Savoring San Sebastián

On a recent trip to San Sebastián, John Chantarasak spent a week exploring the expansive pitnxos scene in the Old Quarter of the city, discovering San Sebastián’s gastronomic delights, one bite at a time.

November 30, 2016
Pintxo literally translates as spike

San Sebastián—or Donostia as any local will refer to their beloved city—is located on the west coast of Basque Country in Northern Spain, a stone’s throw from the French border. Quintessentially following suit with European fashion, all of the city’s beauty is accompanied by a plethora of undeniably interesting history and culture, attributes that certainly haven’t gone unnoticed, having been named the “2016 Capital of European Culture”, a distinction that is bestowed by the European Union to highlight the richness and diversity of cultures in Europe as well as to increase citizens’ sense of belonging to a common cultural area.

San Sebastián’s proximity to France (12 miles) and the fertile agricultural landscape in this region of Basque Country have bred a community of foodies; as a result, the city now boasts a gastronomic scene to rival any other in the world. San Sebastián attracts travelers from all corners of the world to taste the revered modern Basque cuisine. With 15 Michelin stars across a mere eight restaurants, the city sparkles as proudly as the crystal clear turquoise sea that surrounds its shores, and with a population of 186,000, San Sebastián holds the second highest number of Michelin stars per capita in the world (Kyoto tops the list). Quite a feat for such a humble city of laid-back donostiarras, as the residents refer to themselves. Among the most famous are Arzak (3-star), Akeláre (3-star), and Mugaritz (2-star), all of which incidentally find themselves placed in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

However, despite this wealth of high-end accolades, the main reason many a gastronomic enthusiast makes the pilgrimage to San Sebastián is the world-renowned pintxos bar scene. Pintxo literally translates as “spike” and traditionally refers to an offering or snack that is “spiked’ with a toothpick to a piece of bread and eaten as a snack in bars and taverns, not too dissimilar to the more commonly known tapas. This style of pintxo is still commonly found throughout San Sebastián and remains popular with locals and tourists alike; however, pintxos has evolved to encompass small plates of food that are freshly prepared in bar kitchens, and the requirement of toothpicks and bread has been abandoned.

On a recent trip to San Sebastián, I spent a week exploring the expansive pitnxos scene in the Old Quarter of the city, wandering from one tavern to the next, sampling delicious morsels of food accompanied by some excellent local vino tino (red wine) and txakoli, a slightly sparkling, very dry white wine with high acidity and low alcohol content that is native to the Basque region of Spain. Herein is a selection of my favorite discoveries.