San Sebastián, or Donostia, Spain is known for the best pintxos in the world. All bars serve them but some more artfully (and courteously) than others. I had traveled to San Sebastián in 2007 and sampled the food in La Cuchara de San Telmo and Casa Gandarias. Excellent. This time another bar caught my eye on the edge of Old Town (or was it just that my daughter needed to use the bathroom so we ducked in?), Nagusia Lau: stacks of savory food in wonderful combinations atop baguette crostinis. We ordered drinks, asked for plates, and filled them by serving ourselves (at all pintxos bars the bartender takes note of what’s on your plate before you consume so that s/he can charge you later). The bill came to 27 euros! This was way too expensive for pintxos.
In central and southern Spain a pincho is defined as that free appetizer you ask for when you order a drink at a bar, “Dáme un pincho” (imagine my shock then at arriving in San Sebastían to pay 27 euros for drinks and pinchos). If you actually order an appetizer, which is more plentiful and therefore comes on a bigger plate, this is called a “ración.” In the Basque country, which is known for its innovative cuisine (including beyond the bar), pintxos have become a tourist phenomenon. A pintxo might be grilled octopus, skewered lamb or fried squid. You do not sit down and order. You go to the bar and make yourself heard over the din. You do this in at least five bars in a row between the hours of 7pm and 11pm. In San Sebastián, Old Town is best for bar hopping because its location next to the port means that you are eating seafood caught that day.
I traveled to Bilbao in 1986 before it was discovered by Guggenheim. We went to Old Town to bar hop. We knew it was dangerous to be in Bilbao at night; this was a rough, working man’s city known for its industrial economic might. I would not have survived Bilbao’s Old Town without the male friends who accompanied and protected me. But what I remember best are the pintxos which were quite simply meat and seafood grilled on a skewer, what the fancy pintxo bars now call “brochetas.” Pintxos were born on a grill, not a menu.
In San Sebastián, we returned to the first bar I encountered (where we paid 27 euros for appetizers and drinks) and quickly left because the service was insolent. If the food was tasty but expensive did I really need to tolerate a grouchy bartender? Trip Advisor’s writers confirmed my suspicion: this bar is located at the entrance to Old Town luring in naive tourists, treating them badly, then overcharging them.
We had already visited the familiar haunts, La Cuchara de San Telmo which is teaming with customers, and Casa Gandarias, which is also overcrowded. We went back to a family-owned bar with friendly service and traditional pintxos, La Cepa. Finally we stopped in a bar where I had noticed really big crowds. We waited ninety minutes for the kitchen to open but it was worth it. Rations of octopus, patatas bravas, croquetas and pintxos of smoked salmon and stuffed roasted red pepper were delicious. Unfortunately I cannot remember the restaurant’s name but it is on the corner of 31 de Agosto Kalea as you descend to visit La Cuchara de San Telmo but before you reach Casa Gandarias.