It’s been written about thousands of times before and it will be put down in text countless times again; the how, why and where of finding the best pintxos in San Sebastian simply cannot be gone over too many times. My own words are by necessity a mimicry of others. Restaurant people read restaurant blogs, go to San Sebastian, and share their experiences on other restaurant blogs and with other restaurant people.
But another addition won’t do any harm I suppose, and this is in no way a complete or authoritative guide (I lack both the knowledge and the number of bars for that), more an account of what we ate and drank during our last visit to this famous and infamous town.
We tried more bars than can be accounted for during the four days we had in San Sebastian this past April. The less memorable have naturally faded somewhat from memory and are in any case not interesting enough to put down on paper or its digital counterpart. The others… well some captured visions and impressions are gathered below…
Bar Antonio lies no more than a 10 minutes walk from the small cobbled streets of Old Town. It might however just as easily be in another village for the amount of tourists who frequent it. This is a bar that’s great for breakfast, an afternoon coffee (the espresso here is quite good), pintxos of course but also an afternoon football match.
If you’re in luck the owners young son will share his insights on the local teams with you, in any case the droves of pensioners who flock to see the matches are more than talkative if you know Spanish or Basque. Apparently it also has a ‘secret’ restaurant in the basement, but unfortunately we never made it that far.
Antonio Bar excels at the classics, so the pepper and anchovy skewers are a safe bet. Don’t miss the tortilla, which is a literal taste explosion cooked just to the point where it’s still ridiculously moist.
Morcilla sausage with or without foi gras is another dish not to be missed.
Txepetxa is easily missed among the myriad of bars on Calle Pescaderia but is not to be overlooked. It specializes in anchovy pintxos with different toppings. Simple yes, but still delicious.
My favorites are the olive paté and spider crab, but make sure to order a few others as well just to taste the range.
Fuego Negro isn’t one of my personal favorites, but it always ranks highly as on of the best (perhaps the best) nouveau pintxos bar in San Sebastian. If you’re interested in a very modernistic approach to pintxos and tired of ‘stuff on bread’ this is definitely the place to go.
One of the classics at Fuego Negro is this contraption of king crab together with avocado and liquorice ice cream.
Crunchy risotto of sheep & cuttlefish. A seldom seen combination, but one which works well thanks to perfectly cooked rice and a sleight of hand with proportions.
Horse mackerel, sheep & mint over cherry toast. A good enough dish, but one that clearly bears the mark of ‘trying too hard’.
Grilled octopus, green apple, violet potato & red air. Ridiculous description of a dish, but well-balanced. As the other dishes it bears evidence to the skill of the chefs at Fuego Negro, as the other dishes at Fuego Negro it leaves me longing for some proper stuff on bread.
Gandarias is well-known and loved by tourists and foodies alike, while the locals sometimes scoff at the overly crowded venue by the Santa Maria church. The quality can vary quite a lot. For example we were underwhelmed by the croquetas and clams in tomato sauce.
But on the other hand the braised beef and sirloin pintxos were fantastic, so as long as you know what to order this charming and bustling scene with its weathered and competent bartenders is definitely worth a pit-stop.
Bar Nestor is a legend even in San Sebastian. The cuisine here centers around three central ingredients: Good tomatoes, perfectly grilled peppers and amazing meat. In addition two (and only two) tortillas. These are regarded as some of the best of its kind in the area and are sold within mere minutes.
Of course the high point at bar Nestor is the meat. The guests always get the choice between several different cuts, and if you’re tall enough to lean in over the bar you can see your selected piece being prepared to perfection in the kitchen.
Pieces just may turn out as perfect as this.
But the experience wouldn’t have been complete without the tortilla.
We had been at Bar Nestor and absolutely loved it the evening before. The last day of our trip we checked out, left our bags in the car, and hurried down to Nestor again for a final chance to taste their tortilla. There was a long line at the bar and hung-over and nervous as we were we feared we may miss the legendary egg-product. But we needn’t have worried. Even though some of the regulars in line in front of us had some extra tortilla to go we each got a piece. It was a bit richer and darker in taste than some of the other tortillas we had had, more dominated by the browned onion. To be honest it tasted somewhat like my fathers version of pytt i panna, which instantly brought back fond memories of childhood weekend lunches. That said it wasn’t the best tortilla we had tasted during our visit. Top ten yes, but for example the tortilla at underrated Antonio Bar was far more delicate and complex.
Tamboril is another underrated plain looking pintxos bar. Even though it’s located adjacent to the Plaza Constitución it’s never very full (at least not from what we could tell). It does however serve a fabulous concoction composed of ground pork stuffed in peppers which are then deep fried with batter.
Another safe bet are the battered and deep-fried sardines.
Or just about anything with eggs. In this case cheese on mayo on shrimp on egg on anchovies on toast.
I had honestly never heard of Ganbara until the evening we visited the establishment. The kind guys at Basqueland Brewing Project had agreed to take us on a pintxos run around San Sebastian, and as the evening progressed more and more mentions of this ‘Ganbara’ were heard. Finally, our steps led us to the establishment. It was pumping, crowds spilling out into the street and both front of house and kitchen working in a ferocious tempo. There were a number of cheek kisses exchanged with the proprietor, and then the food started rolling in… or out, as we had settled around a wine barrel on the pavement outside.
If anything Ganbara is famed for their ability to adapt to the seasons. Ben from Basqueland asked if we wanted to indulge in some seasonal produce, and even if our stomachs were killing us by this point in the evening we couldn’t but acquiesce.
We started with kokotxas or hake tongue. For most people this would be a more than slightly odd dish, but the Norwegians happen to have a strong tradition for cod tongue in winter, and what looks more like a slimy soup was actually prepared to perfection.
Something else that was coming into season was of course St. Georges mushrooms. We had already tasted this delicacy at Extebarri the day before, and we were curious to see how similar or different the two establishments handled the produce.
Fabulously was the unanimous consensus. Both the porcini, St.Georges and chanterelles were very mildly pan-fried in butter. Just enough to lift out the flavor but lightly enough to avoid any charring.
Another stunning dish although I must confess I don’t remember what kind of mushroom this was. Scrambled with truffle and eggs it was however a pure delight and a testiment to the skill of the kitchen even if the visuals aren’t exactly breathtaking.
The next dish was ingenious. Perfectly fried foi gras on artichoke halves. Nothing else needs to be said.
The Basque do seem to be fond of their desserts, and this dish with peppered strawberries and yoghurt ice cream reaffirmed why. In the end of the evening we stumbled home extremely sated and quite drunk (again), yet with the feeling that we had uncovered a hidden treasure (a quite ridiculous feeling, I later learned that Gandarias is usually on the top of every pintxos list published).
If we could have stayed on for more days we would have. If our stomachs had been expandable beyond a level humanly possible and our wallets bottomless wells of money one might still be able to find a collection of merry and marinated Scandinavians roaming the streets of San Sebastian… But the city is still there, and our personal finances recovering, and in a few months time there should be more pintxos bars to add to this list.