Spaniards perfected the art of small plates long before the phenomenon reached the States and became associated with “new American cuisine.” And while the country is mainly known for socializing over tapas, pintxos have been a huge part of northern Spain’s Basque culture for just as long. San Sebastián is home to over 200 pintxo bars, and a majority is concentrated in the cobblestoned Parte Vieja, or Old Town.
Pintxos are typically single bites intended for one person rather than small shareable plates. In traditional pintxo bars, napkins and cocktail skewers are discarded on the floor and patrons pay by the honor system.
With so many inspired chefs using a bounty of local ingredients, it’s nearly impossible to make a bad culinary decision in San Sebastián. But here are ten pintxo bars that should be on the top of your list.
Those who know start lining up at noon for a chance at getting one of just 12 slices of tortilla de patata (potato omelet) that’s cut at 1pm. If you miss out, opt for a plate of impossibly juicy chopped tomatoes served in pools of high quality EVOO, sprinkled with sea salt and accompanied by crusty bread. Be sure to try a traditional gilda — anchovies, green olives and Basque pickled peppers guindillas all on a cocktail stick.
Though the spacious bar serves a variety of pintxos the highlight is the feast of fresh seafood for which Bernardo Etxea is known, serving small portions of razor clams, txangurro (Basque spider crab casserole) and kabraroca (scorpion fish pudding). And nothing pairs better with local seafood than tart Basque sidra from a nearby cidery Petritegi or txakoli like 2014 Etxaniz, a slightly effervescent, dry Basque wine with low alcohol and high minerality.
For a different take on seafood, pay a visit to the modern oyster bar, Kata 4, where daily specials range from flavorful mussels Provençal to oak-smoked percebes (Galician goose barnacles). Viñas del Vero Riesling 2013, a bright and balanced aromatic wine, is a perfectly refreshing accompaniment for seafood.
Opened in 1948, La Cepa is one of the more historic pintxo bars in town, known for their bocadillo de jamón (thin-sliced Ibérico ham and melted Manchego on delicate baguette) and traditional bites like crispy croquettes and golden house calamari- all washed down with crisp Tio Pepe, Spain’s most iconic dry fino-style sherry.
Next door to La Cepa is La Viña, known for their silken Burnt Basque Cheesecake, a fluffy cake with a crisp crust similar to a crème brulee. This rich dessert is made even more heavenly when paired with Noe Pedro Ximénez, a dense sherry with notes of molasses and raisin.
Family-owned for the past 35 years, the Zeruko kitchen was recently taken over by the owner’s son, who’s been creating gastro-molecular dishes like tableside-smoked bacalao (cod) accompanied by parsley “roe” and liquid lettuce or lobster foie gras tempura served with dried strawberry and rose smoke. Match with a juicy Mencia Bierzo like the 2012 El Pájaro Rojo, whose lingering spiciness holds up to rich and flavorful pintxos like these.
Gandarias is a must-stop for platters of paper-thin Josalito Ibérico jamón, grilled squid drizzled with squid ink, juicy solomillo (sirloin cuts), and chunks of creamy Idiazábel (Baque sheep’s milk cheese) served with sweet membrillo (quince paste). Enjoy with a 2013 Trus, a smooth, medium-bodied Crianza Tempranillo packed with notes of currant and raspberry.
All the pintxos are made-to-order at this modern kitchen next door to the San Telmo Museum. Both the braised veal cheeks over chickpea puree and foie gras with honey and mustard are the perfect match for a 2006 Beronia Rioja Gran Reserva, a velvet-rich blend filled with berry, tobacco and vanilla notes from aging in both American and French oak barrels.
A Fuego Negro features inventive pintxos with names like “fish discard with black aioli” and “smoked pumpkin, licorice and sheep.” sit back and enjoy their choice selection of music while sipping on a ubiquitous Spanish gin tonika made with The London #1.
Though plenty of cold pintxos line the bar, the hot pintxos are the specialty at Atari Gastroteka. Wine-braised beef cheeks and octopus with potato will have you ordering plate upon plate. To finish order the torrija, a decadent dessert cross between bread pudding and tres leches cake. Atari carries a impressive selection of Spanish vermouths, such as Yzaguirre and Nordesía, so order a vermut preparado- their version has a splash of gin, Picon and orange peel. Next door, keep the party going at Atari Sirmiri, where pintxos are cleared around 11pm to make way for socializing over cocktails like The Travel (gin, Domaine de Canton, lemon, apricot brandy) and the Vanilla Fizz (gin, vanilla syrup, lemon, soda).