San Sebastián is a town of variety when it comes to dining style. The famous pintxos are eaten on foot and on rotation; but there are also fabulous sit-down restaurants that have earned the city the distinction of most Michelin stars per capita.
A starred meal, however, is only the tip of San Sebastián’s culinary iceberg. Locals frequent spots that serve traditional Basque dishes using market-fresh produce, such as Casa Urola and Astelena 1997. The grill holds a starring role at the table, whether in the form of the txuleta (steak), at Patxikuenea, or the perfectly charred turbot at Elkano. The best way to digest this culinary destination is with a mix of the high, the low, and the miniature.
Many an unwitting diner has popped a pintxo or two downstairs at Casa Urola and moved on, not realising that upstairs sits one of the best restaurants in San Sebastián. Pablo Loureiro is a chef’s chef, sticking to his guns when it comes to extreme seasonality and carefully sourced product. It’s impossible to go wrong with the menu of vegetables, grilled meats and fish, and Basque specialties like cod kokotxas and line-caught squid. Share plates to try the most of what is, quite literally, the best produce you will find in town.
Best table: Technically, the restaurant is upstairs; however there is a table for friends and insiders at the back of the pintxo bar, hidden behind a screen.
On the outskirts of San Sebastián, Rekondo has an exterior like that of any other Basque farmhouse. Inside these walls, however, lies one of the world’s best wine cellars, captured and transcribed on a wine menu over 250 pages long. Owner Txomin, a retired bullfighter, opened the restaurant in 1964 to show off his personal wine collection, which features priceless bottles of everything from Rioja to Mouton Rothschild. Food refuses to fade into the background—Rekondo’s menu is marked by refined Basque favourites. Order the two specialities: rice with clams and squid in its ink.
Best table: In the summertime, ask for a table on the shaded, romantic terrace.
If you can only fit in one round of Michelin stars, book a table at Arzak. Juan Mari is one of the founders of the New Basque Cuisine, a movement dating back 50 years that combines Basque respect for ingredients with innovative technique and molecular gastronomy. Currently number 30 on the World’s 50 Best, the restaurant is now driven by his daughter, Elena, and an research and development lab that churns out a selection of new dishes every year. Take the tasting menu, a comprehensive journey through both the seasons and some of the restaurants greatest hits, like the capa de bogavante, a lobster salad wrapped in a thin carrot slice and garnished with wild flowers.
Best table: The chef’s table in the kitchen is the most exclusive, but if you can’t get in, ask for a table downstairs where natural light is abundant.
This restaurant, opened in 1998 by a young, dream-filled Andoni Luis Aduriz, has come to dominate best restaurant lists (currently number 9 in the world) from its farmhouse out in the countryside. Synonymous with creativity and intellect, Mugaritz pushes the envelope more so than any other restaurant in San Sebastián. Diners should keep in mind that the tasting menu is as mentally challenging as physically satiating—some dishes, such as a pile of ice topped with scarlet prawn concentration, fare better when judged with the head than the palate. There are plenty of delicious dishes as well, and all of them surprising, thanks to an research and development department that devotes a third of every year to “creativity”.
There is a general agreement among the Basque Country’s top chefs that Hilario Arbelaitz, owner and chef of Zuberoa, is the most underrated toque in town. The tasting menu is the best way to experience his New Basque cooking, rife with French touches and classic techniques. Fennel vichyssoise with spider crab; poached egg with foie puree, celery and truffle sauce; pig’s trotters in their jus—the French influence is undeniable, and undeniably delicious. Don’t miss the spectacular grilled oyster, nestled in foam made from its own cooking liquid.
Astelena 1997 is a local’s favourite for a special meal out, mostly thanks to chef Ander Gonzalez’s solid market-based cooking in which the only surprise factor is how consistently good it all tastes. It doesn’t hurt that he is also at the helm of one of the top cooking television shows in Spain, for which he has traversed Basque Country's winding roads to interview its most authentic farmers and artisans. It makes sense, then, that the sourcing is impeccable throughout the menu, from the squid rice to the tripe to the char-grilled steak. Don’t miss the famous hake pate.
Best table: A glass-enclosed table in the downstairs bodega
This grill house sits in the hills outside of San Sebastián, and day after day chef-owner Aitor Manterola does what he does best: stoke the flames and grill. His special passion for steak borders on obsession; from the selection and aging of the meat to the application of salt and heat, Aitor has strong opinions on the best way to cook a txuleta. This makes Patxikuenea, which has been in the family for two generations, perhaps the best spot to try the thick-cut Basque steak. Eat as tradition mandates, crowned by roasted red Piquillo peppers, a sharp simple green salad, and fried potatoes.
Best table: Weather permitting, it’s lovely to dine on the outside tables or the glass enclosed dining area looking out over the grounds.
Smack in the centre of the tiny fishing village of Getaria, about 25 minutes from San Sebastián, sits Elkano and its humble-looking outdoor grill. Worth what is a slight pilgrimage, this family-run restaurant focuses not on making lists and gaining stars but on maintain a decades-old tight-knit relationship with local fisherman. Aitor Arregi is the second generation, and he maintains the jovial relationship with the fisherman that catch daily for the restaurant, bringing the fish up from the port, where they get their turn on the huge grill. The speciality is the wild turbot, which Aitor often serves himself, taking care to point out the cuts rarely given a second look, from the tiny cheeks to the gelatine gathering around the fin.
Zelai Txiki serves up traditional dishes with a modern touch, from a hill on the edge of San Sebastián. The ethos is self-sufficiency and control over every aspect of the food they cook and serve: vegetables come from their own garden, picked by the chefs, bread is made from a seven-year-old starter in a wood-fired oven, and even the txistorra sausage is made in house with a luscious mix of pancetta and presa, a meltingly tender cut of pork. The menu uses local produce in a playful way, topping traditional mains like squid with a tomato ice cream (it works) or using spherified citrus juices as a way to add a tart note to lobster. To try their famous wood-roasted suckling pig and lamb, reserve at least two days ahead.
Best table: In warmer seasons, ask for the tables on the terrace, overlooking the entire city of San Sebastián
Eme Be Garrote
Chef Martin Berasategui is a star-seeking powerhouse, with restaurants across Spain and a record number of Michelin stars to his name. Eme Be is his return to roots, to the Basque Country that birthed Berasategui, with a menu that oscillates breathtakingly between classic and modern. An excellent fish soup, a staple in the region, sits next to oysters served with cress and arugula 'chlorophyll', cucumber, kaffir and coconut. These disperse inspirations are brought together under the roof of an old cider house, whose interior has gotten a tasteful modern Basque treatment. Polished cement floors and giant basket lampshades frame the dining area, where old wooden tables are nested between giant cider barrels.
Chef Iñigo Peña has been perfecting the use of local produce at Narru for a decade—first in Gros, then on the shores of La Concha, and now under the shadow of the Buen Pastor cathedral. At Narru you’ll find some of the best kokotxas in town, and that’s saying something in the cod-revering Basque Country. You’ll also find all of San Sebastián’s highish society—Narru is wildly popular. Be sure to order from the off-menu specials, as that’s where you’ll find the hyper seasonal produce and seafood.
Best table: For a less formal atmosphere, reserve a table on the terrace, under the historic palisade arches.
The diminutive chalkboard menu at Arenales is like a greatest hits album—nothing but the best. At this tiny spot, run by Cynthia Pereira behind the bar and Santiago Torres Carrossia in the kitchen, every dish sings. From roasted carrots with mint and labneh to cured beef served with torn mozzarella, endive and almonds, the offerings have a delicate sensibility that veers slightly left of the city’s standards. The wine menu is the most extensive natural wine offering in the city, with excellent bottles from the likes of Partida Creus and Matassa, which draws quite an eclectic, interesting crowd.
Contact: 00 34 943 43 59 53
Opening times: Mon-Thurs, 12.30pm-12am; Fri-Sat 12.30pm-12.30am
Reservations: Advisable, especially on weekends and in summer
Best table: The restaurant is small and narrow; get the table in the front window for people watching and more space.