San Sebastián foodie guide: where locals eat and drink
Sparkling white wine poured from a height, mounds of gooseneck barnacles and melt-in-the-mouth suckling pig with quince sauce – Spain’s coastal corner surely wins the prize for the world’s best bar crawl
Looking for restaurants in San Sebastian? Read our guide to the best places to eat and drink in Donostia San Sebastian. Including local favourites and must-visit haunts of Jose Pizarro (London's favourite Basque chef). From Michelin-starred restaurants to San Sebastian's best casual pintxo bars and bars to drink Basque txakoli wines.
Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastián
A picturesque port and resort on the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastián has notched up 16 Michelin stars. There are seven three-star restaurants across Spain and three of them are here: Akelarre, Martin Berasategui and Arzak, the bastion of chef Juan Mari Arzak. It has the second highest number of Michelin stars per square metre after Kyoto in Japan, and more than Paris.
Jose Pizarro, London's favourite Basque restaurateur, loves Arzak. This three Michelin-starred restaurant continues to push the boundaries of Spanish food, turning it into art. It’s no wonder Arzak is included in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. A visit here will be one of the best food experiences you will ever have.
The brightest in the constellation is Mugaritz. Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s insatiable appetite for pushing limits and unwavering loyalty to local ingredients and traditions results in a show-stopping tasting menu, with dishes like trompe l’oeil olives and beer, or perfect pork under autumn ‘leaves’. Read our extensive interview with Jessica Lorigo, head chef at Mugaritz.
Best pintxo bars in San Sebastian
Mimo San Sebastián pintxos crawl
Embark on a pintxos – also called txikiteo in the Basque country – crawl with Mimo San Sebastián. Weave through the crowded warren of alleyways in the Parte Vieja or Old Town. There’s no delicate way to eat pintxos, traditionally a slice of baguette teetering with food and speared with a wooden toothpick or pintxo – hence the name. The juices soak into the bread, run down your chin, coat your fingers and are smeared onto paper napkins, which are tossed on the floor.
Pintxos were born because “it’s not our custom to entertain at home. We meet friends for a drink and snack before dinner”. It’s one of the reasons that, originally, there were no sweet pintxos – these were pre-dinner snacks, not the main meal. You also went to one or two places not the string of bars you working your way through on this tour.
There are over 100 pintxos bars to choose from, mainly in the Old Town, and so a tailored tour is a good way to narrow it down. The guide's top tip: ignore the piles of pretty pintxos on each bar’s counter and order dishes chalked on the blackboard. These are cooked fresh to order and each bar has its own specialities.
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Goiz Argi – for prawn skewers
At Goiz Argi the speciality is the brocheta de gambas, a juicy prawn served on a skewer, soaked in a sweet and sour garlic, pepper and onion marinade. The mari Juli baguette with salty slivers of smoked salmon, sardine and oily green pepper is equally moreish, with a glass of txakoli, the local sparkling white wine.
Poured from great height to aerate it, the feisty, fruity white splashes into a tall tumbler. It conjures up vibrant green apples and has a slightly salty aftertaste. The grapes are grown on the coast near the towns of Getaria and it has denomination of origin status – as has the local idiazabal sheep’s milk cheese. The smoked version is more traditional as it was originally made in windowless shepherds’ huts and smoked naturally rather than by design.
Borda Berri – for grilled octopus
Borda Berri in the Old Town makes all its pintxos to order. The menu’s perfectly executed takes on traditional dishes change regularly, but piquillo peppers stuffed with beef cheek and the grilled octopus are perennial favourites, along with legendary risotto pintxos made with idiazabal.
Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12; 00 34 943 43 03 42
La Cuchara de San Telmo – for suckling pig
At the long, thin rustic wooden bar with a tiny open kitchen at one end and no pintxos on the counter, order cochinillo, melt-in-the-mouth suckling pig with quince sauce and mollejas – veal sweetbreads and apple – majestically matched with a full-bodied Navajas Crianza from Rioja.
Gandarias – for steak
This lively pintxo bar and restaurant is larger than others of its kind. Fight your way to the front of the queue to order Coravin wines by the glass along with skewers of plump prawns covered in garlicky salsa and bitesize pieces of charred solomillo steak pinched into a slice of bread with a green chilli pepper.
Anchovies, goose barnacles, baby peas, white asparagus; the menu at Casa Urola reads like a greatest hits of seasonal local produce. Under the deft control of chef Pablo Loureiro, and making the most its charcoal grill, the restaurant focuses on updating traditional Basque dishes.
Tuck into an Instagram-perfect plate of alcachofa con praliné (artichoke with cardoon, mojo sauce and almonds) and txipirón, a mound of squid with creamy white bean sauce and the original pintxo, the Gilda; think a cocktail stick crammed with salty anchovies, fat juicy olives and local guindilla pickled peppers.
There's a restaurant upstairs where chef Pablo Rodil serves a contemporary take on rustic Basque cuisine. A starter of charcoal-grilled artichoke hearts and cardoons with almond cream, salty praline and crisp Iberian ham is delicious, as are the sautéed baby broad beans with borage, artichoke and egg on potato cream. Another Basque delicacy: charcoal-grilled hake cheeks are soft, salty and delicate.
A Fuego Negro – for modern pintxos
If you visit this modern, molecular-focused pintxo place in San Sebastián, you have to try the pajarito frito (little fried bird). The bird is marinated in vermouth, roast garlic and honey, then left for 24 hours so the flavour really infuses. There's a tasting menu of nine new-wave pintxos for those who want to sit in and linger over dinner.
José Ignacio and Amaia have run this Basque-style bar in San Sebastián’s old town for over 25 years, and it serves some of the best pintxos you’ll find. Try the crab and prawns with a glass of txakoli.
Zeruko – for salt cod
It’s hard to stick to the brief of ignoring the counter-spread at Zeruko – one of the new-wave, experimental (swap bells and whistles for smoke and foam) pintxo bars. This is food-porn nirvana. The intricate pintxos look more like modern artworks than snacks. And that’s part of the beauty of pintxos. You can graze on mini-molecular Michelin-style dishes for a fraction of the price. Most cost no more than three or four euros. The signature dish, however, is la hoguera, a sliver of salt cod served on a tiny smoking grill then folded onto a piece of toast with caramelised onions, carrot cream and parsley pearls, a test tube shot of parsley as a chaser – pure theatre.
Atari Gastroteka – for dessert
This bar by the overblown baroque basilica of Santa Maria is a great place for dessert. The torrija is a cross between bread and butter pudding and French toast, made with brioche soaked in custard and then caramelised.
Best bars in San Sebastián
This is Jose Pizarro’s favourite place to enjoy the Basque sunshine out on its terrace with a cold beer. He always orders the chicken wings, but the tomato salad is amazing too.
A midday vermouth is a Spanish weekend ritual, and Bar Txurrut’s picturesque terrace is the best spot for enjoying one. Try artisan vermouth, doctored with a touch of bitters and a dash of Amaro, shaken and strained into a chilled glass.
Plaza De La Constitución, 9; 00 34 943 42 91 81
Sakona – for coffee
This hip coffee shop is said (by in-the-know locals) to serve the best coffee in town. Owner Javier Garcia focuses on seasonal coffee beans, shipped from Ethiopia, Kenya, El Salvador and beyond, which he roasts in his home town, Irún. Sleek scandi wooden interiors are brightened up with pops of teal and you can order simple but filling plates of food to go with your brew. Traditional Spanish pan con tomate (puréed tomatoes and smashed garlic on toast) is modernised with chives, a runny egg sits atop zesty avocado, and eggs benedict provides hearty sustenance for walks along the beach.
Best food shops in San Sebastián
Oiartzun – for ice cream, pastries an coffee
Taking a stroll along the Boulevard while eating an ice cream is an obligatory summer evening tradition in San Sebastián. Various ice cream shops line the shaded avenue, but Oiartzun stands out for its artisanal, made-from-scratch flavours like torrija and New York cheesecake.
Sit at the counter at the back of the shop and order like the locals – a "cafe con espuma" (coffee with foam) and a little palmita heart-shaped pastry.
Aitor Lasa – for Spanish produce
Artisan deli Aitor Lasa is rammed with oils and preserves, local charcuterie and cheeses and baskets brimming with mushrooms to create the ultimate Spanish picnic to take to La Concha beach.
La Bretxa market – best food market
Buy ingredients from 19th-century La Bretxa market. San Sebastián is bordered by the sea, mountains and fertile Ebro valley and Basque cuisine reflects this bountiful natural larder. Local farmers sell their produce outside every day except Sundays, the stalls are piled high with the area’s famous artichokes and asparagus, beans in every hue (red, white, green, and black beans from Tolosa), petit pois so sweet they’re known as green caviar, and guindilla peppers.
The fish and meat markets are inside, underground. Here you can find local specialities such as chistorra, a cross between chorizo and sausage, and salt cod (bacalao). At the fish counters there are mounds of percebes (gooseneck barnacles), a typical delicacy. Hake is popular as is turbot cooked over a grill with olive oil and garlic. On the stalls the gills are exposed, a vivid red to show that the fish is fresh.
More restaurants to try in San Sebastián
Rowdy and colourful, all graffiti-covered walls, loud music and raw, recycled materials, the Basque-Latin American mash up tells the story of Basque immigration to Latin America.
Try the iconic tacotalos al pastor vasco, marinated in Basque pepper and cider vinegar instead of citrus, and topped with roasted apple in place of pineapple. The corn tacos (‘talos’ in Basque) are blended with millet – its usage locally predates corn – to enhance the flavour. Meanwhile, kalimotxo, that love-it-or-hate-it local tipple of red wine and cola, enriches braised veal empanadas. Another borrowing comes from Mexican chef Enrique Olvera’s kitchen: a 1,100-day-old mole that is ‘fed’ daily with Basque spices for an infusion of subtle local flavour. And to drink? Pisco cocktails and micheladas come up against euskojitos (Basque mojitos) and the local txakoli wine. The idea of authenticity is thrown wide open.
Call Zelai Txiki the day before to reserve the suckling pig and suckling lamb, served straight from the wood-burning oven and carved tableside. Or, if you prefer something less flamboyant, try the homemade charcuterie, then hake with clams, and finish with melon soup and coconut ice cream.
Casa Julian, Tolosa
It’s worth the 20-minute drive (or bus ride) from San Sebastián to the colourful riverside town of Tolosa to try the sensational steak at Casa Julian. Head past bottles and boxes into a warren of vaulted rooms lined with dust-speckled vintage wine bottles. Bag a spot in the back to watch 1kg salt-crusted Basque chuletón (bone-in rib steak) steaks being tossed onto open flames. Steak is served rare here (its intense fat crisp and glistening), and brought to the table chopped into large pieces for diners to fight over.
Kick off with crusty bread and oil, and a sweet Navarra white asparagus spear. Order a side of caramelised piquillo peppers, served in the dish straight from the oven with sticky blackened edges.
Where to stay in San Sebastián: Hotel Maria Cristina
The glamorous belle époque Hotel Maria Cristina is within staggering distance and a fitting base for the gourmet capital of Spain. The hotel, which nudges up to the Parte Vieja and overlooks the River Urumea, was exquisitely revamped in 2012, the year that marked its centenary. Renowned filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has stayed here, along with a string of Hollywood luminaries from Bette Davis to Woody Allen. Its food credentials include its own concierge-designed DIY pintxos trail, a gourmet shop where you can stock up on gastronomic souvenirs from local wines to smoked olive oil and Basque cookbooks, while in the basement there’s the sleek, state-of-the-art cookery school.
The cookery school is run by Mimo San Sebastián, set up in 2009 by British expat Jon Warren, whose passion for the region’s gastronomy led him to leave his lucrative job in the city in London. They offer pintxos tours, cookery classes, wine and sherry tastings, vineyard tours and trips to sagardotegiak (aka cider houses). These pepper the surrounding region especially near the town of Astigarraga. The houses dish up set menus featuring salt cod omelette, chorizo cooked in cider, and idiazabal with quince and walnuts along with as much cider – lightly sparkling, cloudy and refreshingly sour – as you can drink from the huge barrels.
The chef, Mateus Mendes, begins by teaching how to clean squid and carefully remove the ink sac. During the morning, soak and sear, beat, blend and blanch, and get to handle a blowtorch. Then sit down to eat the lunch you've cooked: a delicate dish of squid with sweetcorn and tart green apple and, for dessert, creamy sweet torrijas, for example.
Words by Lucy Gillmore, Marti Buckley Kilpatrick, Jose Pizarro and Hilary Armstrong
Photographs by Alamy, Getty, JM Bielsa, San Sebastian Food and Markel Redondo