With its galaxy of Michelin stars, many a foodie is drawn to San Sebastian to dine on exquisite delicacies. But on a tapas tour of the city, Chris Osburn discovers that decadence is available at even the most homely of pintxo bars…
‘Try the foie gras’. I was given this instruction a few times by different friends. All of them with an earnest, if slightly drunken, enthusiasm in their words. It was a few hours into a weekend descent upon the tapas bar wonderland of San Sebastian’s Old Town. Early(ish) on a rainy Friday night, the cobbled streets buzzed, the bars heaved, the drinks flowed freely and the tapas kept a’coming.
We had found our way to La Cuchara San Telmo, just one in the multitude of San Sebastian’s highly regarded temples de la tapa and as good an example of any as to what makes dining out in this little seaside town so deliciously potent. Running the length of a not-terribly-long-bar with barely any wiggle room on either side and a sort of hollowed out cubbyhole of a kitchen at the far end, La Cuchara (‘the spoon’) was filled six or seven folks thick. But such pared-down and standing room only noshing didn’t seem to be much of a put off. In fact, the on your feet and try to eat without bending your elbows feast was an absolute foodie celebration. A happy herd of mostly locals, with a sprinkling of tourists, all squeezed in tight, vied (affably enough) at the bar for morsel-sized portions of foie gras, scallops and other delights.
My concerned foodie/drinking compadres were indeed correct about the goose liver. Fried up and served on a tiny plate, it offered just the right amount of savoury substance and fatty decadence and was well worth any logistical challenge of maneuvering my way to the bar and the few euros paid for it. A quaff of the local white cut right through the foie gras fat, making for a super-delectable Basque Country moment.
In this slice of good life by the sea, if you desire the best in upscale cuisine, concocted by a big name chef, you can have it in style. A city with fewer than 200,000 residents, San Sebastian boasts 17 Michelin starred restaurants. Fancy a lavish splash at the famed Arzak or a 15 course tasting menu a la Martin Berasategui? Best start booking now. Still, if you just wanna rock up and order an affordable little tapa of txipirones at what appears to the unassuming bystander to be just another quaint little pintxo bar and then go across the street to buy a cheap beer, well you can most certainly do that too. A gourmand lifestyle with gourmet standards – with a beach, and great wine to boot. Yeah, San Sebastian’s real estate is among the most expensive in Spain.
After gulping down La Cuchara’s foie gras, I headed outside to mingle with the smokers. No longer one myself, the ritual of stepping out from a bar for a breath of not so fresh air still lingered in my system. ‘Was that the greatest foie gras you’ve ever had in your life?’ one friend asked. ‘It was the most gratuitous,’ I answered.
Comprised of 16 non-locals, representing ten nationalities between us, our visiting posse of mostly Londoners stood out from the rest of the Friday night bar hoppers. And despite the fact that, owing to our number, whenever we entered a place we more or less took it over, neither the regulars nor occasional backpacker or tourist at the likes of Bar Bergara (amazingly delicious and exquisitely presented boiled egg tapas) or Goiz Argi (a seafood wonderland, where octopus is grilled to perfection) ever seemed to flinch when we commenced a barside occupation. ‘Who wouldn’t want to have a birthday bash bumbling about in San Sebastian?’ their nonchalance seemed to suggest.
These folks were right too. A short and cheap flight to Bilbao or Biarritz from London, a decent array of accommodation for most budgets and lots and lots of bars: it’s a no brainer destination, whether your trip is a first foray into foodie Spain or yet another indulgent exploration of the finer things in life.
This wasn’t my first visit to San Sebastian. But, as a side note, it was my most drunken. As much as I’d like to blame the ‘spoon’ of San Telmo and the handful of other tapas/pintxo bars we sipped and supped our way through, the real culprit was the Dickens. Depending upon who you wanna believe, La Cocteleria Dickens is home to the world’s best gin and tonic. It definitely serves the most ginormous G&Ts I’ve ever ever had. One of the strongest and most refreshing too. The Dickens décor provides imbibers with a Spanish take on the British pub: kitsch to be sure and a bit more comfy than most actual pubs in the UK. If you’re sitting upstairs in the especially comfy chairs, there’s a button you can press for more cocktails to come your way.
On the edge of the Old Town with a taxi rank stumbling distance from its entrance, such a cocteleria offers a fine place to end a Friday night, or to regroup and gather before hitting the floor at Friends Disco, the cheese-fest dance club located next door to Dickens. BOOM BOOM BOOM. House music into the morning amd more giant gin and tonics. Buenos dias hangover! Ugh.