Make no mistake, atop the list of must-go foodie destinations before you die sits San Sebastian, make your pilgrimage to food Mecca and return simultaneously enlightened and enlarged! The jewel in the crown of the Basque Country, known by locals as Donostia, is a true rarity. Home to more Michelin stars per square kilometre than any other city in Europe, you may be surprised to learn that it overshadows London and Paris. San Sebastian is surpassed in this contest only by Japan’s Kyoto and is practically on our doorstep in comparison. With a sky full of 16 stars overall and 3 elite eateries holding the ultimate three star rating, it is safe to say there’s something in the water in the Bay of Biscay.
What makes San Sebastian unmissable however is that here magnificent food is akin to religion, accessible to all, worshipping the same deity in temples both grand and modest. Demonstrating this, alongside the culinary cathedrals of Michelin acclaim sit San Sebastian’s famed pintxo bars. Pintxos are the Basque analogue to traditional tapas, so named for the stick they are traditionally skewered with for ease of handling. Some are dainty enough to ease extensive sampling, others sit atop disks of bread a la Italian Bruschetta, but all are a challenge to self-restraint as one is never enough!
As visually stunning as the city certainly is, many of its finest pintxo bars are full of personality but are not exactly lookers. They bear little resemblance to their Michelin-starred neighbours but at a fraction of the cost serve unforgettable and exciting morsels, which amazingly in many cases can go toe to toe with their upmarket counterparts. San Sebastian is no one-trick culinary pony and it truly needs to be experienced to be believed, so start the day late like the locals and graze on perfect pintxos until dinner time.
La Madame, San Bartolome Kalea, 35, Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
Somewhat unusually in Donostia, a dedicated weekend brunch menu is on offer in chef Kevin Patricio’s La Madame, if you fancy getting your eggs Benedict fix with a side of bravas and jamon d’Iberico. A short stroll to the promenade, why not get your goodies to go and enjoy a beachfront brunch picnic when the sun is out? You can always return later for a sleek dinner in modern surroundings as La Madame doubles as a stylish cocktail bar by night. Don’t leave here without trying the Pluma D’Iberico, a cut of native pork which is cooked pink and exudes sweetness which is heightened by the addition of candied chestnuts here.
Bar Zeruko, Pescaderia 10, San Sebastian – Donostia, Spain
A hallmark of Donostian pintxos bars is disinterest in décor, evident in Bar Zeruko but completely overshadowed by its display of modern pintxos based on innovative combinations of traditional Basque ingredients. An extravagant counter-top selection of eye-catchingly experimental pintxos is laid out before you, begging to be devoured. While their stylish offerings change daily, examples of greatness surpassing the modest surroundings include grilled globe artichoke stuffed with creamy foie and sauternes-soaked sultanas, gilded with gold leaf…For less than the cost of a golden beetroot in Fallon and Byrne. Something more traditional? Try the morcilla in crisp brik pastry, a San Sebastian sausage roll of sorts and a great way to start the day.
Bar Antonio, Bergara Kalea, 3, 20005 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
With frito misto being a Basque stalwart and the wide open Atlantic on its doorstep, Calamari is bound to feature chalkboards and menus alike in San Sebastian. Bar Antonio has mastered the delicacy so often botched by others, achieving the elusive balance between delicate tempura-like batter clinging to sweet, perfectly cooked octopus. I always love to see both rings and tentacles included, leaving no room for doubt of the calibre of seafood on offer.
Chef Inaki Gulin is a well-known in these parts for his innovative approach to Basque cuisine while championing traditional local produce and here all pintxos are cooked to order. Be slightly adventurous with your chosen cuts here and sample some veal sweetbreads, meltingly delicious pig’s ear or slow-cooked cheeks known as carillada across Spain, no knife necessary. Completely immerse yourself in Basque deliciousness and order a side of local sheep’s cheese Idiazabal.
Bar Nestor, Calle Pescaderia 11, San Sebastian – Donostia, Spain
In Bar Nestor, you will be nestled amongst locals, the best gauge of the authenticity of the food being served. If you are lucky (this place gets seriously packed) you will find yourself propped on a richety barstool competing for the most prized cut of beef – Txuleta. Nestor himself can be a brusk fellow but more importantly he is the purveyor of the finest steak, to my knowledge thus far, on Earth. Seriously sizeable, people have been known to ask for others’ Txuleta leftovers. Having visited once to be told it was sold out, I can relate to this level of prime rib over pride desperation. Bar Nestor’s Raf tomato salad and green piquillo peppers, both bathed in peppery olive oil and liberally sea salted, are the only accompaniments needed here….a carnivore’s death row dinner!
Mugaritz, Aldura Aldea, 20, 20100 Errenteria, Gipuzkoa
A standout star in San Sebastian’s Michelin constellation, 2 star Mugaritz has consistently appeared in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant list, currently sitting pretty at number 6. Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz trained under legendary Ferran Adria at El Bulli and has gone on to develop one of the most thrilling dining experiences imaginable – an offering of two dozen tasting dishes tailored to what you will and will not eat. With no menu to speak of, you have to be willing to push your boundaries and surrender yourself to his highly adventurous creations based on his whims on the night. Mugaritz is not some stuffy fine dining establishment where you wonder whether or not the price-tag is justified, it is an immersion into the mind of a gifted culinary adventurer willing to share his gift and is, in one word, unforgettable.
Agorregi Jatetxea, Portuetxe, 14 20018 San Sebastian , Donostia, Spain
Chef Gorkha Arzelus is at the helm of the Agorregi kitchen, offering sleek, contemporary Basque cuisine with his wife Beatriz at front of house. It has been awarded a well-deserved Michelin Bib Gourmand, meaning this is fine dining for everyone, offering a change from the pintxo trail whilst maintaining emphasis on local seasonal ingredients of exceptional quality. You won’t stumble upon this one as it is slightly off the beaten track, but it is well worth the detour and exceedingly good value. Notably, Arzelus trained under San Sebastian’s own gastronomic apostles, Juan Mari Arzak (father of 2012 World’s Best Female Chef Elena and owner of 3 star Arzak) and Martin Berasategui. Speaking of…..
Martin Berasategui, Calle de Loidi, 4, 20160 Lasarte-Oria, Gipuzkoa, Spain
Nestled in the suburban hills of Donostia, Martin Berasategui is the flagship restaurant in the empire of its namesake, not unlike Spain’s (less stroppy) answer to Gordon Ramsay. Don’t be fooled by his cookbook series and legion of eateries worldwide, far from living the life of a celebrity chef Martin is in the kitchen guarding his 3 hard-earned Michelin stars. Berasategui’s Grand Carte de Degustacion demonstrates his evolution over the course of two decades with 12 courses showcasing what can only be described as the embodiment of innate culinary genius. This is the epitome of Basque brilliance and doesn’t come cheap…but walking up this restaurant’s steps is tantamount to ascending to heaven. NB: try to resist the urge to genuflect when Martin visits your table for a digestif.
Casa Gandarias 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23, 20004 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
Txackoli (cha-ko0-lee to save Basque blushes) is the locally produced white wine from nearby Galeria. A refreshing slightly sparkly little number that lets the food do the talking and is best ice cold with a plateful of boquorones (anchovies popped in the mouth like peanuts in these parts). Starting at around 2 euro a glass, it is nigh on impossible not to choose this authentic Basque tipple over sparkling water, regardless of the time of day. Casa Ganderia allows you to sample such local wines extensively, with enomatic machines and wonderful barmen more than willing to guide your choices.
La Perla Paseo la Concha s/n, 20007 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
Settle in to the postcard-like views of La Playa de la Concha and watch the sun set over the Bay of Biscay on the La Perla terrace. This gem is definitely as enticing the luxury lingerie brand it shares a name with and it would be rather rude not to toast your excellent taste in holiday destination here with a bottle of authentic Catalan Cava!
Museo del Whiskey, 5 Boulevard Zumardia, 20003 San Sebastian, Spain
The Basque region may not be the place to spring to mind when you think Whiskey, but San Sebastian’s Museo del Whiskey is the home of over 3,400 different bottles of the water of life, meaning it has bragging rights to the title of largest collection in any European bar. Unsurprisingly buzzy, the piano bar downstairs means flexing your whiskey-fuelled vocal chords is a distinct possibility here.
Armed with these recommendations, what else needs to be on your checklist before jetting off to San Sebastian? An inquisitive and voracious appetite, shoes that won’t see you paralysed on cobblestones and someone who not only won’t mind, but will embrace the fact that you will reek of anchovies for the entire trip – enjoy!
Darina Coffey Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!