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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Spain - San Sebastian

A Foodie's Pilgrimage & Pintxo Bar Crawl in San Sebastian!

San Sebastian is a fine town in Northeastern Spain, close to the border with France in the Basque Country (its Basque name is Donostia).  Small in scale, it has a medieval old town nearest the sea, with a modern area stretching into the mainland.  There is an expansive, sandy beach that fronts the city. Easy to get to from the UK given its proximity to Bilbao airport, served by several  low-cost airlines, it is an excellent place to spend a few days sampling its sights and wonderful cuisine.

For many years, I had been intending to visit the culinary beacon of San Sebastian, but finally got round to it this year.  A compact city of under 200,000 people, it has no fewer than 22 Michelin-starred restaurants, 3 of which have 3 stars, and is a must-visit place for any foodie.  But the excellence of the food stretches well beyond these iconic restaurants, and superb quality pintxos (tapas in the Basque country) are available all over the city, particularly in the old town.

Basque cuisine is famous throughout Spain, and many believe it has the best food in the country. Much of this fame comes from San Sebastian and its bars and restaurants. Although tapas were invented in Andalucía, many argue that they have been perfected in this corner of Spain. I found it to  be the perfect place for a long weekend of utter indulgence in food and wine.

Where to Stay

A modern hotel in the new town, the Astoria 7 Hotel is a converted cinema with 102 rooms, conveniently only 10 minutes walk from the beach and old town. Dedicated to the world of cinema, each room is named after a film star or director who has won an award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. The whole building is adorned with photographs of film stars, lit by cinema lighting and even has silent movies permanently on show in the reception.

A figure of Alfred Hitchcock sits on one of the cinema chairs placed in the lobby. Not a surprising homage considering that the man himself had the premiere of one of his most iconic films, Vertigo, at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Our room was smart and comfortable in shades of dark brown wood, with black, white and red fabrics, classic designer furniture and sleek Scandinavian-inspired pieces. The hotel was elegant, not ostentatious, with an appealingly quirky feel about it.

The cinematic theme carried through to the public areas of the hotel, including the lobby and living room which had an extensive DVD collection, books and other movie memorabilia. If there is any time between meals, the hotel's gym is very well equipped with the latest gear.

The restaurant and bar are busy, and are also open to non-residents. In the morning, continental breakfast is taken in the restaurant. There is a generous buffet with various types of ham, cheese, fruits and pastries, and cooked breakfast items are made to order.

We stayed for two nights at the Astoria 7 Hotel, and were very pleased with our room, the service, food and the overall experience. I would happily return to the quirky Astoria 7 for my next eating spree in San Sebastian. 

Where to Eat

Pintxo Bar Crawl

During the three days we were there, we dined at two 3-Michelin starred restaurants, Martin Berasategui and Arzak, but I will be writing more about these in separate posts in the coming weeks. Here, I recount another gastronomic highlight of San Sebastian- a Pintxo Bar Crawl in the old town.

Pintxos, pronounced “pinchos” – are Basque-style tapas. These small, savoury canapés are presented in a myriad of colours, forms and flavour combinations, laid out on giant platters and spread along every counter in town. Twice a day, hundreds of people pour into the streets for a traditional “pintxos crawl,” moving from bar to bar: tasting, drinking and socializing.

Each bar is a specialist in a particular type of pintxos, they will be the very best in town at that one little savoury piece of heaven. So a VERY important word of advice before you set off in your Pintxo Bar Crawl is - do not be tempted to eat more than one or maybe two pintxos per location and move on. Most bars will have the most wonderful spreads laid very temptingly over their counters, but just remember - move on! The next bar is likely to have a similarly delicious spread, so make sure to have a list of every pintxo bar you want to visit and their respective specialties. Be disciplined about it, tick off those pintxos you have tried and go to the next bar, or else you will be missing out!

Most pintxo bars are to be found in the old town, particularly on the streets running parallel to Boulevard but there are masses of other places nearby in the Gros and Centro areas. Most pintxo bars are self service - so ask for a plate and select your own cold tapas by hand and show the bartender your plate, you will be charged accordingly. For hot tapas, you will need to order these to the barmen, they only take a couple of minutes to be ready. Generally a pintxo costs around €1-3, while a glass of wine will set you back a mere €1.5 - €3.

In la Parte Vieja (the Old Town), Calle 31 de Agosto is a great place to start. Some of the town’s best pintxo bars line this street, scattered between traditional Bar La Viña (C/31 de Agosto 3) and avant-garde A Fuego Nero (C/31 de Agosto 31). Other notable stops along the way include Bar Martínez (C/31 de Agosto 9) for a sleek spread of cold pintxos, and La Cuchara de San Telmo (C/31 de Agosto 28 – set back from the street next to the church) this is my favourite pintxos bar in town serving made-to-order haute pintxos. Another favourite pintxo bar on the strip is Casa Gandarias (C/31 de Agosto 23) serving up an array of classic and creative pintxos.

Another stand-out pintxo strip is Calle Pescadería, a short and somewhat difficult to find street, running between Plaza de la Constitucíon and Calle San Juan. Here you’ll find one of San Sebastian's top pintxo bar - Zeruko (C/Pescadería 10) and noteworthy neighbours Txepetxa (C/Pescadería 5) famous for their elaborate menu of marinated anchovies and Bar Tamboril (C/Pescadería 2) for crispy battered shrimp.

If you would like to drink like the locals, try txakoli (pronounced chak-o-lee) – a slightly sparkling Basque white wine – this is a light and dry wine that goes hand in hand with most pintxos. When txakoli is poured, it’s a dramatic event - the bottle is held from a height, creating an impressive two foot stream into a tall glass. This helps to aerate the wine, creating more bubbles.

Txakoli at Casa Gandarias

Our first stop was at Bar Goiz Argi for their specialty - Brocheta de gambas a la plancha or grilled prawn skewers (€2) which were nothing short of sublime. Sweet, with a delicious char-grilled flavour, they were plump and so delicious.

Brocheta de Gambas a la Plancha
I then yielded to temptation and ordered a 2nd pintxo - "Mari Juli" (€2), this was smoked salmon and anchovies and was also excellent. We also had a couple glasses of Spanish white wine at €1.5 each.

Mari Juli - Smoked Salmon and Anchovies
Tiny but busy counter at Bar Goiz Argi

We then moved on to Bar La Cepa on Calle 31 de Agosto. I had been highly recommended this place (as well as most places in this post) by Guan who writes the fantastic blog The Boy Who Ate The World. Guan was adamant we should try La Cepa's  hongos a la plancha or grilled wild mushrooms (€20). These were indeed mind-bogglingly wonderful - the combination of meaty grilled mushrooms, sea salt and egg yolk is one I will probably never forget.

Hongos a la Plancha

Then again, I gave in to temptation (you might even think I am not great at following my own advice!) and ordered a plate of Jamon de Jabugo €20.50. Jabugo is an Andalucian town where Iberian ham "de bellota" is made. When ordering Iberian ham, ensure this is "de bellota" which means that the ham come from acorn-fed pigs only (as opposed to pigs fed on grain). It is not cheap but the quality is far superior and the flavour is rich and complex, a real delicacy. We also had two glasses of Rioja Crianza (€2).

Jamon de Jabugo (de Belotta) at La Cepa

Also on Called 31 de Agosto, Casa Gandarias was our next stop. Specialising in Iberian hams and meats as well as other more traditional style pintxos, Dr G and I decided to try their grilled sirloin steak with green pepper and sea salt or pintxo de solomillo (€3.50). Another delicious pintxo which we washed down with glasses of Ribera del Duero Tinta del Pais (€3.35) and sparkling txacoli (€1.50).

Pintxo de Solomillo at Casa Gandarias

Casa Gandaria has enomatic  machines (wine dispensing machines) making it easier to decide which wines to order. Most pintxo bars are so noisy, crowded and busy, it is difficult to ask the barmen for the wine options (wine lists are not usually available), the choice in most bars being simply between white or red, and generally I drank what I was given, but luckily these were good quality and value Spanish wines.

Excellent wine choices and enomatic machines at Casa Gandarias

We then moved on to La Cuchara de San Telmo, my favourite pintxo bar in San Sebastian. La Cuchara de San Telmo serves "modern/creative pintxos", cooked to order. This is one of the busiest (and smallest) bars in town, and this is also where my advice just went out of the window as I ordered one dish after next, I just could not help it. We started with carrillera ternera guisada al vino tinto or calf cheeks in red wine (€3.2) which is what they are best known for. The meat was so tender, it melted as it passed our lips.

Slow braised calf's cheek in red wine

La Cuchara is also famous for their foie gras de las landas with apple compote (€3.80) which was what I ordered next. The foie gras was a rather generous piece, grilled and served with apple jam, it was so creamy and delicious and at €3.80, a real steal too.

Foie Gras de las Landas

The risotto cremoso de queso de cabra or goat's cheese risotto (€3.2) was also very good - creamy and cheesy but definitely the weakest link among all the meaty dishes.

Goat's cheese risotto

As Dr G begged me to move on, I saw this huge grilled scallop wrapped in Iberian bacon (vieira "toro" envuelta con tocineta bellota - €3.80) being served to a man next to me. I just had to have it there and then - this was one of the best things I tried during my trip to San Sebastian.

Grilled scallop wrapped in Iberian bacon

Next up was A Fuego Negro a few doors down on Called 31 de Agosto, for their highly creative "pintxos modernos". We started with Makcobe with txips (€3.90), this was a Kobe beef slider with banana chips followed by black rabas or deep-fried calamari (€6.50).

The ultra-hyped A Fuego Negro

The calamari were particularly good, crispy and meaty, and perfectly cooked. We also had two glasses of Ribeira del Duero for €2.60 each. I enjoyed the food here but found the nightclub-style decor and excessively loud music a tad off-putting.

By this point, Dr G and I were getting rather full, but had about 8 other bars still to visit! Had I followed my own advice and ordered 1 pintxo per bar and moved on, I would have probably had a bit more room, but since we didn't, we decided to throw the towel in, finishing the evening off at Bar La Viña.

Renowned for their Tarte de Queso or cheesecake (€5), Bar La Viña is an obligatory stop to finish any decent Pintxos Crawl. I can happily eat a slice or two of cheesecake but I am not a huge fan, particularly when they are stodgy - Bar La Viña's however was like nothing I have eaten before - creamy, light and not overpoweringly sweet, this was a very fine cheesecake. We loved the Tarte de Queso, and enjoyed it with a small glass of Pedro Ximenez (€2.5) and coffee (€1.5).

La Vina's Tarte de Queso

La Cuchara de San Telmo was my favourite pintxo bar in town, we enjoyed it so much that we returned the following day for a quick bite before heading off to the UK, with only 20 minutes to spare.

La Cuchara de San Telmo - returning to my favourite Pintxo Bar in San Sebastian

I couldn't resist the foie gras again (€3.80), and had 2 other dishes - the Pulpo "roca" a la plancha hojas de berzas or grilled rock octopus with sautéed cabbage leaves (€3.60) and the Cochinilho de Segovia asado lentamente or slow-roasted suckling pig from Segovia (€4.2). These were both outstanding, and well worth the mad dash to the bar before driving off to Bilbao for our flight.

Grilled octopus with sauteed cabbage leaves
Slow roasted suckling pig from Segovia

There are still a number of bars Dr G and I were not able to try on this visit to San Sebastian. I am planning another trip in 2014 and this time, we will try and stay for a little longer than 3 days. I have listed in the Travel Essentials section below all the bars that we were lucky enough to try, and also those still on the "Eat List". Let me know if I should add any others!

Hotel Astoria 7 Bar & Restaurant

On our first day in San Sebastian, we arrived mid-afternoon, and completely ravenous from an early flight from London to Bilbao plus a 90-minute's drive to San Sebastian. We had a delightful lunch at the Hotel Astoria 7 Bar & Restaurant, who were also very accommodating in serving us at such an awkward hour. The service at the restaurant, as in the entire hotel, was excellent.

The menu degustacion was very reasonably priced at €12 for a starter and dessert, €15 for a main and dessert, or €20 for a full blown 3-course meal. The bar, cafeteria and restaurant are open to the general public and on the day we had our meal there, it was packed with locals. Despite being very hungry, Dr G and I decided to have only a couple of main courses and some wine and save ourselves for the Pintxo Bar Crawl we were about to take on that evening. I had a delicious grilled fillet of hake with a ragout of crab and cauliflower.

Dr G opted for the cod ravioli served with onion confit and a creamy, cheese sauce. Both dishes were light and delicious, and very well made. We skipped dessert, having some strong black espresso coffee to end our meal.

What to Do 

Aside from the restaurants and bars, swimming or sunbathing on the beach, the Old Town is very picturesque, with numerous fine churches and squares. The newer part of the city also has fine boulevards with some very stylish shops.  This is a great place for walks to burn off all those newly acquired calories!

The San Telmo Museum, in a newly restored 16th-centruy Dominican convent, has a varied collection of art. Closed on Mondays, entrance is €5 for adults, except on Tuesdays when it is free for all.

It is only an hour's drive to Bilbao, and we took the opportunity to enjoy Frank Gehry's fabulous Guggenheim Museum there.  Entry is €13 including an audioguide.

Travel Essentials

Hotel Astoria 7
Sagrada Familia 1 (Corner of Sancho El Sabio)
20010 San Sebastian (Guipuzacoa)
Tel 34 943 445 000
E mail: info@astoria7hotel.com

A superior room is around £185 per night.

We flew from Stansted Airport to Bilbao with Easyjet for £110 return, and had arranged a hire car to collect at the airport.  The drive to San Sebastian takes about 90 minutes.

San Telmo Museum
Plaza Zuloaga 1
20003 Donostia – San Sebastián
Telephone: (00 34) 943 48 15 80
Fax. 943 48 15 81

E-mail. santelmo@donostia.org

Guggenheim Museum
Avenida Abandoibarra, 2
48009 Bilbao, Spain

Pintxo Bar Crawl - Tried and Tested

Bar Goiz Argi (specialised in brocheta de gambas a la plancha - grilled prawns skewers)
Calle Fermin Calbetón 4
San Sebastian - Donostia, Spain
+34 943 42 52 04

La Cepa (specialised in hongos a la plancha - grilled wild mushrooms)
Calle 31 de agosto, 7
San Sebastian - Donostia, Spain
+34 943 42 63 94

Casa Gandarias (specialised in Iberian hams and meats)
Calle 31 de Agosto, 23
+34 943 42 63 62

La Cuchara de San Telmo (specialised in Basque nouvelle cuisine - best known for carrílera de ternera al vino tinto - calf cheeks in red wine)
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28 (off the main road, up a small hill by the Church of San Telmo)
+34 943 42 08 40

A Fuego Negro (specialised in modern/creative pintxos)
Calle 31 de Agosto, 23
+34 650 13 53 73

Bar La Viña (specialised in cheesecake)
Calle 31 de Agosto, 3
San Sebastian - Donostia, Spain
+34 943 42 74 95

Pintxo Bars - Highly Recommended But Still to Be Visited

Bar Zeruko (specialised in modern/creative pintxos - best known for ‘La Hoguera’ (‘the bonfire’), a smoked cod pintxo)
Calle Pescadería 10
+34 943 42 34 51

Txepetxa (specialised in marinated anchovies)
Calle Pescadería 5
+34 943 42 22 27

Bar El Tamboril (specialised in battered, deep-fried prawns and mushrooms)
Calle Pescadería 2
+34 943 42 35 07

Bar Ganbara (specialised in Txangurro - a local crab)
Calle San Jerónimo, 21
+34 943 42 25 75

Bar Martínez (specialised in cold pintxos)
Calle 31 de Agosto 9
+34 943 42 49 65

Bar Bordi Berri (specialised in rice dishes - best known for arroz bomba con chipirón - rice with baby cuttlefish)
Fermín Calbetón 12

Bar Bergara (specialised in bacalao a la Vizcaina - salted cod)
Calle General Arteche 8
+34 943 27 50 26


  1. Great tips - you've given us some solid ideas for our upcoming trip!

  2. Have been wanting to visit for many years now, hopefully this is the year!! Some great sounding places to visit, thank you!


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