We should all be summering in San Sebastían! As a college student, I fell in love with this town, not because of its gastronomy or unique Basque culture, but because of its beaches, bars, and its Spanish tortilla. In 1997, I was not a sophisticate. I was not a food snob. I was not in San Sebastían to study. Let's be honest, I was there to party.
Thankfully, the years since 1997 have afforded me plenty of time to develop an appetite that extends beyond the simple tortilla and kalimotxo (cheap red wine mixed with coke). So, when my husband and I decided to plan a trip abroad, leaving our little ones behind for the first time, I decided that the time had come to return to San Sebastían to experience all that I had overlooked those many years before. With great food, good wine, and beautiful beaches, San Sebastían is just our speed.
I booked us into the Hotel Niza. Why the three star Niza and not the five star Maria Cristina, or somewhere in between? For me, the choice was easy and came down to three things: location, views, and value. The Niza is right on Playa de La Concha, arguably the most beautiful beach on the Atlantic. It is a small hotel, with an even smaller elevator, but its rooms have stunning views and are clean, modern and comfortable. Centrally located, it is an easy walk to restaurants, bars, and the center of town. Plus, if you need a break from pintxo bars, or it happens to be raining outside, the hotel restaurant is surprisingly good. The Niza is a bargain at around 150 Euro per night (ask for an upper floor room with a balcony).
Eating in San Sebastian is not for the faint of heart; the flavors are bold, the ingredients fresh and innovative, and nothing gets started until late into the evening. There are three categories of dining in San Sebastían: casual pinxto bars, contemporary restaurants, and the venerable Michelin stars. For such a small town (population 190,000), San Sebastían has a remarkable variety of wonderful places to eat.
There are close to 200 pinxto bars that populate San Sebastían. All are casual and characterized by both hot and cold small plates, and a help yourself, throw your napkin on the bar floor, and pay as you leave, atmosphere. Most pinxto bars have a specialty, and those that have been around for a long time usually have a following in the community and at peak hours are filled with locals. So when in doubt, a crowded bar is a good bar!
Our first night in town we headed straight for La Cuchara de San Telmo, a newer style pinxto bar serving small contemporary basque dishes. La Cuchara has been on the list of best new pinxto bars for a few years, so it did not surprise us when it was full of foreigners snapping photos of their food. Regardless of the touristy nature of the spot, the food did not disappoint. There is nothing like a huge slice of pan fried foie gras, slow roasted crispy sucking pig, and veal cheeks to start a vacation.
Just a couple of blocks away is La Ganbara, easily my favorite spot. Ganbara has been around forever and is family owned and run. They don't care about write ups, or cookbooks, or food shows - they are old school basques who run a classic bar. The food is so good we ate there several times. Go to Ganbara for amazing sautéed porcini mushrooms, creamy croquetas de jamón, anchovies with green olives, and homemade tiny croissants served with jamón de iberico. It can be a body press in there, so you may have to be aggressive when it comes to getting your order in. www.ganbarajatetxea.com
Not far from La Ganbara is Taberna Gondarias. Don’t be shy, go up to the bar and order a ribeye steak. When they ask you how you would like it cooked, tell them to cook it how they prefer. A few minutes later, you will be presented with a beautifully seared, juicy steak that is quite possibly as big as your forearm. Don’t forget to order a nice glass of Rioja with some age on it.
Contemporary full service restaurants are not necessarily what San Sebastían is known for, but there are a couple new places that are making headlines and are worth a visit if you need a break from pinxto bars. Rekondo sits at the top of Monte Igueldo, a short cab ride from the center of town. Discrete and tucked within a residential community, the white tablecloths and elegant dining room are the backdrop for exquisitely presented basque cuisine. Fresh seafood and regional dishes are the heart of Rekondo’s menu, while the expertly curated and deep wine list provides a great opportunity to experiment and discover Spanish wine. When the weather permits, be sure to sit outside under the large oak tree and start your meal with a bottle of Txaxoli, a locally produced, slightly sparkling, dry, white wine.
In the neighborhood behind the Hotel Niza sits La Madame. Where most San Sebastían eating establishments display old world charm, La Madame takes a sharp left and is sleek, modern and dark. At the helm is Kevin Patricio, an American from New York who had the good fortune of marrying into the basque community and cuisine. Together, he and his wife, who is from San Sebastían, have brought a slice of New York to the other Atlantic coast. Kevin just so happens to be a friend of a friend, so we had the good fortune of sharing pinxtos and a stroll through Parte Vieja. Kevin sees great things on the horizon for the food and drink scene in San Sebastían, most notably, he hopes to introduce his adopted hometown to locally crafted beer.
You can’t possibly travel to San Sebastían without eating at a Michelin starred restaurant – the city and its environs are host to three three-star restaurants as well as numerous establishments with two and one star designations. We had the pleasure of eating at Arzak, Mugaritz and Asador Etxebarri. To save a few bucks we went for lunch, which we thought was a great way to experience these restaurants, especially the later two, which have lovely pastoral settings and were our favorites of the three.
Mugaritz is a short drive from San Sebastían. Set amidst farmland, the modern restaurant is surrounded by gardens and a lovely terrace where, weather permitting, meals can be taken outside. The dining room is large and the tables are amply spaced so to afford privacy and a tranquil dining experience. Everything about our meal at Mugaritz was spectacular. The food is inventive and the presentations are unique. Of the 20 or so dishes that we were served, the most memorable was a dish of fried venison tendons suspended between two thorny twigs and embellished with a quarter sized pool of black squid ink dipping sauce. This dish, while delicious, was visually stunning. After our lengthy lunch we were led outside to the terrace where we enjoyed a myriad of desserts in the sunshine. A meal at Mugaritz is an experience not to be missed.
Our favorite meal of the trip was at Asador Etxebarri. About 45 minutes from San Sebastían, Asador Etxebarri is housed in a basque chalet nestled in a lush, green mountain valley. The simple white tablecloth dining room is upstairs with views of the mountains. Asador Etxebarri is unique because everything is cooked on the grill, lending flavors to the food that reflect the wood of the fire. We opted to skip the prix fix menu in favor of ordering a la carte, and were not disappointed. Memorable dishes included the house made chorizo, grilled porcini mushrooms, and the most incredible “chuleta,” a bone-in Galician steak. I still dream about that steak.
Favorite pastimes: sipping an espresso or glass of txaxoli, hitting the beach, and taking a stroll. If you surf, grab a board and catch some waves off of Playa de Gros, just north of the center of town. Hike to the top of Monte Igueldo (south side of Playa Ondaretta) or Monte Urgull (north side of Playa La Concha). If you are visiting in September, don't pass up a chance to mingle with the cinema crowd at the annual San Sebastían film festival.
These days, night life in San Sebastían doesn't get started until I am usually fast asleep. That being said, there are numerous festivals throughout the year that are centered in Parte Vieja and are generally characterized by a large, all-night, street party. If you happen to be in town in January, it is worth checking if your visit coincides with Dia de San Sebastían. However, Parte Vieja is always happening. When the pinxto bars wind down (around midnight), the cocktail lounges and beer bars are just starting to open. And if you are up for the LATE LATE, dance until sunrise on the beach at Discoteca Bataplan.
ON THE SIDE
Rent a car and explore! While there is enough to keep you busy in San Sebastían, there are a variety of wonderful villages and beaches nearby that are worth exploring. Spend a day winding your way up the coast into France, visiting the villages of Hondarribia, Ciboure, Guéthary, Saint-Jean-de-Luz (don’t miss the market days), and Biarritz. Or perhaps head up into the Pyrennes and check out Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Esplette, Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle, and Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgory. The wine region of La Rioja is a short drive away, as is Bilbao, home of the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim museum.
Don't fool around getting to San Sebastían by car or train. San Sebastían is a quick flight from Barcelona or Madrid, and the airport is small and easier to navigate than most train stations. Taxi into town and rent a car once you are settled, if you so choose. Parking is challenging and expensive, so don't rent a car unless you really intend to use it. Local and regional buses are great.
The Basque alphabet and language will stump even the most sophisticated linguistic, but keep in mind the following order and you will know where you stand: 1. Basque; 2. Spanish; 3. French; and 4. English (most restaurants will produce an English menu if you appear sheepish and confused).
Hotel Niza, Zubieta Kalea, 56
La Cuchara de San Telmo, Calle del Trienta y Uno de Agosto, 28
Restaurante Ganbara, calle San Jeronimo 21
Taberna Gondarias, 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23
Restaurante Rekondo, Igueldo Pasealekua 57
La Madame, San Bartolomé 35
Mugaritz, Aldura Aldea 20, Errenteria, Guipúzcoa
Asador Etxebarri, Plaza San Juan 1, Apatomonasterio, Biscay
Whats to Come:
Methow Valley, Washington ★ 09.15
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W A N D E R L U S T