San Sebastián is famously one of the best food cities in the world, with the most Michelin stars per capita and incredible rows of pintxos bars packed into the atmospheric Old Town – apart from in November when half the places are closed!
So a word to the wise if you are planning your first trip to this food-filled Mecca, it’s probably best to avoid November as all of these places that you would otherwise have had on your hit list will be closed: La Viña; Ganbarra; Casa Urola; La Cuchara de San Telmo; Borda Berri – and probably a whole load more.
There’s still plenty of great spots open however, and on the plus side, there are way fewer tourists than the summer months. But we reckon late October would probably be a sweet spot, in terms of balancing crowds with closures, plus lovely weather too. We were lucky that we had two big lunches at legendary spots Asador Etxebarri and Elkano (more on those below) so there was plenty of places open to keep us going in between – and there were loads of great spots open in Getaria where Elkano is located, so it’s definitely worth going there, whatever time of year you visit. With that caveat in mind, here’s our top tips on where to eat in San Sebastian (the November edition)!
La Cepa de Bernardo
Our favourite spot in San Sebastián Old Town, La Cepa has a lively old school atmosphere, packed mainly full of locals. To eat, there’s all the classic pintxos, including plates of freshly sliced jamon, gildas, anchovies, Russian salad, and fried mussels. There’s also a proper sit-down restaurant next door but we personally loved just being stood up at the bar ordering plate after delicious plate.
If you forget about queuing for Nestor’s lunchtime tortilla (they only make two a day so good luck) then come back at night for the simplest menu in San Sebastián: steak, tomatoes, peppers. We made this our final stop of our first night in town, a glorious finale of freshly cooked ex-dairy cow beef and the freshest tomato salad, plus glasses of crisp Basque cider.
Jose Mari Taberna
The best croquettes in town can be found at Jose Mari – no other place has perfected the crispy outer shell with the molten flavour bomb inside as well as these guys. The jamon ones are superb but the mussel version is even better, so just get a bunch of each. Other big hitters include the mushroom risotto with Idiazabal cheese; beef chop steak tartare; and bonito with tomato.
Lovely little Narrika is tiny but has some of the best food in San Sebastián so it’s well worth stopping by and squeezing in where you can. We especially loved the fried foie gras and they also do the best gildas around.
We arrived at Bar Antonio at lunch time for one thing and one thing only – their fresh, oozy tortilla de patatas. It’s a thing of glory and we had to stop ourselves ordering another round immediately. A must visit, and we’ll be back to try the rest of the menu next time we’re in San Sebby.
Bar Desy is over the river in the Gros neighbourhood, which has plenty of great spots to rival the best in the Old Town. Desy is a teeny tiny spot, specialising in local craft beers alongside excellent pintxos. Many people just come for their star item however, the txuleta burger, a glorious sloppy thing made from the famed local beef and slathered in mayo. It could have done will a dollop of ketchup in all honesty, but delicious all the same and well worth seeking out.
If you’ve had your fill of cider, beer and the local txakoli, then Arenales can hook you up with a glass or two of natural wine. We didn’t eat there but the food looked good and it’s a nice spot as a first or final stop of the night.
On the outskirts of town is the 17th century cider house, Barkaiztegi. They make some of the best traditional Basque cider around and there’s also a beautiful old restaurant there. Come by for a midweek lunch with the locals, with dishes like stuffed asparagus, grilled hake, and mushrooms with egg yolk.
Out of Town
We were lucky enough to score a reservation at the legendary Asador Etxebarri, which is in the countryside about an hour outside San Sebastián. Apparently they get 1000 booking requests a day so it’s harder than bagging a Glastonbury ticket but if you can manage it, it’s a truly special dining experience. Chef Victor Arguinzoniz has been cooking here since the 1990s in a rustic old stone building in the same village he was born in. Everything at Etxebarri is cooked by Victor over charcoal, which he makes himself in-house daily, grilling the very best local produce over six fully adjustable grills on a pulley system that he designed to his exact specification. The purity of the flavours combined with the simple yet expert cooking over fire produces something pretty magical – we were there for a full five hours over lunch, with stunning dishes like truffle and egg with mushroom cracker; house salted anchovies; homemade chorizo; old dairy cow steak; milk ice cream with a smoky beetroot juice; and the white and milk chocolate soufflé among the many highlights. A true one of a kind among the very best.
Any fans of Brat should make a pilgrimage to Elkano in Getaria, which is on the coast about 30 minutes from San Sebastián. It was here that inspired Tomos Parry’s London restaurant, particularly that famous whole turbot. That turbot, cooked on a grill outside the restaurant, is worth the journey alone, with each part of the fish expertly presented to you by the team, highlighting the different textures and flavours that can come from one fish. We also loved the kokotxas, (the lower part of the chin from a hake), the seafood soup, and the crab. A beautiful spot, and the rest of Getaria is really worth exploring too.
And a top tip on ATMS – most of the little bars in San Sebastián will take cards – we only came across one place that was cash only. If you do need to get cash out, however, don’t get ripped off by ATM fees. Most cash points were charing big bucks to access but we did find one that charged just 80 cents. So if you’re looking for an ATM in San Sebastián, seek out IBERCAJA and you will be winning.