I’m greedy, I’ll just put that out there…when it comes to food that is! In my opinion, San Sebastian has to be the mecca for all foodies, and Spain in particular for me is such a fantastic country for food and drink. Every city in Spain has its own culture, history and heritage and most revolve around food, festivals and enjoying oneself long into the wee hours.
San Sebastian is no exception, situated in the north of the country at the Bay of Biscay. There are several ways to get there. All are a bit of an exciting adventure in itself if travelling from Ireland, though there are direct flights from the UK. My route was a bit of a pilgrimage and the reason I came to enjoy all this city has to offer was my stag.
First I had an overnight stay in Barcelona with my father and then joined forces with my brother at the airport in Barcelona the following morning. We then drove some 680km to the home of the “Donostiarras” (locals of San Sebastian). Nearly five hours later and with a quick lunch pit stop in Zaragoza we arrived in Basque country.
What strikes you the second you hit “Pais Basco” is that it is a completely different part of Spain. Somewhere between an alpine hideaway and Scandinavian wonderland. The mountainous scenery is breathtaking, if not a bit nerve racking to drive through. We arrived just in time for some Txakoli and to take in the electric atmosphere of people sitting outside just eating and having fun.
If you love Pintxos and that style of eating and drinking, then San Sebastian food is right up your street. Just to be clear this is by no way the definitive guide to the city. I think a place that once boasted more Michelin stars per capita in the world for a very long time doesn’t need me to point out the good stuff. Let’s just say these are the places that really impressed me, thanks to following my nose and stomach, plus I may have had a bit of insider knowledge…it’s great to be a chef!
Ok so let’s talk about food!!!
To point out the five best Pintxos bars or restaurants in San Sebastian is like saying which pub in Dublin pours the best Guinness. It’s kind of impossible. Yes there will be many tourists all saying “ X was amazing” and “ Y serves the best tortilla they ever had ” but to be honest you won’t go far wrong with most places in town. That being said, I really enjoyed these places.
– San Sebastian Food –
Ganbara is really what you expect from a pintxos bar in San Sebastian. Yes there may be a wait. Yes it will be full of like minded tourists all hoping to see the ghost of Anthony Bourdain sipping Cava at the end of the bar (Ganbara being his favourite place in town). I have to admit he was right on the money. The wild mushrooms with egg yolk and foie gras are out of this world, as is the spider crab tart. To quote Tony himself, next time I’m back I too will be heading to Ganbara “like a heat seeking missile”.
I was put on to Bar Nestor by my old veg supplier in a previous life, who said “the tomato and steak was the best I ever had”. He was not wrong… Bar Nestor is a very simple affair. Incredible Galician beef. Super ripe tomato salad with onion and the famous tortilla (be sure to book in for this as they only make a limited amount per day) I queued for over an hour but hey grab a road beer/cava and get stuck in.
Casa Gandarias was hot on every list of “top ten” places to try for San Sebastian food and boy oh boy was it good. There is a restaurant in the back which unfortunately was jam packed full of locals on the night we were there, always a good indication. To the bar we went and the selection of pre prepared and made to order pintxos was out of this world. The wine list in this place is incredible and the value for money is insane compared to Ireland, for wine both by the bottle and by the glass. If you are ever lost in the old town and in need of quick delicious sustenance go no further. Stand out Pintxos were the Iberico presa with sweet and sour peppers, razor clams and the ubiquitous foie gras on toast.
There have been so many world famous restaurants from Spain in the last 20 years. El Bulli, El Celler de Can Roca, Etxebarri and Mugaritz. The list goes on and on, and for good reason. For the most part these places were revolutionary. They were the rock stars, the trailblazers, the nouvelle cuisine/molecular gastronomy whizz kids. However there was always one restaurant situated in San Sebastian, just about 10 mins from the old town that just evolved while maintaining the heritage of what it was. This place never tried to reinvent the wheel. It serves elevated versions of simple Basque dishes. I am of course talking about Arzak. I will admit I’m a divil for meeting celeb chefs but to see the patriarch and his daughter side by side in the kitchen was something quite special.
Was I blown away by the food? No to be honest. It’s not exactly cheap, Don’t get me wrong, it is a 3 star Michelin. The service, the technique and the food all ooze “hello madame” but I think value for money, San Sebastian has way more to offer. However, if sitting at a tasting menu for 4+ hours being pampered is your thing I say “do it” probably once in a lifetime.
Borda Berri hits the spot on so many levels. It’s a bit quirky. The menu is definitely Basque. Basque ingredients and Basque technique but with a menu that has a “risotto” and a “kebab” you may be tempted to do a double take.
I love everything about this place and yes it deserves the hype. The “risotto” is actually a delicious pasta much like orzo finished with a local sheep’s cheese and it is fantastic. The Basatxerri pork rib kebab was a much refreshing addition to the food scene after all the jamon and tortilla one can consume. Again like much of San Sebastian food, news travels fast and most of the “good” spots usually have a queue but with a little patience and a willingness to interact with your fellow punter, the wait goes by fairly quickly.
When it comes to bars in San Sebastian, most tourists and locals love nothing more than sipping a little txakoli or cava as the sun goes down. Here’s a few places that really do it well.
– San Sebastian Drinks –
With an outpost in Melbourne, don’t be mistaken for thinking this place is a chain. San Sebastian has a great social scene for restaurants and to be fair most places have a great selection of drinks but Gerald’s Bar has something a bit different, which I really enjoyed. Sitting at the bar sipping an aperitif before heading off on a gastronomic journey is the thing to do. However you may make the same mistake I did and start ordering everything from the menu.
Well with a name called La Gintoneria you know the order of the day is going to be gin. In fairness, the Basque really know how to make a great gin and tonic and if you’re anything like me, this spot, situated not too far from the old town, really hits the mark. Experience more gin than a gin palace in London in the late 1800’s. Fishbowl sized concoctions really make this place a bit of fun.
It may just be the fact that in a past life my Mrs was a musician, but I love a bit of live jazz and Altzerri is so much fun. It’s dark, it’s cool…. Its jaaaaaaazz. Expect improv and a lot of finger clicking. The drinks are grand but who cares when it’s 3am. Go for early pintxos and nab a seat next to the piano.
As I stated earlier, this is not the definitive guide to what must be the foodie capital in Europe, if not the world. San Sebastian is like a plate of food you had once that blew you away and for the rest of your life it is the benchmark. It is something once experienced that you will talk about until you return. My advice is book a plane/train/bus/boat/bicycle/scooter and get yourself there as soon as possible. Remember, if you find yourself sitting at a square in the old town, a glass of Txakoli and some pintxos is the way to go… “when in Rome”.
San Sebastian Inspired Prawn and Scallop Skewers Recipe
8 peeled and deveined prawns
4 fresh scallops
1 medium baguette
1 clove garlic
4 heirloom tomatoes
50ml olive oil
First skewer the prawns and scallops alternating as you go. Marinade in olive oil and the optional Espelette.
Slice the baguette on an angle and drizzle with some more olive oil and a little salt.
For the tomato dressing, grate the tomatoes and sieve most of the juice.
Once drained add this into a bowl and add one chopped shallot and a pinch of chopped parsley. Season and reserve.
Now simply grill the baguette and rub a cut piece of garlic on the bread. Keep warm.
Grill the skewers until charred and just cooked. Place these on the baguette and spoon over some of the tomato dressing.
Enjoy with a glass of Txakoli!!!!
Article: ‘When in Rome’ – San Sebastian with Eric Matthews
For the last 6 years Eric Matthews was the head chef at Dublin’s famous Michelin starred Chapter One. Eric has over 18 years experience working in Michelin starred restaurants around the globe, having trained under some of the best chefs in Ireland and internationally, including Heston Blumenthal, Philip Howard and Guillame Brahimi. This year Eric was named in The Independent’s annual Top 50 People to Watch in 2022. Eric is also a food content creator and a regular at Taste of Dublin. More recently Eric was a judge on the RTE series ‘Battle of the Food Trucks’.
Follow Eric on Instagram.