From Michelin stars to pintxo bars, the Spanish city of San Sebastián is a place to spoil your tastebuds silly, with something for all budgets and tastes
It’s not exactly rocket science, picking San Sebastián as a firm bet to get a decent meal. In this beating coastal heart of the mountainous Basque country, food is king, and the city has more Michelin stars per square metre than anywhere else in the world. It’s also the home of pintxos (pronounced ‘pin-chose’) - think tapas liberally sprinkled with a dash of genius.
The place is easy on the eye too. At La Concha bay, the sand is soft, gulls wheel and there are dramatic views to the steep peaks of Monte Igeldo to the left, Monte Urgull to the right and the rocky island of Isla Santa Clara in the middle. With its mild climate, beautiful curving seafront and well-heeled population of 180,000, Donostia-San Sebastián, as it is officially known, is a highly desirable place to live and eat. So charge your credit card, loosen your belt and prepare to spoil your tastebuds silly.
At the top end of the scale lies the world-famous heavyweight Arzak, with three Michelin stars and a tasting menu at €145. Juan Mari Arzak is known as the father of modern gastronomy in Spain and he comes from a long tradition in the business. His grandparents built this place in 1897 and ran it as a tavern and wine inn, followed by his parents turning it into a restaurant of renown. Food falls somewhere between science and high-end gastronomy; don’t miss the hake in vinaigrette with baby squid for main. Also have a nose through the wine cellar, stopping at the champagne and sparkling wine room and the cigar room in the process.
To enjoy the famously green and beautiful Basque countryside, catch a taxi for the 15-minute ride out to Fagollaga, close to the Urumea river in a rural and homely setting. In business for over 100 years and proud owner of a Michelin star, it is now run by Isaac Salaberria, the youngest member of the family and one of the region’s most talented chefs. Blending classic dishes with avant-garde cooking, it also has a great wine list and a laidback and pleasant vibe. Try the baked razor clams with garlic chips, ginger and olive oil soup.
Back in San Sebastián and in the middle budget category, Restaurante Bernardo Et-Xea is on Portu Kalea in the heart of the Parte Vieja, or Old Part, close to the harbour. It's simply done-out, with a great atmosphere, and the emphasis here is on fresh seafood bought that morning in the market, as well as classic Basque dishes without a hint of nitrogen or culinary theatrics in sight. The rockfish mousse is particularly good. The restaurant is quite large and there is also a bar with the mandatory hams hanging above it if you just want a drink.
But enough of these crisply starched napkins and the quiet calm of a sit-down meal in civilised surroundings. For something like speed-dating but with food instead of people, wade into the best of the city’s pintxos bars. The Parte Vieja is where most of them are clustered. There are masses of bars to choose from, but several specialise in certain dishes and are better quality overall. And the trick is to graze the streets rather than being a tourist, staying in one place and ordering 10 dishes. Enjoy one or two plates - washed down with a zurito (miniature half-pint) or a glass of txacoli, a fresh, acidic local wine the barmen theatrically pour from head-height to let it breathe - and then move on.
By the Santa María church, La Cuchara de San Telmo yields tiny white square dishes of creamy mushroom risotto drizzled with bright green parsley sauce. Eating is mainly done standing up and dishes are around €2 or €3, washed down with txacoli. At nearby Txepetxa, they win prizes for anchovy on a crusty diamond of baguette topped with crab sauce, which is so good it will make you want to retrain as a chef. At Iturrioz on San Martin, in the smartly-tiled interior, they serve the most delicious pato (grilled duck), which will send your tastebuds pinging around the room with delight.
In Fermín Calbetón, thronged with more Spaniards and French tourists, Goiz Argi excels at pan-fried prawns. On the same street, Egosari offers mouthwatering fried croquettes filled with ham and a béchamel sauce. If your legs are getting tired by now, and you want a bar you can actually sit down in, cross the bridge to the area called Gros and find El Patio de Ramontxo on Kalea Peña y Goñi, which does delectable crab and breaded scampi.
The pintxos bars start to close at an un-Spanish 11pm, so have a plan for afterwards. San Sebastian is known for food rather than nightlife but make the best of it at Altxerri, an underground jazz bar on Reina Regente in the middle of town, joining an eclectic mix of age groups for music and a natter. Etxekalte Danz Klub on Mari Kalea by the port has a relaxed bar upstairs and a lively one below. It’s also a short stagger home to the very central Tryp Orly hotel, right by La Concha beach. Refurbished in 2006, it has fabulous views of the bay and excellent buffet breakfasts if you somehow haven’t eaten your fill.
Finally, sated and satisfied, before you leave town the next day, work off all the fine food by gently ascending Monte Urgull, where, in the well-preserved fort at the top, the statue of Christ looks over the town. You can see France and it’s the perfect place to reflect on a weekend (and the contents of your wallet) very happily spent.