The sad fact is, we’ll never—and I mean NEVER have it so good as in Spain… Because what your tapas bar needs—really needs—is three or four or eight OTHER tapas bars (or casual Spanish eateries within walking distance). You can’t really enjoy this kind of food in a vacuum. You need to graze—or at least know that you can graze (should the urge arise), bouncing from one place to another, a mouthful or two of what’s good here, a glass of tinto, a few mouthfuls of what they do well over there—another glass of tinto and so on. In fact, the whole customer base has to re-groove to accommodate this notion.
You can go for a traditional sit-down meal in San Sebastian. Some pretty good ones in fact. The tourism department boasts “more Michelin stars per square meter than any other city in the world”, and two of the Ten Best Restaurants in the World are within 20km. But we didn’t do that.
Standard M.O. in San Sebastian is to eat at tapas bars. Walk up to the bar, order a single dish (two to five bites worth of food) with a glass of wine or beer, then move on. It’s common to hit four or five spots for a single meal. Dinner becomes a three hour adventure - part dinner theater, part scavenger hunt through alleys between 400 year old buildings.
A dish will cost you €2 to €5. To make life easier, every bar has a house wine (“tinto”) that costs about €2. The pours are smaller than what you’re used to. Gilles, one of our hosts in Paris, told us that the Spanish really dislike drinking warm beer, so they serve cheaper, smaller pours that you refill more frequently. It might cost the same per fluid ounce, but it’s always cold, and it makes it easier to hit five bars for dinner without stumbling home.
Our hosts took us out to dinner with their friends on our first night. During our gin and tonic nightcap, one of the friends said “give me your notebook” and drew this guide to San Sebastian tapas bars:
We would have been lost without it. Parte Vieja (“Old Part”) must have over 75 tapas bars within half of a square mile. Even if you manage to stumble into one of the best bars on accident, it’s overwhelming to look at a menu written in a mixture of Spanish and Basque and feel like you’ve got one chance to get it right.
These aren’t all the spots we visited, but they are our favorites. If you ever find your way to San Sebastian - and if you’re into food and on this continent, you should - this is what we can vouch for:
- Paco Bueno - Gambas (deep fried shrimp)
- A Fuego Negro - MacKobe and Kebab
- La Chuchara De San Telmo - Everything. “Eat one, and move on” broke down here. Carrelleras (ox cheek), Cochinillo (baby pig), Sweetbreads, Rissotto.
- La Vina - Cheese cake and desert wine
- Astelena - Solomillo a Poblo