I lived in San Sebastián for a few months and I felt immediately connected to it. Well, with these friendly and open people, and in this city that has so much to offer, from beautiful beaches to elegant architecture, quality restaurants and affordable bars with hearty food, great ambience and night life, it’s hard to feel otherwise. Above all, San Sebastián is one of the best foodie destinations for all budgets, and there’s something you definitely need to try here: pintxos.
Pintxos are, actually, a way of socializing.
At first sight, it might be tempting to stay in one place but the right way to have your pintxos is to savour one or two plus a drink, at one bar, and then move on to the next location. I enjoyed, above all, going out for pintxos on Thursday evening or Sunday at noon. On Thursdays, for the ‘pintxo y pote’ evening, locals and travellers alike savour the bars’ special pintxo and drink combo, while on Sunday everybody’s out to meet everybody and have a chat over a small bite, a beer, a wine or a glass of sidra.
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.
Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour
The habit of going for pintxos started out just as something like an appetizer before dinner but evolved into a vibrant social culture, especially as Basque people do not usually invite people at home but celebrate almost all events in their city bars.
Today, from small cafes to Michelin stars restaurants, and from simple sandwiches to complex combinations, the pintxos mark most of the public places in the Basque country. The traditional way of eating pintxos is known as txikiteo, a sort of pub-crawl in which a group of friends, usually men, move from bar to bar, having their wine to go with their small bites of delicacies while, traditionally, singing.
What Can be Inside a Pintxo?
Pintxos can be just a simple mix or a very sophisticated small dish, sometimes consisting of very elaborate sometimes expensive fish, seafood, or meats, thus becoming what is known as miniature cuisine. Usually they are slices of bread with a mixture of ingredients fastened with a toothpick or small wooden skewer – pintxo, meaning spike, and which gave the food its name.
They are usually eaten as an appetizer, accompanied by either the small glass of wine – txikito, or a quarter of a beer pint – zurito (or corto de cerveza, in Spanish).
Almost any ingredient can be put on the bread, but those most commonly found in the Basque Country include fish such as hake, cod, or anchovy; tortilla de patatas; stuffed peppers; croquettes; the simple yet tasty sliced baguette layered with jamón ibérico, queso de cabra (goat cheese) or anchovies; or slices of local cheese with tomato jam. These mixes are neither big nor small, somehow of the size of a regular sandwich, and each cost somewhere between 2 to 6 euros.
Back to La Belle Epoque
By the 1930s, aristocratic Spaniards had spread the tradition of tapas to Bilbao and San Sebastián in the Basque Country in the north, where they spent their summers. Here, the tapas soon evolved into small dishes of typical Basque food, held together with a small wooden stick known as a pintxo, or served with one instead of cutlery. Particularly in the foodie capital of San Sebástian, some bars started to create miniature portions of their dishes and displayed them along the bar, so that customers could take them by themselves. To make it easier for their clients and to keep them together, they speared them with wooden cocktail sticks. In the 1940s, the trend spread to other Basque cities such as Vitoria-Gasteiz and Pamplona. Today, pintxos can be all kinds of various savoury treats on sticks, or even in mini plates or bowls.
“San Sebastian is, among other things, a culinary capital of Europe: There are more Michelin-starred restaurants here per capita than anywhere on earth.” Anthony Bourdain, Explore Parts Unknown
When you visit a pintxo bar, the idea is still to help yourself to as many as you want from the bar. When you’ve had your fill, the staff will count up how many sticks or empty mini bowls are left on your table, and you pay accordingly.
Three of My Favourite Pintxos in San Sebastián and Where to Have Them
Patio de Ramuntxo
Carbón Brie – Cheese Wrapped in Poppy Seeds, Served with Tomato Jam
El Patio de Ramuntxo is just a few steps away from the Zurriola beach. They offer creations including Marinated tuna with chilli and vinaigrette or wasabi or Foie with wild mushrooms wrapped in a thin layer of bread.
Hamburguesa de tomate – tomato burger with marinated cod fish and caramelized onion
Bar Bergara opened in 1950 and the chef’s creations won several culinary contests and championships for the best pintxo of the year (such as Txalupa – mushrooms, king prawns, cream and cava, served hot in a puff pastry boat, topped with grated cheese, to only name one). It’s in barrio de Gros, a few minutes across the river from Parte Vieja. White, bright and modern, it’s beautiful to look at. Each pintxo is around €3 and their menu de degustación (six pintxos, drink, dessert) is €23.
Bocadillitos – small simple and hearty sandwiches
Meson Martín is run by brothers Martín since 1996, the place has got that nice cozy atmosphere of a bar with regular customers. On their pintxo menu there are great creations like the Bonito with mayo and anchovies, the traditional Gilda or the hearty bocadillitos de jamón – basically everything in the shape of miniature cuisine. The house’s specialty is a warm pintxo, La Trainera, a grilled baby squid or chipironchito a la plancha with jamón, prawn and a vinaigrette on top.