Located in the Basque region of Spain just a couple hours away from the city of Barcelona is the small ocean-side town of San Sebastian. The city itself is most well-known for the fact that it is home to the most Michelin star restaurants per capita in the world.
Dining at any of these restaurants, however, will remain a dream until I start making some actual cash money and can afford it. The second best option is to eat at any of the numerous tapas bars around town, which is exactly what I did.
You probably know tapas as small plate cuisine. San Sebastian takes it a step further and do what is known as pintxos (or pinchos), which are basically little bites rather than actual dishes.
For Spaniards, this is a culture that they’ve grown up with: eating dinner in the late hours of the day, bouncing in and out of different eateries throughout the night. San Sebastian is arguably the best place in Spain to truly experience this with pintxos bars literally steps away from each other.
And I kid you not, everything is super affordable, even on a student’s budget.
Here’s what you can expect on your first txikiteo, the “technical” term for a pintxo bar crawl. Don’t expect a hostess to greet you at the door to put you on a waitlist and find you a table to sit down like at a typical restaurant. That would be too normal.
What you will get is a small bar area the size of your freshman dorm room (if you’re lucky) completely packed with hungry bar hoppers. You’ll need to be a little aggressive and find any counter top space possible – every square inch counts so don’t be picky.
Order yourself some fruity sangria or the sparkling white wine known as txakoli, the go-to txikiteo drink, and start browsing the menu. Since you’re literally located along the beach, you can expect nothing but the freshest seafood. Apart from that, you’ll definitely be seeing a lot of the beloved Spanish ham known as jamón – basically Spain’s most beloved treasure, but that’s just my personal opinion.
Once you start ordering, you’ll soon realize that your barkeep has the memory like rain man and the adrenaline of a person who’s just had ten espresso shots. The food comes out to you within minutes, if not seconds, and every dish is plated insta-perfectly. They know what it means to eat with your eyes first.
I was only there for a two days, but I can tell you I tried to eat at as many pintxos bars as I could. Luckily for you I was able to narrow it down to nine of my favorite spots.
From the txakoli being poured from up high, cascading into wine glasses to the fast pace yet high quality food coming out of the kitchen, every foodie needs to make their way to San Sebastian some time in their lifetime.
As an outsider looking in, I felt that San Sebastian embodied everything I wanted in a food-centric city. They didn’t just cook food to make a buck. They treated it as if every single dish was a representation of who they were, ensuring that every detail from the taste to the plating was up to the highest standards.
This is the way food is supposed to be, and I am so glad I got to experience it.
Txepetxa is the quintessential classic pintxos bar in San Sebastian. No glitz and glamour here, just the usual suspects of dishes executed very well.
In my opinion, this is where you need to start your San Sebastian eating experience. The wood bar brings an unmatched charm while the simple pintxos of marinated sardines and anchovies are abundant. Be sure to order the pintxo gilda, which a classic with guindilla peppers, olives and anchovies skewered with a toothpick. All the briny goodness.
The night you plan to eat here, I highly recommend you get there early. As in get there before they open, so that you can find a spot immediately because this place is small. Elbow to elbow closeness here, so if you have a problem with minimal personal space, get over it fast and get to know your neighbor.
The preparation of the classics here is impeccable. You need to order the braised beef (aka the carrillera), the suckling pig and the squid ink risotto because I’m telling you you need to. No regrets.
This would be the spot to hit up for lunch or for a good pre-game before the main event. The bar counter is covered end-to-end in crostini style pintxos.
I was a little overwhelmed at first glance because I had no idea where to start, so I went in with a marathon mentality and started from one end and eventually made my way to the other end picking and choosing the ones I wanted to try. So if you’re in the mood for pieces of toasted bread smothered in every type of Spanish delicacy imaginable, this is the spot for you.
This place serves one thing and one thing only: steak. If you’re craving a big hunk of meat with all the fixins’ during your time at San Sebastian, this is the place for you.
A no nonsense type of bar, they only seat a couple of patrons at a time so expect a wait especially during the dinner rush. If you happen to be placed on the waitlist, no worries because Txepetxa and Bar Zeruko are literally steps away from you. It’s not a bad idea to fill that waiting time with more pintxos because honestly this is what you signed up for when you arrived in this part of Basque country.
A little intimidating at first glance with its black walls and red accents, you’d think this place was a nightclub until you realize the menu is also written on the wall.
A Fuego Negro is run by three local chefs who had previously worked in the area’s high-end restaurant scene. Their modern takes on the classics will dazzle you not only from a visual standpoint, but also from the delicious tastes they are able to pull off.
The dish that sold it for me was the jet-black squid ink doughnuts which were served stacked on top one another with the assistance of a fork.
If you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck, this is the place to do it. Every dish is prepared to order in the kitchen and comes out piping hot. The portions are relatively large compared to the rest of this list (closer to the small tapas plates you’d find in the states), so definitely try to hit this place up during lunch or on a night that you don’t plan on bouncing around too much (which is really difficult to do).
On average each tapa costs around 3-4 Euros, and for the quality of each of their dishes it’s crazy to think you’re paying rock-bottom prices for a high-end dining experience.
The menu changes from time to time, but if they have the langoustine ravioli or cramy risotto on the menu, you have to order it. The risotto is hands down the best I’ve ever had, and it’s basically like mac’n cheese on steroids.
A simple joint that provides solid pintxos. For me, the major highlights were the grilled items which included a number of different seafood options including squid and shrimp.
What really took things over the top was the house vinaigrette that they used to garnish a number of their dishes. It was sweet, salty, a little sour and a nice hint of garlic which provided for a perfect balance that I would honestly have no problem taking shots of. They need to jar that sauce up and send it my way ASAP.
Although you don’t have to wait to eat dessert last, La Viña is a last spot destination to end a night of bar hopping.
Arguably one of the best cheesecakes I’ve ever had, their rendition is much lighter than their NYC cousin. It also features no crust and a burnt caramel-like layer on top that contrasts beautifully against the slight tang of the Ilidelheea cheese used in this dish.
The cheesecake is the star of the show at this eatery where they literally have shelves of cheesecakes already prepared ready to be consumed by incoming diners.
Undoubtedly my favorite pintxos bar in San Sebastian, I saved the best for last.
Every square inch of the bar is occupied with a different type of tapa. You basically go up and down gathering dishes like uni custard to sautéed baby eels to even cuttlefish in squid ink just like a typical buffet.
Once you’re ready you hand it off to one of the barkeeps, so that they can heat up your selection and plate it. Bar Zeruko really goes next level in the food they create using modern day techniques most commonly seen in restaurants specializing in molecular gastronomy.
This is definitely a spot for the adventurous foodie looking to try something new that they may not have tried before. I guarantee you’ll stop by this restaurant more than once during your time in San Sebastian.