Pintxos heaven in San Sebastian
How do you not fall head-over-heels in love with San Sebastian? With one of Europe’s best city beaches on its doorstep… rolling jade-green hills in the backdrop… more Michelin star restaurants per square foot than anywhere else in the world… and the quaintness of the Parte Vieja’s (Old Town) narrow streets which seem to blend seamlessly into the more modern neighbouring districts…. I could rave on and on and on. For me, this little Barcelona-esque-cum-French Riviera gem on Spain’s North coast has gone straight to the top of my list of favourite destinations in the world.
San Sebastian from the top of Monte Urgull
I’ll cover our meal at the legendary 3-Michelin* Arzak in another post, but first up on the foodie catwalk has to be our culinary tour of the Old Town’s best Pintxo bars. The Basque country’s version of Tapas, the people of San Sebastian take their Pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’) very seriously indeed. Chefs here have elevated these little 2-bite snacks into an art form. The sight of the amazing spread of food laid out on top of bar counters alone is enough to set the salivary glands into overdrive.
You will find both traditional bars serving simpler classics as well as more modern, cutting-edge places pushing the boundaries of fusion and molecular gastronomy. Etiquette varies slightly from bar to bar. At some, it’s all about honesty – simply pick what you want from the counter and keep track of what you have eaten to settle the bill later. At others, especially those where the dishes are freshly cooked to order, bar-tenders will formally keep a tab of your orders. As a rough guide, most Pintxos are typically priced at €2-€3, and its customary to bar-hop through a lunch or dinner session across multiple places, having 2 to 3 snacks per bar. Wash all the goodness down with a glass of chilled, red Tempranillo from the nearby Rioja region or the local, lightly sparkling white wine (Txakoli) which bar-tenders pour from a height to aerate the wine further.
So here it is – my hitlist of Parte Vieja‘s best Pintxos bars and their respective speciality dishes. There’s a map at the end of this post for reference and I will continue to keep this list updated as I revisit this city that’s fast becoming my 3rd home after KL & London. I’ve included captions with translations should you want to order the same things we had. Pointing at whatever you fancy or looking at what everyone else is enjoying will work just fine as well – chefs, barkeepers and staff are generally super friendly in this town!
Bar Zeruko (Calle Pescaderia, 10)
First up, my favourite Pintxos bar of them all. One of San Sebastian’s more modern bars, Zeruko’s counter-top is a sight to behold. Amongst their hot specialities, ‘smoking’ salt cod (Hoguera de Bacalao) and Grilled Sirloin with Foie Gras (Solomillo con Foie) are a must. There’s also plenty of interesting choices laid out on the bar which you can point at. Lookout for the sea urchin custard and the baby eels (Angulas) when in season too – both are fantastic!
Bar Txepetxa (Calle Pescaderia, 5)
It’s all about their marinaded anchovies (Antxoas) here. Bar Txepetxa boasts 14 different varieties of Pintxos all using the freshest, plumpest anchovies I have ever tasted. My favourite combinations are with Papaya (trust me, it works!) & their Jardiniera topped with pickled bell peppers. My favourite of San Sebastian’s traditional spots.
Bar Nestor (Calle Pescaderia, 11)
There’s no menu here at this old school Pintxos bar. Only 4 dishes are on offer – Tortilla, Tomato Salad, Grilled Padron Peppers & Grilled Beef Rib Chop (Txuleton). Simple, traditional favourites, but boy has Senor Nestor perfected his craft. Nestor’s Tortilla is hands down the best I have ever come across in Spain and anywhere in the world. He makes just 2 wheel-sized tortillas a day – one for lunch at 1pm, another for dinner at 8pm – each unveiled exactly on the hour. Once it’s gone, it’s gone so make sure to pop in a bit earlier and put your name down for his €2 slice of utter perfection. The Txuleton here – huge rib chops cut from old Galician Blonde dairy cows – is one of the finest in town too. The minimum size though is often upwards of 800g so either go when you are starving, or make sure you have a group to take it down!
La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle 31 de Agosto, 23)
Mind the strong tourist following at La Cuchara, but this little, hidden-away bar just off the main street puts a modern spin on classic Pintxos and other Basque-favourites. Everything is cooked fresh to order and you will hear repeated shouts from the bar-keeper for more of the house speciality, Braised Veal Cheeks in Red Wine (Carrilera) to be cooked. Slow-cooked, meaty goodness that just melts away in the mouth. Also excellent are the Pressed Pig’s Ear (Oreja de Cerdo Pensada) and their Roasted Foie Gras with Apple Compote (Foie Gras con Compota de Manzana).
La Vina (Calle 31 de Agosto, 3)
There’s decent savoury options here aplenty, but La Vina’s piece de resistance is their Tarte de Queso – the best Basque-style cheesecake in town! Baked till caramelised on the outside… still soft and creamy on the inside, dee-licious.
La Cepa (Calle 31 de Agosto, 7)
La Cepa serves up a wide variety of traditional Pintxos – both hot specialities cooked to order as well as cold options spread over their bar-top counter. The produce here is top notch. Lookout for their Grilled Ceps (Hongos a la Plancha). The meaty abalone-like texture and earthy flavour of these grilled mushrooms are just superb. We also had excellent acord fed ham (Jamon Iberico de Bellota) here. The meat had the most gorgeous depth of flavour.
A Fuego Negro (Calle 31 de Agosto, 31)
The food here at Fuego Negro is modern, cutting-edge, almost Heston Blumenthal-esque. Expect playful dishes galore from their Mini Kobe Beef Burgers with Banana Chips (Makobe) to their Salt cod ‘carbonated’ in squid ink powder (Bakaloo enkarbonao). But if there is one dish you have here, make it their Txitxarro – this creation of Mackerel sashimi & oneja cheese on a melt-in-the-mouth Cherry Meringue base is just marvellous.
Bar Goiz Argi (Calle Fermin Calbeton, 4)
A bustling little bar at the top of Calle Fermin Calbeton, the house speciality here is Prawn skewers (Brocheta de Gambas). Cooked fresh to order on the hotplate and topped off with a sweet, red pepper sauce, it’s simple, but oh so perfect. Lookout also for the smoked salmon & anchovy Pintxo (Mari Juli), named after the bar’s owner I’m told.
Bar Haizea (Calle Aldamar, 8)
Featured on Anthony Boudain’s No Reservations show back in 2008, this was the Pintxos bar which the legendary Juan Mari Arzak takes Bourdain to. In many ways, this was my first introduction to San Sebastian and Pintxos culture. And having revisited this bar over the years, it’s good to see it still going strong. I love their Brick de Bacalao here – a crispy, scrumptious salt cod fritter. Also delicious is the Langostino con crema de mariscos – freshly grilled langoustines, smothered in a rich, creamy seafood sauce.
Ganbara (Calle San Jeronimo Kalea, 19)
Walk into Ganbara and what greets you is some of the most phenomenal produce in town. Wild mushrooms galore… langoustines still alive and kicking… even the prized Goose Barnacles (Percebes) are available here. The cooking style here is traditional, with the prized ingredients shown the utmost respect. My favourite of their dishes is the Surtidos de Setas – an assorted wild mushroom medley including Ceps (Hongos), Chanterelles (Zizahori), & black trompettes. There’s some superb wines available by the glass here too.
Am very tempted to visit San Sebastian this summer! All the pintxos look amazing!
SuYin: You should! – i’m not kidding when i say its my favourite place in the world right now. Great food, beautiful beaches, green rolling hills – it really does have everything!
You are just killing me here. I’ve been wanting to go to San Sebastian for a while but lots of other things just keep coming up. It’s not just the pintxos… I’m actually quite curious to hear the Basque language. Did you hear Basque spoken on the street much?
Su-Lin: I’m pretty sure I heard the odd bit of the being spoken here and there, especially behind some Pintxos bars amongst the barmen – sounds actually quite distinct and different. However, I got by mostly with my 2 cents of Spanish from what I can remember from my uni and 6th form days. You really need to get out there – it’s a serious nirvana for us foodies.
mate, not sure if u still remember me from that nite in BSC back in march, zhi jun here.
Definitely got to keep this post somewhere in the laptop when I plan a trip here next year!
Zhi Jun: yes of course I remember! San Sebastian is def worth a visit for us foodies! Now that I’ve crossed arzak off the list I’m already thinking of a second trip and have my sights set on muggaritz or akelare!
I live in San Sebastian and have been here for 2 years, work in tourism and I have to say that you have without a doubt captured here some of the very best in San Sebastian. Just to add one more though, recently opened 1 year ago Atari Gastroteka in front of the Santa Maria church in the old town is excellent. The decor, the location, the ambiance and the food!!
– Basatxerri – pork steak with a red pepper sauce
– Foie con Piña
– Txuleta – excellent steak cooked on the parilla – hardly cooked.
Sara – tx for stopping by and for the recommendation. Yes we did walk past Atari but did not get a chance to eat there as we were pretty stuffed already by the time we got there. Hope to be back in san Sebastian in the near future for another food trip! I so envy that all of this is on your doorstep! How I wish I lived there as well.
I happened upon your blog while googling for pintxos in San Sebastian. I printed out your guide and went to every single one of your suggestions. It was amazing!! I thought that we may have some similar tastes, as my parents are from Malaysia and Singapore and I have grown up with good food around me.
We did visit one recommended by the owners of Arzak on ‘Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations’ called Bar Haizea – Aldamar, 8. This one was also fantastic. It was a between the traditional and the modern.
We also visited Arzak – all in all, San Sebastian is a foodies heaven.
Thank you for sharing!
Tyan, glad to know you had a great time in San Sebastian! I seriously miss it already (especially the Txitxarro and Anchovies with Papaya!!). I remember seeing Haizea on No Reservations actually, but only had 3 days/2nights in San Sebastian so didn’t manage to hit everything on my hitlist. I do hope to go back there someday and will definitely hit Haizea. Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by!
Heading to San Sebastian next week and will use this as a guide. Making a beeline to the anchovie and papaya dish. It sounds simply amazing! Considering Arzacm but having a hard time justifying the cost of three hotel nights on one meal…particularly with all this greatness at every other storefront. Thanks for this great post!
Mario: You’re very welcome. The Antxoas and Papaya is quite superb… let me know how the trip goes! Although the Pintxo s is excellent and I could easily live off it and nothing else given the wide variety, I still think its definitely worth digging deep into the pockets for one of the top 3* places while you are there though (Arzak / Akelare etc). Our meal at Arzak was one that we will remember for life.
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Just got back from San Sebastian yesterday..although I did not make it to all your recommendations, the ones we did make were amazing. La Cepa and A fruego were my faves, although the Foie at Cuchara de San Telmo was amazing !
Glad you had a great time. I can’t wait to go back myself, especially A Fuego Nero!
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Hey food lovers!
What a great post – I LOVE IT!
I’m heading there this week – Can I pick your brain about some delicious taverns or traditional basque places?
anything else other than just tapas?
am looking for seafood… but no michelin stars – hopefully sarah from tourism can help too??????????
M – please email me
Michelle: Tx for stopping by. I was only there for 3 days when I last visited so didn’t really have the chance to try out anything outside of Pintxos bars or the top-end Michelin star restaurants. Many of the larger bars serve up larger portions of raciones as well or have sit down areas (La Cepa for instance). When the Pintxos is this good, there’s actually little reason to be eating proper portioned meals to be honest!
In addition to all the places in this post which all centre round the historical quarter, there are also some great options off the beaten track in the Gros district as well (a little quieter and off the beaten track)… Hidalgo 56 has some interesting main dishes in addition to Pintxos that’s worth a try and Restaurant Andra Mari in Calle Zabaleta is v good value for the quality you get.
Hope you have a blast – Lucky you, am super envious and can’t wait to plan my own return visit back there.
got it, got it, and got it! my gosh – i’m full already – but excited!
THANKS! you’re the best – anywhere great for lunch ? do tapas go throughout lunch too… emm, may head over to bilboa to do lunch then, to mix it up! haha! thanks! M xx
Michelle: Pintxos does go on throughout lunch as well as dinner (in fact, I thought some places were even more rammed during lunch). Good luck with hunting down good eats in Bilbao. If you find places, let me know. Hope to plan a return visit via Bilbao next year if not this year.
Hi again TBWATW.
This is the post how I found you. I am currently in SS and making our way through your recommendations and we are loving it. Managed to do a very good session at Bar Zeruko last night and ate cheesecake and txakoli and cheesecake (delish) at La Vina. La Vina was so crowded with locals and the man behind the bar was working so hard yet always had a smile on his face. Perfect. Going to Mugaritz tonight (number 3 this year on “the list”) as we couldn’t get a booking at Arzak. Will go to Fuego Negro today for lunch (went by yesterday for a cervesa). SS is foodie heaven.
Kara: I’m going to back to SS in a couple of weeks myself for lunch t Mugaritz!!!!! Let me know how it goes. Also glad to hear that standards at Zeruko and La Vina are still high – definitely plan on revisiting. Thanks for the kind words about the blog!! Glad to hear you are a fan.
What a lush foodie blog! those pics are mouth-watering, and my friend and I are off to San Sebastian in a few days time. I’ll definitely be bookmarking this.
Eden: You’re going to have the best time in San Sebastian! I’m revisiting at the end of the month myself! It’s become an annual pilgrimage for me.
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Fantastic review of the pintxos in San Sebastian. In Txepetxa, I wouldn’t miss the anchovies with spider crab sauce. Superb! an in Zeruko, the pintxo “La Hoguera”, that was a breakthrough pintxo when it was created.
You can see this pintxo and others at http://www.todopintxos.com
Pintxolari: Thanks for stopping by the blog! I was recently back in San Sebastian last month and tried the Hoguera this time around – was fantastic!!! Will remember to ask for the Antxoas with Spider Crab sauce next time!
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Thank you for a great summary of San Sebastian’s best pintxo places! Just visited A Fuego Negro myself and I really liked it!
@Ranzen: You are most welcome. Tx for stopping by!
Great list. I’m returning to San Sebastian in March and can’t wait to try some of these great pintxo bars you recommended and had the opportunity to try!
@roamingtheworld: you are welcome. Have a great time! I was back here a few months ago and everything was still great! P.S. Bar Zeruko was especially good – you must have the solomillo steak with foie gras and the la hoguera (‘smoking’ salt cod)!
This post made me really hungry…
If you are interested in finding out more about the Basque Country though, check out Eusko Guide. It is a complete guide for all of Euskal Herria (features Navarre and The French Basque Country too).
was doing a random search about San Sebastian and came across this blog. My husband and I are heading to Spain in June-July. (We are from India). We would be traveling with our then 15 month old daughter (she eats almost everything so no problem there). Just wanted to know, all these places that you have recommended, would be ok taking her along right? Your suggestions seem excellent and oh so tempting!
Nish: It gets really busy in some of the more popular bars from 830pm onwards, so it may be worth trying to eat a bit earlier for dinner (say 730pm as soon as they open) if u have a toddler with you. Some of the bars I’ve mentioned are also standing only with very few seats… It’s just the way people eat / socialise over pintxos there. If I remember correctly, La Cepa, La Vina, Fuego Nero & Zeruko have a decent amount of seating. have a great trip!! tx for stopping by the blog.
thank you so very much for the help 🙂 we should be ok standing as well i assume as long as we eat and ‘hop’ along 🙂 but will definitely give priority to the ones with seating as suggested by you:-)
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Fantastic site you have here but I was wondering if you knew
of any forums that address the same topics talked about
in this article? I’d really love to be a part of community in which I can get responses
from other experienced people that communicate the same interest.
If you have any suggestions, please inform me. Thanks a lot!
Greetings! I’ve been reading your website for a while now and last got the courage to go on and give you a shout out from Porter Tx!
Just wanted to mention keep up the good job!
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Hi, do you have any idea if the pintxo bars are open on a Monday night? As that’s the only night I’ll be in San Sebastian.
@Tome: I’ve been there on a Monday evening before, a fair number of Pintxos bars will still be open (a few of the ones I’ve listed here may be closed tho… from memory I remember that one of my favs Zeruko is closed on a Monday evening). Still plenty of other bars and Pintos tho!
Thanks for your reply!
Sorry for all the questions but how about Sunday night as I may be in San Sebastian on a Sunday night now
It’s a little quieter on Sunday night, but a few of the larger Pintos bars will still be open.
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