Cheap eats in San Sebastian
Before heading to San Sebastian, it pays to do your research. Renowned for its Michelin-starred restaurants, if you’re planning a special (and expensive) night out, you can simply eeny-meeny-minie-mo your way to foodie heaven. But those of us with shallower pockets – you can call it ‘a sense of adventure,’ if you prefer – are more likely to eat our way across the city via the pintxos bars (pronounced ‘pinchos’) that are tightly packed along the streets of San Sebastian’s old town.
A quick glance at TripAdvisor makes these tapas joints sound pretty unappealing / borderline terrifying: while rhapsodising over the delicious nibbles spread across the bars, most posts also point out how crowded they are, how hard it is to order, and how you have to eat standing up, often with your entire body pressed against a stranger’s, much like having your tea on the Tube. If you want to sit down, your only option is picking an empty bar (i.e. one shunned by the locals), which is, apparently, tantamount to wandering the streets shouting, ‘I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING.’
But is eating in San Seb (yep, we’re mates now) really as intimidating as it sounds? And is the food really so good you won’t mind eating everything standing up? Like, really? Thankfully the answers to your questions are: No! And, yes!
Five tips for eating in San Sebastian
1. CHECK OUT THE MESS
Not much food is priced up, but unless it’s clear you’re somewhere special (see Ganbara, below), don’t panic about the bill. It’s VERY cheap to eat and drink in San Sebastian, and if you live in London the prices will make you LOL, for real. If you want to check if you can afford the bar you’ve chosen, ask yourself: is it littered with napkins? In all but the snootiest joints, it’s fine to just throw them on the floor when you’re finished, like some kind of yob. Yes, really! Go wild. Also, remember: a lot of the bars dispense their napkins from the shelf below the bar, which you might not spot if it’s busy.
2. GET IN LINE
A lot of places don’t open until 12-ish, some don’t open until 1. Others are shut on Mondays. Then the good ones, when they’re open, are quiet for about ten minutes then get mad busy, so don’t be afraid to queue. Practice your ‘I know what I’m doing’ face.
3. DON’T GET COMFORTABLE
Try not to get too attached to one pintxos bar – there are so many great ones to try, it’s worth exploring, even if you’re thinking, ‘Just one more plate of ox cheeks…’ You can always go back to your favourites on the last day of your trip.
4. BE PREPPED OR GET LUCKY
As everyone will tell you (usually while sounding a bit smug), you’ll only get the best from the food in San Seb if you order specials and hot food from the menus behind the bar. Very few offer English translations, so it helps to buff up on your Spanish beforehand and keep a dictionary on you at all times if you don’t speak the language. Or if you’re not fussy, taking pot luck could work very well for you.
5. INDUGE YOUR INNER DRUNK
The local wine of San Seb is called txakoli (pronounced ‘chakoli’), and it’s considered perfectly reasonable to have it for breakfast. It’s also only a couple of Euros a glass. Which is very useful if you like drinking early and cheaply without feeling terrible about yourself.
The must-not-miss pinxtos bars for cheap treats in San Sebastian
Bar Borda Berri
This friendly spot is one of the most famous in San Seb, and for good reason – the food is delicious. There’s an English menu for the hot dishes (looking confused and scared is usually enough for them to hand it over), and if you want some bar snacks, just ask for a plate and grab what you like. Choosing a waiter and catching their eye as you pick things up is enough to let them know what you’ve had – their memories seem to be Dumbo-like. The foie gras, meltingly delicious veal cheek and steak with mustard are all amazing here – although the foie was so rich, one between two would have been plenty. In fact, it’s generally a good idea to share your pinxtos with a chum, then order more if you like them. That way, you get to try more dishes and if you dislike something you don’t have to hide the leftovers under your fork.
Fermin Calbeton, 12, +34 943 430342, (Closed Mon)
If you excitedly head to Borda Berri on a Monday, keen to get stuck in, then realise lots of pinxtos bars are shut on Mondays (ahem) you might find yourself wandering next door to Bar Sport. Luckily, it’s also a gem – hover around until there’s space at the bar for you to lean on, and tuck in. Oddly, the ox cheek, which every other bar seems to specialise in, is a bit of a dud here (meaning you actually have to chew it), but the also-ubiquitous ham croquettes are delicious. The cold snacks are also exceptional (‘puedo tener una placa por favor’ is Spanish for ‘can I have a plate, please?’. This will come in super-handy here).
Fermin Calbeton, 10, +34 943 426 888
Stumble on Ganbara and you might think, ‘This is how it should be done! So civilised.’ Although its customers are still packed in like hungry sardines, Ganabra has that je ne sais quoi that makes you wonder why all the bars in San Seb don’t follow suit. Then you get the bill and realise that je ne sais quoi is cash: a small ham roll that might cost you 2.50 Euros elsewhere is nicer here, but also twice the price. Definitely worth a visit, but if you want to keep your trip cheap it’s more of a treat than somewhere you should frequent regularly.
Calle San Jeronimo, 10, +34 943 42 25 75
By now, you’re getting the hang of things. ‘Why did they even invent tables?’ you’re thinking. ‘Man, sitting down is so 2014.’ And it’s this kind of mindset that will lead you to Zeruko, which is full of young people with edgy haircuts taking photos of their dinner with long-lens cameras. You’ll spend a lot of time going, ‘What the hell’s THAT?’ as waiters stalk past holding dishes that look like aliens, or hedgehogs, or ornaments with smoke coming off them. It’s very modern, and very molecular, and frankly we were too scared to eat anything except some tiny burgers, and some tiny eggs perched on some tiny slices of ham. If you’re cool and on Instagram, you’ll love it.
Calle Pescaderia, 10, +34 943 42 34 51
La Cuchara de San Telmo
The renowned La Cuchara is down a side-street, under the dangling sign of a spoon, and is VERY FAMOUS. Everyone says you should go here, and yes, the food really is amazing – but, to be honest, eating here is quite stressful. Even if you get there bang on opening time, grab a spot at the bar and start thinking, ‘This isn’t so bad!’ within ten minutes the long, thin room will be absolutely packed, and the bar staff will look even unhappier about it than you are. Although the foie gras is the wrong side of gelatinous if you’re sensitive to texture, the veal cheeks really are exceptional. Braver souls report that literally everything on the menu is brilliant, and we believe them. But once you’ve grappled your way out the atmosphere may be more, ‘WE SURVIVED!’ than, ‘YUM!’ Go, sure, but maybe wear a hardhat.
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28, +34 943 43 54 46
This bar, tucked slightly away from the main drag, proves that an empty pinxtos bar doesn’t mean a bad one. Opening at 12.30pm each day, it doesn’t have customers banging on the doors, but the food is delicious. It also offers English translations of the menu below the Spanish, which is like a warm hug after struggling with a dictionary everywhere else. Duck and foie gras ravioli, ox cheeks (of course…) and pork elbows are all delicious, served delicately and with plenty of flavour. Who knew pigs had such chubby, delicious elbows?
Plaza de la Constitucion, 15, +34 943 42 52 45 (Closed Weds)
Round the corner from bars Borda Berri and Sport is La Vina, the perfect destination for pudding. The tapas is good, but the cheesecake really has to be tasted to be believed. As the chefs slam them on the counter fresh from the kitchen they wobble alarmingly, in a way that suggests you’ll be drinking your cheesecake through a straw. But no: they cool into perfect, creamy slices of vanilla-tinged deliciousness. A single slice is plenty for two (they serve it as two slices anyway), and is a steal at 5 Euros.
31 de Agosto Kalea, 3, +34 943 42 74 95
Oh my. This is the one. The one you’ll dream about when you’re back home. The one you’ll tell your friends about. And your grandchildren. There are seven, three Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastian, so on seeing this tiny restaurant which features just ONE table, you might wonder how it can possibly be rated the second-best in the city. Then you go, and you find out… If you’d like to book the single table, it’s worth attempting (at lunchtime, at least) – arriving half an hour before opening at 12.30 and using your best Spanish to ask if the table’s available (or your worst Spanish and lots of waving) might work. But if it doesn’t, don’t worry, because the food will cushion you on a cloud of joy and you won’t even notice you’re standing up. Bar Nestor serves just four things: tortilla (to be ordered at 12.30 if you want it) tomato salad with bread (tomatoes, salt, olive oil: amazing), padron peppers (fried and salted to perfection, to be sucked off their stalks), and STEAK. You’ll be offered two huge steaks, about four inches thick, to pick from. Then they’ll whisk The Chosen One to the kitchen, briefly sear and salt it, then present it to you, dripping with fat and juices and sliced both vertically and away from the bone. If you don’t like your beef rare, you can sear it on the hot plate to cook it a little longer, but either way it’s absolutely delicious. And all this for two, plus a bottle of prosecco, comes to about £45.
Unbelievable value and a great atmosphere (anyone who bags one of the few spots to eat is so happy it’s infectious), it’s unmissable. Some have complained about surly staff, but this is a very old-school joint: be courteous and friendly (don’t order by shouting in English), and you should be as happy as someone who’s just had one of the best meals of their life on a shoestring.
Pescaderia, 11, +34 943 42 48 73