One of my favorite destinations for both food and surfing is a little beach town on the coast of Spain known as San Sebastián, or Donostia.
My boyfriend and I spent just 2 days there on a surf trip down the Basque coast, and quickly fell in love with the food and perfect waves. This was our second stop and an easy inexpensive bus ride down from Biarritz in France. Since it was the weekend of my birthday, we splurged on a gorgeous studio from Airbnb right on San Juan Kalea just a few blocks away from the beach. One of the first things our host told us was that Parte Vieja (“Old Town”) where we were was a prime location for food and bars.
Try the Pinxtos. Food is elevated to an art form in San Sebastian, and the bar experience is exceptional. Most bars in Old Town serve pintxos which are a regional take on Spanish tapas. You can tell it’s a pintxo bar because the counter will be laden with plates and trays of food in 2-3 bite portions.
At these buffet-style bars, you take a plate from the bartender, fill it with whatever you want, then hand the plate back so they can count up the number of items you’ve taken. They will also heat up croquettes and other things that are meant to be served warm. You can repeat this process as many times as you want until you are ready to pay and leave.
Pay after you eat. I truly believe the Basque people have perfected the art of keeping tabs at pintxo bars. I am astonished that in a room full of people without table numbers or other methods of identification, the bartenders always seem able to keep track of how many of what kind of dishes we have eaten (some are more expensive than others) and always present us with the correct check.
Spanish won’t help you much. San Sebastian is in Basque country where they speak Basque, a language that is very different from French or Spanish spoken in the countries where this region stretches across. However, most bars will have at least one person who speaks more English than the others, and the eating experience is simplified so that you don’t need to speak much to get along.
One exception is Borda Berri which, by the way, has the most incredible Idiazabel (cheese made from sheep milk) mushroom risotto. As I wrote about in my Yelp review, the food is not laid out buffet-style here but made-to-order. The menu is also in Basque, and it was difficult to find a waiter who can translate to English.
In this case, knowing what you want (e.g. “risotto”) is very helpful. Barring that, you can look around at what other people are eating and ask for the same. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also just take a chance, point to anything on the menu, and just see what you get!
It’s inexpensive. Most items you find at the bar cost 2-4 euros, so you can definitely rack up a sizable bill if you want to try everything, but portions were usually big enough my boyfriend and I were able to comfortably split them. That way, we got to try multiple things in every bar and never racked up a bill more than 20-30 euros altogether, usually including a sangria or 2 each. Also, there’s no tipping. I’ve asked locals at a couple different pintxo bars and the custom is just to pay for what you eat, so do not leave money on the table for the waiters.
Don’t worry about following a guide. The great thing about eating at pintxo bars is that you can walk in and survey the food before you make a decision, or stop at several bars and have a bite at each. Most restaurants don’t have a huge internet presence anyway, so it’s best to just walk around. There’s less pressure to research any restaurants or commit to a place, which also takes stress out of finding a good meal while traveling.
Take a Siesta. Anytime you visit a Spanish country, you have to be aware of the mid-afternoon siesta. Unlike Western countries, expect most restaurants to be closed for a few hours between lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, most restaurants do not post their hours outside.
One restaurant Zeruko (see my Yelp review for it here) came highly recommended by many people we spoke to. I sent my Spanish-speaking boyfriend to ask about the hours and was told they open for lunch from 2:30pm until around 4pm, and for dinner at 7:30pm. Most of the pintxo bars in the area operate around the same times, give or take an hour or two.
Ask for the specials. One of the things our AirBnb host mentioned we should make a practice of doing is asking for the “specials” when we go into a pintxo bars because most will have one. We tried this at several restaurants, including Zeruko which had a cod dish that they serve on a hot grill for you to roast yourself. We came in around 4pm and was told they only had one of the specials left, so my boyfriend and I had to share the fish and accompanying wheatgrass shot.
It’s not good for vegetarians. Many of the dishes are made with fish, anchovies, foie gras, octopus or squid, and it’s hard to know what you’re eating since there are usually no signs on the food. However, everything we tried was absolutely delicious and if you’re willing to bend your diet rules for some of the freshest seafood you will ever eat, San Sebastian is the place to do it.