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San Sebastian's amazing Michelin street dining
"Pinxto" is more than the local specialty, it's a way of life. Find out what it is, and why it's a beloved delicacy, in the bars and inns of Basque country
For most of us, sitting down to a multi-course dinner prepared by a famed chef is a special occasion. Very special.
But there are some parts of the world where premium food and wine are such essential parts of daily life that it’s not unusual to be treated to such an experience every day -- without going broke in the process.
Take San Sebastián, on northern Spain’s Bay of Biscay coast, just 20 kilometers from France.
Known as Donostia in the Basque tongue, the city says it has more Michelin stars (a total of 16) per square meter than any other place in the world.
Three legendary restaurants hold Michelin's highest three-star honor: Arzak, Akelarre and Berasategui.
No reservation at these stellar spots? No problem. It’s still possible to get an unforgettable meal right on the cobblestone streets of the "pintxo" headquarters of San Sebastián.
What is a pintxo?
Pintxos has developed over the years from being a simple bar food to innovative small plates that can rival the offerings at any Michelin-rated establishment.
While a typical pintxo (literally "spike" or "thorn") is made up of several skewered ingredients atop a piece of bread, the term can refer to any small bar food, from a plate of Idiazabal cheese risotto to a potato-filled wedge of tortilla.
The bar scene has always played an important role in Basque living, with tavern owners offering small snacks like olives for their guests to enjoy with their drinks.
In the 1940s, men who were spending more and more time in taverns, drawn in by the local betting culture, started combining the snack foods to create meals, then giving their creations names.
The first of these to gain widespread popularity was the Gilda, named after Rita Hayworth’s 1946 film of the same name, first appearing at Bar Valles. (See the City essentials section at end for details of all businesses featured.)
This pintxo is made simply by wrapping an anchovy around four green chilies and topping it with an olive.
Like Hayworth, the Gilda is elegant, thin and a little spicy.
How it's done
Europeans tend to have lots of unspoken rules about food -- Basque country is no exception.
To avoid looking like an amateur, never ask for a plate at the bar. Some places may offer self-service, but if it doesn’t look like you should pick it up, then don’t pick it up.
The point of pintxo tasting is to make a night of it, buying a different course at each bar.
Often, people gather a group of friends and make a kitty. Everyone puts in €20 (US$26) and elects one person as banker.
Pintxos average about €2.50 to €3.50 a piece. If the fund runs out, you put in more money. If you leave early you forfeit your share.
Don’t expect to find a seat. The point is to enjoy exceptional cuisine in an informal setting.
Payment is based on the honor system. Just tell the barman what you ate when you’re ready to leave.
To avoid filling up too quickly, never have more than one pintxo at each bar and feel free to skip the bread.
It’s customary to throw your napkin on the floor. You can often judge the quality of an establishment by the amount of refuse on the floor.
And don’t order more than one drink at a time. The best pintxo accompaniment is Txacoli, a young white wine whose light body will not overpower the taste of the food.
Where to eat
To spot a good place in San Sebastián's old town, look for places where people are spilling out onto the streets.
We recommend starting at Bar Valles for a Gilda, the proper beginning to an amazing seven-course meal.
Next, walk to A Fuego Negro, a trendy bar founded by two former DJs.
You’ll want to try all of the deconstructed pintxos on the menu, but if you must choose one, go for the “Arroz, tomato, y un huevo.”
Based on the Spanish comfort food dish of rice, tomato sauce and an egg, the A Fuego Negro version uses a dehydrated tomato strip to break up a poached egg on top of creamy rice.
Every place has its own specialty. Bar Martinez concocts a delicious trio of lightly marinated, juicy and plump mushrooms, served warm on a stick.
The bar counter at Gandarias is covered with chewy slices of bread decorated with healthy portions of local seafood.
Bar Nestor serves one of the best tortillas in Spain. They make only two a day, served at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m., and it’s best to arrive early to guarantee a slice.
Borda Berri is good for stewed beef cheeks -- incredibly tender cuts of meat -- or lightly fried sweetbread and lemongrass ravioli.
When you’re ready for dessert, it’s always smart to end the night at La Viña for an incredible crustless cheesecake that's perfectly creamy and not too sweet.
After tasting the pintxos of San Sebastián, it’s natural to want to recreate your own tasting menu at home.
The most scenic lesson in town is offered by ni neu, located in the amazing Kursaal Congress Centre, designed by Rafael Moneo. It overlooks the sea and the river Urumea.
Ni neu’s expert chefs offer classes in crafting innovative pintxos for all skill levels. The €80 (US$112) workshop includes an apron, recipe book and lunch or dinner after the class.
Tenedor Tours runs a daytime class for €120 (US$158). It involves spending the morning shopping at San Sebastián’s Bretxa market, then heading to a private house to learn how to make a dozen different types of pintxos.
The new Basque Culinary Center offers a variety of hands-on workshops taught in Spanish, as well as a gallery dedicated to food art and photography.
Where to stay
The entire city of San Sebastián was built as a summer resort for royalty. To get the full city experience, it’d be a shame to stay anywhere other than the 100-year-old Hotel Maria Cristina.
The newly renovated belle époque hotel features massive rooms and a prime location just steps away from the old town.
Rooms booked online start at €165 (US$217).
It’s a treat to start your day with breakfast at Easo Restaurant, with local specialties including Basque cake, a sticky almond flour cake filled with cherries or cuajada, a dish made from curdled sheep’s milk served with walnuts and honey.
At night, the Dry San Sebastián Bar, inside the hotel, serves some of the best cocktails in the city and is also the location where Bette Davis supposedly smoked her last cigarette before her 1989 death from cancer in Paris.
Among creator Javier de las Muelas’ signature drinks is the wild “carnyvore,” a cocktail made from chili-infused vodka and strawberry puree, served in a prey-trapping pitcher plant.
If you’re itching for a proper sit-down meal at one of the region’s top Michelin-rated restaurants, the concierge here is your best bet to get a reservation.
San Sebastián Airport is a 20-minute drive west of the city center, and is served by Iberia airline.
Travelers may find it easier to fly directly to Bilbao and then take the one-hour Pesa bus ride to San Sebastián. Buses leave on the hour. High-speed trains also connect to the city from Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and Lisbon.
Bar Valles, Calle de los Reyes Católicos, 10, 20006 San Sebastián, Guipuzcoa; +34 943 45 22 10; open Monday, Friday-Sunday 1-3 p.m. and 8:30-11 p.m., Tuesday 1-3 p.m.; www.barvalles.com
A Fuego Negro, Calle 31 de Agosto 31, 20003 San Sebastián, Guipuzcoa; +34 650 13 53 73; open Tuesday-Sunday 1:30-3:30 p.m. and 8:30-10:30 p.m.; www.afuegonegro.com
Bar Nestor, Calle Pescaderia, 11, 20003 San Sebastián, Guipuzcoa; +34 943 42 48 73; open Tuesday-Sunday noon-7 p.m.; www.barnestor.com
Bar Martinez, Calle 31 de Agosto, 13, 20003 San Sebastián, Guipuzcoa; +34 943 42 49 65; open Monday-Wednesday 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 6:30-11:30 p.m., Friday 6:30-11:30 p.m., Saturday 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 6:30-11:30 p.m.
Gandarias, Calle de San Jerónimo, 25, 20003 San Sebastián, Guipuzcoa; +34 943 42 63 62; open daily from 11 a.m.-midnight; www.restaurantegandarias.com
Bar Borda-Berri, Calle Fermin Calbeton, 12, 20003 San Sebastián, Guipuzcoa; +34 943 43 03 42; open Tuesday-Sunday 12:30-3:30 p.m. and 7:30-11:30 p.m.
La Viña, Calle 31 de Agosto 3, 20003 San Sebastián, Guipuzcoa; +34 943 42 74 95; open Tuesday-Sunday 12:30-11 p.m.; www.santiagorivera.com
ni neu,Avenida de Zurriola, 1, 20002 San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa; +34 943 00 31 62; open Monday, Tuesday, Sunday 1-3:30 p.m. and Thursday, Friday, Saturday 1-3:30 p.m. and 8:30-10:30 p.m.; www.restaurantenineu.com
Tenedor Tours; +34 609 467 381; www.tenedortours.com
La Bretxa, along Calle de Aldamar in Parte Vieja, 20003 San Sebastian, Guipúzcoa; +34 943 43 00 76; open Monday-Sunday 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; www.la-bretxa.com
Basque Culinary Center, Paseo Juan Avelino Barriola 101, 20009 San Sebastian, Guipúzcoa; +34 943 53 51 03; www.bculinary.com
Hotel Maria Cristina, Paseo Republica Argentina, 4, 20004 San Sebastian, Guipúzcoa; +34 943 43 76 00; http://theluxurycollection.com/MariaCristina
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