Passion For Food – The Best Pintxos In San Sebastian, Spain

Updated: SEPTEMBER 2021

The fact that San Sebastian is home to two of the top 50 restaurants in the world and boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other city is an indication of the Donostiarra passion for food.

That many residential complexes come fitted with state of the art community kitchens in lieu of gyms or swimming pools is even more telling. As are the numerous sociedad gastron贸mica (also known as Txoko): male only gourmet clubs where members get together to socialize and discuss, yes, food! Membership is hereditary.

Interestingly, the companies of drummers in the annual La Tamborada festival are entirely made up of representatives of these societies. They usually dress up as soldiers and cooks.

Our expert local for the evening, Jon Galdos of Basque Tours, showed us around the premises of the club he belongs to while providng fascinating insights into its origin and the honour system they follow in its use and maintenance. Members take turns cooking gourmet meals for family and friends on weekends and on special occasions.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that almost every taberna in town dishes up the freshest, most ingenious pintxos that would not be out of place in the top restaurants of the world.

The culture of miniature tapas arrived in San Sebastian with the influx of Spanish aristocrats in the 1930鈥檚. Along the way, the tapas tradition morphed into something intrinsically homegrown.

The anchoring slice of baguette was swapped for a fine stick (pintxo) pierced through quintessential Basque ingredients in place of the ubiquitous ham and cheese. Another distinction is that while Spanish tapas originated as a complimentary snack served with drinks, pintxos were always freshly prepared and never free.

The ambience in the pintxo bars, although fun, is far from refined. It is self service only. Plates are sometimes chipped. The floor traditionally littered with crumpled paper napkins.

But the food is haute cuisine. Everyday gourmet at a fraction of the price.

Slightly charred piece of smoked octopus in piment贸n vinaigrette on a white plate.

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Best Pintxo Bars In San Sebastian & The Pintxos To Order in Each

Taberna Gandarias (31 de Agosto Kalea, 23)

A traditional bar cum restaurant very popular with locals and tourists alike. This was the very first pintxo bar we visited on our own and I relied on sign language and luck to order a crostini type pintxo of goat cheese and pistachios, roasted red peppers with a sweet balsamic dressing, and fried guindilla peppers dusted with rock salt (My perception of myself as a picky non vegetarian hadn’t yet been shattered). R had a ham and cheese tart with聽soft cooked eggs聽and we shared a hot聽shrimp tart in bechamel sauce,聽washed down with txakoli. All delicious.

But the key, we realise, is NOT to point and choose from the array on the counter but ask for freshly prepared especialidad de la casa from their chalkboards. And the house special here, we learn later, is pigs nose! Their foie comes highly recommended as well and they have a mean selection of wines.

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Borda Berri聽(Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12)

This experimental bar was the first stop on our pintxo tour with Jon. The聽pulpo en vinagreta ahumado (smoked octopus in piment贸n vinaigrette, with chunks of membrillo), was pure heaven. And I don’t even like octopus! It was cooked to perfection…melt in the mouth tender with just the right amount of spice and tartness. Paired with a light Txakoli.

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Bar Zeruko: (Arrandegi Kalea, 10)

A hip bar that attempts molecular gastronomy techniques and as you can see, suitably elaborate presentations. We tried two of their聽specialidad de la casas:

La Hoguera (bonfire): a thin slice of skewered fresh bacalao (codfish) on a mini grate to be seared to preference on each side then placed on the accompanying bread and parsley cream before popping in the mouth. Followed immediately by the test tube shot of ‘salad’ essence!

The less complicated ‘Rosa de Bogavante‘聽was聽a聽piping hot butter, garlic聽saut茅ed聽lobster ‘rose’, topped with light mayonnaise聽and聽attached to a crisp green cracker ‘leaf’聽sticking out of聽a container of rose infused liquid (not drinkable!) with dramatic white vapour wafting out of it!聽It wasn’t all spectacle聽though. The flavours exploded in our聽mouths. I could easily have eaten a dozen.

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Atari Gastroteka (Calle Mayor 18)

This very popular bar has the most enviable corner location, with a terrace facing the Basilica of Santa Maria. We had written this off as too touristy that morning but the beautifully grilled merluzo (hake)聽served over聽a red spicy sauce, and the little聽bowls of grilled聽mushrooms topped with soft cooked, runny yoked eggs (no photo, but possibly my favourite of the evening) were both delicately balanced and full of flavour.

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Bar Astelehena聽(Plaza de la Constituci贸n 15)

This is a small, atmospheric bar on a corner of the arcaded bull ring turned Constitution Square, with enough crumpled napkins on the floor to certify its popularity. The hot specialities were聽astelana rabo de buey聽(the most tenderoxtail) and聽txipir贸n plancha (grilled squid).聽

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La Vina – (Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 3)

Another lovely, buzzing bar famed for its tarta de queso (baked cheesecake). While La Vina’s stellar dessert steals the show, their pintxos stand on their own. Our four fun companions freaked out on some fabulous boquerones (Mediterranean white anchovies marinated in olive oil, roasted garlic, parsley & vinegar).

That cheesecake聽was all it was feted to be. Even some聽New Yorkers sharing pavement space with us couldn’t stop raving聽about it. Be warned, portions聽are huge. We shared three between the six of us, and it was way聽much.

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Shot with one hand, at the end of that deliciously tipsy evening. I forget at what point I switched from white to red!

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La Cuchara de San Telmo聽– (Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28)

We returned on our own to this simple little bar on everyone’s must visit list that does not do pre-made pintxos at all. One orders from the specialidads listed on the chalkboard. Our Euskara was a few words stronger by then but it helped that the young man behind the counter could speak fluent English.

The chatty American lady next to me stood swooning over the last plate of pumpkin risotto. The vieira toro ennuelta tocino bellota (seared scallop wrapped in Iberico bacon),聽carillera de ternera al vino tinto y hummus de garbanzo聽(slow cooked veal cheeks with hummus),聽foie de las landas a la plancha con compote de manzana (seared foie with apple compote) andtheravioli de pato confitado, puerros y foie (duck confit, foie gras, and leek ravioli) were all spectacular.聽

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Thank you for joining me on my聽Txiquiteo*. Are聽you checking fares to Donostia/San Sebastian聽already?聽

*Euskara for pub-crawl

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A collage of two images: In the foreground is duck confit, foie gras, and leek ravioli. Partly visible behind is a small plate of pintxo topped with green guindilla peppers.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

24 thoughts on “Passion For Food – The Best Pintxos In San Sebastian, Spain

  1. Oh my goodness, Madhu. Everything looks and sounds divine. I am glad I read this on a full stomach! With all those elaborate names you’ve reminded me just how rich but long-winded the Spanish language can be. The octopus was smoked (“ahumado”) and it sounds like the veal cheeks were served in red wine sauce with “chickpea hummus” – which strikes me as a little redundant! I loved the merluza in the Basque Country – I first had it ‘al pil-pil’ in Bilbao.

    And I did not know the name “pintxos” came from the little stick! A note about the crumpled napkins on the floor: my Spanish friends almost swear by it. If a place is clean and empty they certainly wouldn’t think to step inside. Instead they are drawn to dingy tapas bars with lots of napkins and other detritus. There was one time a few friends took me to a place for calamari and bocadillos (Spanish bread sandwiches, cut lengthwise). One who didn’t want tomato in hers took it out and casually flung it to the floor! No one batted an eyelid.

    1. No kidding! None of the places we went to had salad fixings on the flloor! 馃檪 The hipper bars were missing any kind of detritus. But Astelana was just as I expected a pintxo bar to be. Sadly, the shot of the floor is blurred beyond redemption.

      I am in love with the Spanish names. Everything sounds so much more exotic. Burma, put my Spain travelogue on the back burner, but I am enjoying reliving our experiences through this series. The best part of blogging. Thanks for your lovely comment James.

  2. Your descriptions and photographs of each dish was like a Michelin Guide to the whose who of restaurants Madhu – each dish looks like a work of art. I like the casual atmosphere of these establishments too.

    1. Aww, thank you for your kind words Mary. The pintxos were indeed works of art, and we too enjoyed the casual approach.

  3. San Sebastian is sadly short of vegetarian food. I had an ok tortilla and chips, salad, at a bar on the seafront, but otherwise? They should really cater more for people who don’t eat meat and fish. But hey, this is spain.

    1. I actually thought San Sebastian was better than the rest of Spain. There were certainly a lot of lovely vegetarian concoctions that I would have been happy with if I hadn’t gone on that crawl! 馃檪 I couldn’t find anything vegetarian in the Prado or on the train into San Sebastian, and I was dying of hunger both times. I agree, its hard being vegetarian in Spain. Worse if it is for religious reasons.

      Lovely to see you here Roughseas. Have a beautiful day!

    1. Hi Anisa, it was amazing wasn’t it? I have been trying to recreate the taste of that lobster in vain 馃檪

    1. Oh yes, we did Gilly! San Sebastian’s reputation is well deserved. Thank you very much for the share 馃檪

  4. I am so enlightened! I did not know all this about the origins of pintxos, and it is fascinating. I am also so hungry. I have spent quite a bit of time in Spain; how have I never ventured into this part?! Great post!

  5. James told me once how good the pintxos he had in the Basque Country were, and this post gives me a glimpse of those delicious delicacies he was raving about. They all look tantalizing, and oh my that smoked octopus! There are many cultures in the world where life revolves around food. But the Basque people are probably the most passionate of them all, not only food is central in their lives, but it also gives them inspiration to create great dishes from the best of produce.

  6. This is my Visit here and how with the Foodie post in San Sabastian..Foodie always attracts Food 馃檪 bookmarked this !!

  7. I am so jealous…and maybe inspired…by your post on food (after just reading one by James, above). I tried doing that, but I think maybe I’m just not good at food photos. Or eating for that matter. I love this line: “Along the way, the tapas tradition morphed into something intrinsically homegrown.” You’ve written this with such an erudite tone. Makes a guy want to go to Spain.

  8. I am glad that I already had dinner after devouring your post, just wanted to reach through the screen, especially now since I didn’t have dessert after my dinner. Your post is amazing and creative. Cheers to that with a glass of red.

  9. What a terrific informative and thorough post. Yum! As a picky foodie I really enjoyed reading this even though it’s still too early for breakfast in this part of the world,as I read. Great descriptions and guide to a part of the world that takes its food seriously.

  10. Oh you have described the various types of pintxos really well! How did you remember what did you eat and where, especially after a couple of tipples?? LOL…

  11. Hola Madhu its great to be back to your beautiful and educative posts. Mouthwatering cuisine and excellent write-up. Adieus and Saludos! 馃檪

  12. This is just fantastic!!! San Sebastian is very much on the bucket list…We covered Barcelona,Madrid and Marabella last december…pity we could not club this too..will have to make another trip now…great post!!1

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