphering their accents. Seems American couples and study abroad students (plus auxiliars) know San Sebastain is the “it spot!” “Wait, just a sec mom, I know most of these bars are good but we’ve got to try these ones! I say as if I have a key to a treasure chest that will lead us to hidden secrets of the gastronmic capital of the world.
Patient, my mom follows me as I lead us through the old part of town passing through the beautiful plaza with mustard shutters on the windows above, a nice touch to add more light to this more often than I’d like gray cast sky town.
We enter bar #1 and I realize I’ve been on Calle Augosto 31 before when I came to Basque Country for a few days in July and fell for the ‘more touristy” bars that pack more tourists than locals and flood the counter with variations of pintxos. Pintxos or pinchos en Castellano are small appetizers, similar to tapas, typically served on a slice of baguette bread with a toothpick piercing or pinching to hold everything together. Throughout Basque Country and specifically San Sebastian you’ll find traditional pintxos as well as very elaborate and creative mini plates of food.
The first bar we walk into is dimly lit with retro comics plastered on the wall. If I didn’t know better, I would have mistaken it for a hip bar with nothing more than drinks as pintxos are no where to be seen on the counters. I glance at my list and then at the bar, Ah ha! Pintxos made to order! That’s what I’m talking about. We order a salad and a pintxo, I learn later, that is a play on words without knowing what we’re really getting, too shy to ask the busy waitress what she recommends or what half the Euskara/Spanish menu means.
Good thing, we’re adventurous.
Here is a sampling of my favorite pintxos and bars in San Sebastian!
We return the following day to try what everyone orders:
Black Rabas, squid that has the look of a sizzled mushrooms and a melt in your mouth texture.I also order a Pomegranate ceviche, a seafood salad that makes you long for more when you eat the last bite.
A Fuego Negro, Calle 31 de Augosto, parte vieja
Pintxos made to order from 3-9 euros, menu degustación (tasting menu) and regular menu for lunch or dinner.
Our next stop finds us in a cozy spot that feels more like a restaurant than a bar with plenty of seating and mermaid and fishing decorations on the walls. I order our Txacholi’s and debate just what to try because if I’m honest, neither of us is really hungry after many a pintxo but my mom lets me satisfy my curiosity of bars on the list. My ears perk up when I hear English behind me and spot what they’re eating, naturally, I ask. Turns out the guy has been living in Seattle but has moved here to attend the new Basque Culinary Center created by top chefs in this gastronomic region. With his racion of carrilla, tender, slow roasted cow cheeks, I assume the conversation will end over where you from and what ya doing in Vitoria? But when I come back from ordering drinks, he looks at me and says, You’ve been to Burning Man? No way, I’m going with a big group this year, you should join! I doubt when he asked my mom if she heard of this crazy awesome festival that she’d nod her head and say, of course, my daughter’s been almost a handful of times!
You just never know who you’re going to meet or where a conversation will lead.
Atari Gastroteka, Mayor Kalea, 18, Parte vieja
The bar has a few pintxos ready to grab but the pintxos ranging from 2.50-5 euros and raciones 6- 20 euros made to order are worth the wait.
Every where I looked, La Cuchara de San Telmo, received high praise and we knew we’d try it but we’re happily surprised when I decided to walk down a narrow little street with colorful laundry hanging above our heads leading to wooden benches and tables to find the little treasure. Unpretentious with a small kitchen and long narrow counter where you have to get cozy with fellow patrons and patiently wait to pay when it’s crowded, all the merit and press is well-deserved. Ingredients are locally sourced as the chefs are conscientious of supporting farmers who grow our food and artisans who treat animals with respect and make delicious products with love and care.
La Cuchara de San Telmo, Calle del 31 de Agosto, 28, Parte Vieja
Sleek, modern white bar with lots of light makes you feel it’s a Satuday in July in Bar Zeruko. Creative and experimental pintxos cover the counter and you’ll squint your eyes to read the descriptions as you make sense of what your eyes see and what the pintxos really are. It’s obvious the chefs and sous chefs at Bar Zeruko have spent a lot of time planning, creating, experimenting and starting again to bring something slightly different, hip and cool to the pintxo scene in San Sebastian. They take typical Basque pintxos such as stuffed pepper with tuna and put their unique twist- creating the shape of a tomato out of the pepper! The chefs definitely give new meaning to playing with your food!
Slightly hidden, it’s amongst other well-known established bars on Calle Pescaderia near Plaza Constitutión. I would have surely missed it despite being sleek and modern with white walls and sparse white tables and chairs with sawdust on the floor. Eyeing a table, I plunked down are items and then ordered the per usual, 2 Txacoli’s while drooling over the various creations. Overwhelmed by the 40+ choices on the bar + a menu of 20-30 more depending on the season, my mom and I agreed to choose 1 each and share before going back for thirds and fourths.
Bar Zeruko, Calle Pescadería 10, Parte Vieja
Open for lunch and dinner pintxo hopping, menu degustación (tasting menu), made to order pintxos range from 3.50-7.20 Euros!
On our last night we stayed near our apartment rather than walking the 7 minutes to parte vieja, part tiredness and part curious what was in our “neighborhood.” The streets were packed with young folks tossing back plastic cups of beer and wine with a complimentary pintxo, known as pintxo pote on Thursdays. We decided we’d put the list away and follow our intuition for our last night. Crowded, we stepped into the homey rustic feel restaurant, Casa Senra in the heart of barrio of Gros full of surfers, delicious pintxo bars and boutique shops.
Flapping our elbows, like birds about to take flight, we made a little space at the packed bar and ordered. Txacholi’s to start the meal I translated the possibilities that sounded appetizing to me while my mom eyed the bar filled with pintxos. This bar has everything, cold and hot pintxos, raciones, sandwiches, desserts and full on dinner- you choose one of five menus to order from depending what you’re in the mood for.
Bar Casa Senra, Calle de San Francisco, 32, Barrio Gros
Known for cold and hot pintxos, sandwiches, salads and full menu! Find a place at the bar for pintxos or grab a table for raciones or bigger meal.
Tips for a successful pintxo hopping experience:
- During lunch hours go between 12:30- 3:00 to ensure pintxos and availability. Kitchens begin to close around 3:30
- Dinner time begins aroudn 8:30- 11pm. Some bars stay open later but not all.
- Many waiters speak English and/or have English menus so don’t be afraid to ask questions! They’re excited to help you and know that their business depends on the customer and tourists!
- Order from the menu! In Andalucia, I was used to ordering from a menu but it wasn’t until my time in San Sebastian that I learned many bars have many-to-die for pintxos made to order that are often only .50-1euro more than the cold pintxos.
- Use suggestions to start but also allow your noses and the crowds to lead the way! See what others are eating and what looks good to you
- Prepare your wallets- be prepared to pay 1.50-3 euros for pintxos on the counter and more from the menu + drinks
Which pintxo would you want to try?
Have you gone on a trip with the intention to eat your heart out and sample as much as the local cuisine as you could?
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