San Sebastian is one of the top foodie destinations in Europe, so of course it was high on our list of places to visit. When we arrived at our B&B near the old part of town, our lovely host explained to us that eating times in Spain are very different to France – lunch is often eaten at 1 – 3pm, and dinner after 9pm. At home I normally eat lunch at 12 and dinner before 8pm, so it took some getting used to!
Tapas originated in Andalucia, but apparently they were perfected in the Basque Country, where they are called pixtos (say the ‘xt’ as if it’s a ‘ch’ – so it’s ‘pin-choes’. These are technically bar snacks, although many tourists (including us!) try to make a meal out of them. There are various unspoken rules to pinxtos, and I’m not sure what I have here is completely correct, but here’s how it was explained to me.
- Bars open earlier than restaurants, as pinxtos are to be consumed as a snack before dinner. Even still we didn’t find many places open before 8pm, and some didn’t have their kitchens open until a bit later.
- Traditionally you’re supposed to bar hop – stop at a bar, have a drink and whatever pinxto is their speciality, then move on to the next one.
- To avoid getting incredibly drunk, you can ask for a zurito – a small glass of beer.
- You can also order txakolí (pronounced cha-co-lee), a dry white wine which is poured theatrically from a height into the glass, making it bubbly.
- We were told that instead of choosing items sitting on the bar, it’s best to order hot items from the menu. Unlike some places we visited elsewhere in Spain, in San Sebastian these were always made to order, fresh and delicious. It’s a bit more difficult trying to order from the (usually non-English) menu, but if you learn the names of some basic dishes and meats and keep an open mind it can be really fun!
- These dishes tend to be small and on skewers or small plates, so that they’re easy to eat standing up.
- San Sebastian has a huge range of bars, from ones which are quite traditional to modern fusion interpretations.
I felt a little bit sheepish busting out my big camera at these bars, especially as we inevitably showed up to an empty place a few times which was already a little awkward, so some of these photos are just sneaky phone shots. The two places that really stood out for me were A Fuego Negro, a contemporary bar with a really slick atmosphere, and La Vina which has the most amazing baked cheesecake!
Menu del dia
In San Sebastian we were also introduced to the idea of menu del dia, or ‘menu of the day’. Usually this includes 3 courses, each of which can be chosen from 2 or more options, plus bread and wine, often for under €15. The first time we had this was at The Morgan Kompany, and I didn’t get that the ‘wine’ included in the meal doesn’t mean a glass, but an entire bottle. We were very confused when the waiter brought a bottle each to the table (we had ordered different wines, otherwise we would probably have been given just the one) and just left it there! What we were paying wouldn’t even get you a bottle in a restaurant in Perth, let alone a 3 course meal with wine.
I found wine in Spain to be excellent in general – ordering the house red (very often a Rioja) is almost always a safe choice.
Our host told us at although San Sebastian is known to tourists for its beaches, they are people of the mountains. A bit of a taxi ride out of town, the mountain areas are where you’ll find sagardotegis or sidrerias, cider houses, and we had arrived at the beginning of the cider season in February. These cider houses collect apples and make cider in autumn, with the first barrels ready for tasting around the beginning of the year. Traditionally buyers of cider would bring along food to taste with it, and eventually this evolved into a mixture between a cider house and a steakhouse.
The main eating area consists of long, communal tables where you are given a stick of bread and a cup for cider, whilst you wait for the courses to come out. Housed in a separate room are huge barrels of cider, which are drilled and tapped with the yell ‘txotx!’, causing the cider inside to shoot out. Guests line up and take turns holding their cups out for the cider, catching it as far from the barrel as possible to create bubbles. There’s a bit of a trick to holding your cup just so when you’re next in line, so that no cider is wasted or spills over you. After a while a new barrel is opened and the previous one closed, to taste the difference between them. Personally I didn’t love the cider itself (a bit dry for my tastes), but this process was too fun to pass up!
Accompanying the cider is a traditional 3 course meal – a cod omelette, followed by a (rare) steak, then hard cheese with quince paste and walnuts. Good, simple food made well and with such a fun, rowdy atmosphere! The place we went to is called Petritegi Tolare Sagardotegia, and I believe they are open year-round (as opposed to just during the main tasting season). It’s such a unique experience, and I can’t recommend it enough if you ever find yourself in San Sebastian.
Last but not least, I have to give a shout out to our lovely hosts at Hospedaje Donosti, Luz who gave us a cheat-sheet to the best pinxtos bars in the area and what to order at each, and her mother Amalia who made us amazing pancakes each morning!
In case it isn’t clear from this massive post, I loved San Sebastian and ate and drank a ridiculous amount there. I’d go as far as saying it has the best food of any of the places we visited, and is a beautiful city to explore.