Gastronomic heaven. That is the best way to describe San Sebastian, the small coastal town in Northeastern Spain. It’s not hard to fall in love with San Sebastian – beautiful beaches, happening nightlife, and of course, unrivaled food, are just a few reasons you should add it to your bucket list. San Sebastian is a city blessed by the stars¹ – Michelin stars, that is. With 16 to its name, it is one of the cities in the world to hold the highest number of Michelin stars per square meter. It’s no wonder that food enthusiasts flock here every year.
Just because San Sebastian is home to some of the world’s best restaurants doesn’t mean that you need to empty your bank account to experience it. The entire city has an appreciation for good food – and this is clearly present in the hundreds of pintxo bars dotting the streets of the city. On any given night, these bars are filled to the brim with people, making dinner time a delicious, albeit chaotic affair.
After spending four days eating my way through San Sebastian, I’m sharing my favorite restaurants and eats with you – as well as some tricks that will ensure that you’ll spend more time eating sardines and less time feeling like one (in a can). Behold, the art of ordering pintxos in San Sebastian.
What is a pintxo?
First of all, what in the world is a pintxo? Pronounced “peen-cho,” it’s essentially Basque for tapas, which are small plates. Fun fact: two languages are spoken in Northeastern Spain – Spanish and Basque. While in some parts of Spain, you’ll get a free tapa when you order a drink, you’ll never get a free pintxo in the Basque region. Pintxos are high quality and more gourmet – frankly, they’re worth paying for. In San Sebastian, they typically range between €2 – €6 per plate.
Eating in Spain:
Eating in Spain isn’t like eating in the rest of the world. Spaniards typically eat a heavy meal for lunch (around 2 or 3 pm) then have tapas and / or pintxos for dinner around 9 pm or 10 pm. Going for pintxos means bar-hopping your way through the city, eating a few plates at each place before continuing on your merry way. This is quite a difficult adjustment for Western tourists since most of us are used to sitting down for a proper dinner at 7 pm. If you’re eating a stick-to-your-bones meal in Spain in the evening…you’re probably dining at a tourist restaurant. Most good pintxo bars will open at 7 pm at the absolute earliest, and they don’t kick into full gear until around 9.
Pintxos are served in two ways. Many of the dishes that can be eaten at room temperature are set out on the bar. You pick which ones you like and pay your tab at the end. Some places charge you at the end by the number of skewer sticks you have, but I’ve noticed that this trend is more common at pintxo bars in other parts of Spain, rather than in San Sebastian itself. The bartenders in San Sebastian actually remember everything you order, which is seriously impressive.
The second (and better) way to order pintxos is to get them made to order based on the menu items on the blackboard. My friend and I quickly realized that these pintxos were always better quality and more delicious. More expensive, but totally worth it. We didn’t eat from the counter after the first day.
If you’re in San Sebastian at the height of tourist season, you might find yourself cowering in the corner wondering what you were thinking walking into such a crowded bar. Don’t. Take a deep breath and follow these rules.
- Get there early. I know I said that no self-respecting Spaniard will eat before 9, but the difference between the crowd at 8:30 and the crowd at 9:15 is palpable. Get there a little early and you might even be lucky enough to snag a seat.
- Park yourself at the bar. Even if you don’t manage to get to the bar early, (politely) shove your way up to the counter and don’t move. At least, not until you’ve ordered. Order everything you want to order. Eat it there. Then leave your spot. It’s a dog eat dog world at the pintxo bar, and spots to eat or even stand are hard to come by.
- Do your research. There are tons of pintxo bars in the city, and while I never had a bad meal, some bars are clearly better than others. If your time is limited, get to the best places first. You can check out my favorites at the bottom of this post.
- Choose the best food. The pintxos on the counter are fine, but the gems are the dishes that need to be cooked to order. Items are typically listed on a blackboard, with popular items listed in a different color, or with a star. You can also ask the bartender for recommendations, although that depends entirely on how busy the bar is. So many benefits to eating a little earlier, #justsayin.
- Keep an open mind. Seriously, some of these places experiment with dishes that you might otherwise never try (squid smoked with rose water, anyone?). Be adventurous – your stomach will thank you.
Restaurants and what to order:
- Gandarias: This was the first place I tried in San Sebastian, so naturally I have to mention it. Gandarias has solidly delicious food. It offers pintxos on the counter with a few to-order options. It also has a dining room for those interested in a sit-down dinner. I recommend the solomillo (steak), foie gras, and pimientos de padron (padron peppers). Note that the peppers are not a tapa, but rather a racion (larger plate), meant to be shared by 2+ people.
- Zeruko: Bar Zeruko is easily my favorite pintxo bar. It’s on the pricier side, with pintxos averaging around €4 – €6, but the food quality cannot be rivaled. This is a great place to try experimental / fusion pintxos. I recommend the hamburguesa de chiripon (squid sandwich), rosa (infused lobster), and bacalao (cod). The crowds here get crazy pretty quickly, so make it your first or second stop of the night.
- Borda Berri: Borda Berri was my second-favorite place, and is also pretty popular. They actually ran out of some of their dishes the first night I visited, so again – get here early. Borda Berri also offers a variety of gastronomic pleasures: bonito (tuna), solomillo (steak), queso de cabras (goats cheese), pulpo (octopus), carrillera (beef cheek), and risotto.
- Txondorra: To be honest, I wasn’t terribly impressed with Txondorra. It was solid food but not as spectacular as the others. Here I had taco de buey (beef with fries and peppers) and carrillera glaseada (beef cheek). Apparently you can also try kangaroo here, which I didn’t realize until after. If your wallet needs a bit of a break, Txondorra is a good bet.
- Nestor: Nestor is well known for its steak dinner set menu that comes with pardon peppers, tomato salad, and bread. Apparently it’s really delicious. But, that’s not what I ate. Nestor also has a secret menu item: the Spanish omelet. They only make a few portions, so in order to get it, you have to reserve a portion at 7:15 pm and return promptly at 8 to pick it up and eat it. Yes, it’s worth it.
- Txepetxa: Txeptxa has one specialty. Anchovies. I understand that most people don’t like anchovies. But these anchovies are much milder than the kind you’ve probably tried before. Plus, they’re offered in a variety of flavors. I recommend the crema de centollo (onion and cream) and pimiento y aceitunas (olives and peppers).
- Kokotxa: If you’re dying to try a Michelin star restaurant, then Kokotxa should be your pick. It’s reasonably priced and it’s located in the tourist city center, whereas the others are at least a few kilometers away, if not further. Their set menu is really good but if I’m being honest, I’d rather have spent more of my money at Zeruko instead.
- Pasteleria Oiartzun: This is not a restaurant, but rather, a pastry shop. They make a mean pastel Vasco (almond pie) and the ice cream is pretty amazing as well.
Note: Sometimes menus are written almost entirely in Basque. Sometimes they’ll include Spanish and rarely do they include English. If you have any dietary restrictions, be sure to verify the ingredients with your host before ordering.
So there you have it. If this post hasn’t inspired you to jet off to San Sebastian, then maybe these pictures of the beach will.
Have you ever been to San Sebastian or northern Spain? Did I miss any of your favorite foods or restaurants? Share your thoughts in the comments below!