A walk through the city reveals that eating is not just eating in Basque Country. Elbow to elbow in a crowded bar, filled with pintxos and people. In the secret hallowed hall of a dining society, watching a kuadrilla, or group of friends, make a meal together. Stuffing a warm, juicy sausage in your mouth on the streets of a festival. Walking up a mountain path, stopping to cut wild mushrooms from the ground or pluck a few figs from the trees. When enjoying the Basque cuisine, a restaurant is sometimes the last place to go.
Basques are uniquely obsessed with food. The surrounding land is rich with ingredients: sparkling rivers, cold seas, humid forests, and lush valleys all contribute excellent-quality produce and game, arguably some of the best in the world. The fisherman, the shepherd, the head of the caserío—they are all familiar figures and the gatekeepers of the Basque cuisine, from brilliantly simple sauced fish to homey stews rich with peppers and onions.
Start the morning with a steaming cup of coffee, lightened with milk and a bit of sugar, over a plate of flaky croissants and a gateau basque. The crumbs from the tender almond crust fall to the table. Indulge, as the Basques do, in hamaiketako, the snack at eleven a.m. Traditionally for laborers, hard at work before dawn, it still stands and is a welcome mid-morning repast, especially in the form of a juicy onion and potato omelette.
Lunch is a movable feast, popping bites of foie, Idiazabal cheese, braised beef and creamy fried bechamel croquettes in between miniature glasses of wine. Dinner is a more serious affair, in a dining room with white tablecloths, where a fresh grilled fish is ladled with a sizzling olive oil, redolent of garlic and cayenne.
Everything of importance in this small region, nestled in the north corner of Spain and the south of France, happens around the table. Taste the Basque cuisine, a cuisine first led by the hand of nature and fortune, across the wild seas and into the coldest rocky valleys.
You step in from the cobbled street outside, and the din of glasses clinking, people conversing, and music playing overwhelms your senses. And, of course, the bar. This bartop is stacked high, plates on plates of tiny canapés, mounds of mayonnaise salads, and delicious looking bits of food stuck through with a toothpick. You want to eat them all, but you take one and order a zurito, or small beer, as your companion has told you to prepare for a feast. The next stop is an incredibly fresh-tasting anchovy, laid on a slice of fresh-toasted bread with a bit of vinaigrette at Txepetxa (Arrandegi Kalea, 5); then you pop over for a fried shrimp at the classic Paco Bueno (Calle Mayor, 6). After that, a braised beef cheek at La Cuchara de San Telmo (Santa Korda Kalea, 4) melts in your mouth, and then you have an a surprising cherry meringue topped with mackerel and sheep’s cheese at A Fuego Negro (31 de Agosto Kalea, 31). Wash it all down with a gin and tonic at Atari(Calle Mayor, 18), because you need to digest—and because the night is still young.
La Parte Vieja, San Sebastián
Amidst the pintxo bars is a restaurant that had not caught your eye until you were practically inside. The ground floor is a pintxo bar, but without much on the bartop. The culinary glory of Urola, you see, is upstairs. The chef and maitre couple recommend the incredibly fresh turbot, and it comes to the table sublimely carved into edible sections. The steak is rare and flavorful, but the tiny green caviar-sized peas steal the show. They have been cooked with the lightest touch, kissed by the grill, and as you down the last bite you realize this is a meal you will never forget.
Fermin Calbeton Kalea 20, San Sebastián
943 44 13 71
After just ten minutes in a taxi, past the rivers and farmhouses, you find yourself in the village of Astigarraga. Every other building seems to have a sign that reads ‘sidrería’: cider house. Inside, you are handed a thin, straight-edged glass and ushered to wooden barrels taller than you are. With a shout of ‘TXOTX’, the cider master opens the barrel and a glistening, amber colored liquid shoots out. You catch it in your glass, and you repeat. Over and over. With a side of chorizo, salt cod, omelette, and a huge, charred and juicy steak. Over walnuts, cheese, and apple paste you think about what an amazing night you’ve had. Txotx!
Petritegi Bidea 8, Astigarraga
943 45 71 88
The world’s #7 restaurant is a farmhouse. You take this in, along with the gorgeous sunset, with a champagne aperitif on the terrace. When you enter and take a seat amidst the wooden walls and ceilings you find two envelopes awaiting you, one labeled ‘SUBMIT’ and the other labeled ‘REBEL’. It doesn’t matter which you choose, because this meal is nothing like anything you have ever tasted. You thought sauce was liquid? Wrong…liquid on your tongue, but on the plate this sauce looks like shards of glass. You thought peas should be cooked at a restaurant? Wrong…mixed with caviar, raw, they are the most luxurious thing you have ever tasted. Welcome to Mugaritz. Now sit back, because the journey is just beginning.
Aldura Gunea Aldea 20, Errenteria
943 52 24 55
The smell of bread baking is a constant as you walk along the streets of San Sebastián. You thought you were carb-free, but this city has changed everything. Every block or so, you come across another little pastry shop, lined with cookies that look like jewels and croissants that seem to shine with their own golden light. You take every breakfast and fika as an opportunity to try something sweet at the hands of the Basques, who, despite claiming a lack of a sweet tooth, have created namesake pastries worth traveling for.
Gateau Basque @ Paries / De Euskadi Plaza 1, San Sebastián
685 75 24 31
Walnut Croissant & Bread @ Galparsoro / Calle Mayor 6, San Sebastian
943 42 10 74
Croissants & Sourdough @ The Loaf / Zurriola Hiribidea 18, San Sebastián
688 76 54 09