The chroniclers of the time wrote about how actress Rita Hayworth, during her first visit to San Sebastián in 1950, had lunch in the now defunct Salduba restaurant. She must have enjoyed what she ate, because she revisited the locale a few years later, but it seems unlikely that she ever tried the Gilda. According to the local legend, this pintxo was invented around that time in restaurant Casa Vallés, also in the Basque city.
The name Gilda stuck because the pintxo was, according to their inventors, “saucy and a little bit spicy”, like the main character of the eponymous 1946 film. Almost 70 years later, Gildas are still a classic pintxo in San Sebastian —tradition dictates that they are made with cured anchovies, olives and green chilli peppers sprayed with good quality olive oil.
These days, Gildas share space in the city’s bar counters with their more modern versions. Such wide array of miniature bites make Donostia (the city’s Basque name) the undisputed pintxo capital of the world. For visitors, hopping from bar to bar (potear, in the local lingo) at lunchtime is a true feast for the senses.
Quality and tradition abound here —we cannot forget that San Sebastian has been a training ground for many great chefs— but it is also true that many donostiarras fear that the Old Town might turn into a sort of pintxo Disneyland. That could indeed happen: over the past years, a good deal of questionable bars, particularly in the old part and nearby areas, take advantage of tourists with seemingly spectacular counters but which actually offer cheap plonk and mediocre pintxos with coloured cocktail sticks which are counted by the barman later to charge customers accordingly (this practice, imported from Barcelona, is frowned upon by locals).
Apart from the many Michelin-starred restaurants in town —particularly Mugaritz and Elkano, in nearby Getaria— and a few honourable exceptions, wine is still an unresolved issue for many of the city’s bars and restaurants which are rightly proud of their culinary offer. The same Rioja brands —and increasingly Verdejo— are found across the city’s bars with little room for diversity and the chance to discover other areas or varieties.
Here are some of those honorable exceptions where wine is lovingly treated.
Barely two and a half years have passed since Dani Corman and Iñaki Irizar opened Essencia but their wine bar has quickly become a destination for wine lovers visiting San Sebastián or lucky enough to live there. The secret behind their success is none other than work (plenty of it), enthusiasm and lots of passion, as it is evident on the awesome Sherry by the glass board, with almost a dozen manzanillas to choose from as well as quality finos, amontillados and olorosos.
Behind the counter, Dani and Iñaki have an enomatic machine with rotating wines from wine regions across Spain and other locations around the world.
But as well as drinking in style, Essencia also cares for good food. From Monday to Friday and for less than €10, Iñaki and Dani serve a daily dish of the day prepared with quality seasonal ingredients. On nights and weekends, the à la carte menu includes delicious, reasonably priced dishes like Euskaltxerri pork ribs or grilled asparagus with pork jowl.
Traditional pintxos like their humble but tasty Spanish omelette are also served at the bar-restaurant on the ground floor. Upstairs is the shop, where clients can pick up a bottle to take home or drink with their food for a small corkage fee.
It is no exaggeration to say that the farm where Txomin Rekondo was born contains one of the best wine cellars in the world. The great thing is that this historical and unique collection is shared with his clients since 1964.
The basement stores over 125,000 bottles and around 4,000 different selections which range from a txakoli from neighboring Getaria to verticals of Vega Sicilia going back to 1917 with vintages that are not even available in the winery, or Rioja classics such as Marqués de Riscal with some 80 to 90 vintages, as well as the top names from Bordeaux and Burgundy. These days it is sommelier Martin Flea, a passionate wine lover, who takes care of the day to day of this great cellar.
The real treat at Rekondo is to have lunch or dinner and open a few bottles. The kitchen is run by chef Iñaki Arrieta and is based on excellent quality products cooked in a traditional fashion such as the tomatoes from a nearby caserío in Mount Igeldo, wild mushrooms of Iberico ham. Rice with clams and oven-cooked txangurro (spider crab) are classic dishes at Rekondo and are always served in generous portions.
With over 25 years of history, Ganbara seems to have always been part of the city’s culinary offer. Its counter is full of classic pintxos such as txangurro (spider crab), Gildas, ham croissants or seasonal wild mushrooms cooked on demand. There isn’t a single coloured cocktail stick here. The star dish of the house is kokotxas del Cantábrico (hake or cod cheeks) in green sauce or batter. They will set you back €29.50 so they are not an everyday dish but there are plenty of other delicious morsels to choose from such as peppers, cuttlefish or the wild mushroom omelette —a great presentation card of the quality of the food at Ganbara.
When they are not in season, anchovies (very popular among locals) are sourced from the Mediterranean but “we treat them with care and love to get them to taste as delicious as our local anchovies”, says Amaia, chef and co-owner along with her husband José Ignacio.
Their wines by the glass are served in generous quantities and include a diverse and interesting offer with rotating brands such as Albahra (Envínate), Altaroses (Garnacha by Joan d’Anguera), 7 Fuentes (Suertes del Marqués), Louro (Rafael Palacios), Viña Gravonia (López de Heredia Viña Tondonia) and even Valbuena 5º año (€14).
It is worth visiting on a weekday, around 2,30-3pm, when the crowds are small and the waiters have more time to serve customers. The basement houses a small dining room with less than a dozen tables so booking is necessary.
About one-minute walk from Ganbara, Gandarias is another popular spot in San Sebastian old town. On display is a generous and colourful counter beaming with pintxos and a small army of uniformed waiters with plenty of experience to deal with the crowds of locals and tourists, particularly from the other side of the border in France who come here to enjoy top food at attractive prices.
The dining room at the back is always full on weekends; for those who manage to find a spot, the specialties are T-bone steaks and roasted suckling lamb.
Despite its popularity, attention is paid to their wine service with good glassware and correct temperatures. Aside form the classic Rioja brands, their enomatic machine holds a dozen rotating selections including wines from small producers such as Algueira Pizarra from Ribeira Sacra, Taleia by Castell d’Encús in Costers del Segre or Amorro, a young natural red made by the young guys behind Mahara in Cádiz.
Sherry also has a small space on Gandarias’ chalk board with Finos like Tío Pepe en Rama or La Ina, Amontillados by Urium and Tradición and Olorosos Faraón or Fernando de Castilla served either in a glass or a small copita (the client chooses). On their wine list by the bottle they have a small selection of foreign wines, mainly from France.
On this same street is La Viña, a traditional pintxo bar and restaurant with a modest selection of wines but worth visiting for its wonderful cheese cake, arguably the city’s best.
When it opened its doors just over ten years ago, it became one of San Sebastian’s most singular pintxo bars. A Fuego Negro not only applied an alternative, provocative style to its miniature food creations but also to the space it occupied on a corner in the old town, with a modern look and jazz/soul/funk music to listen to (check their own lists on Spotify called AFN Musik).
Many imitators copied their style and failed, but A Fuego Negro is still very popular with the crowds who enjoy their cheeky, creative cuisine. As well as the pintxos on the counter, there is a €40 tasting menu with 18 pintxos that summarize the history of A Fuego Negro with early creations like the vermouth-stuffed olives or the tomato purée, mussels & béchamel to more recent bites like anemones from Donostia with letxe de tigre.
Their wine list is divided into three categories: “Klasikorros” or classics like Jarrarte (Abel Mendoza), Conde de Valdemar or Quintaluna (Ossian); “Divertidos” (Fun) like Lágrimas de Graciano (Bodegas Bhilar), Algueira or Navaherreros (Bernaveleva) and “Otros” (Others) with sparkling wines and sherries (Emilio Hidalgo, San León). The only drawback are the steep prices, but the place certainly deserves a visit.
Also in the pleasant Gros district and at a short distance from Essencia is Hidalgo 56. Its walls hold many awards won by chef Juan Mari Humada Hidalgo for his pintxos since he set up the business here with his wife Nubia in 2005.
The Spanish omelette made to order or the black pudding, egg yolk, raisins and apple volcano are two of the specialties prepared by Juan Mari, who won a Michelin star at his parents’ bar back in 1994. Seasonal pintxos are also worth looking for, particularly anchovies in their multiple versions, or artichokes in three textures.
Locals flock there at lunchtime on weekends to enjoy their large pintxo selection paired with two dozen wines by the glass, mostly from Spain, and served by Nubia, who is a sommelier.
Located in the Antiguo area, a residential district about 15 minutes' walk from Ondarreta beach, Lukas is a huge space spread over three floors: the ground floor is occupied by a deli store, the first houses a restaurant with good quality, reasonably priced daily menus (€16.50) and the basement is a wine store with hundreds of selections, mostly from Spain.
As well as buying wine —whether to take home or to open in the upstairs restaurant for a small corkage fee— a dozen wines are available by the glass at aperitif time and on weekend evenings and served with some pintxos.
No pintxos are served here, but the Goñi siblings (Nerea, Amaia and Asier) have put together an interesting offer of national and international wines —as well as their Donostiarra vermouth made from Monastrell grapes— to take home from this cosy space with two floors which opened in 2010.
Every now and then the Goñis hold tastings with producers but their main event is the “wine market”, which takes place in December and includes the presence of many of the small producers they work with. Lovers of sea flavours will be happy to find Christian Lapègue’s pop-up stand outside Goñi. On the first Saturday of the month, he travels from the other side of the border to sell his Arcachon oysters.
It is not a pintxo place and is not even in San Sebastian, but Kaia’s amazing wine list deserves a place on this wine-loving selection. Founded in 1962, restaurant Kaia-Kaipe is right by the port of Getaria, barely 30 minutes away by car from San Sebastian. A classic dish of the house (and indeed, the village) is turbot, grilled over the embers in one whole piece and filleted in front of the customer.
Eating at Kaia-Kaipe isn’t cheap, but food prices compensate the chance to try some great wines at reasonable prices among the 40,000 bottles and more than 1,000 brands stored in its cellar.
(Viistors wanting to whet their appetite before tucking into Kaia’s grilled fish and wine list can go to Elkano Txiki, a lovely little tavern with delicious pintxos a few doors away from its Michelin-starred brother Elkano).
In the heart of the Goierri region in Gipuzkoa, near Aralar Natural Park, chef Iban Mate and sommelier Arantxa Rancho run Dolarea hotel, set in a refurbished 17th century farm which also houses a bar and a restaurant.
All kinds of pintxos are served there, such as Spanish omelette or deer carpaccio, but the focus is on local products in particular. Iban adds his personal touch in the dishes, as in the local Beasain black pudding with Idiazabal cheese, pine nuts and a dollop of vermouth paired with a Palo Cortado.
A real Sherry lover, Iban lists six sherries by the glass in the more informal cafeteria (“one for each style”) and 116 selections in the restaurant. Most of them are served by the glass to pair with the menus he serves, which go from €12 for a day menu to €50 for his tasting menu. “Much to my regret, there is little movement on the bar’s sherry board, but I refuse to take it down. My clients are mostly Goierri locals or foreign guests staying at the hotel. The latter like to have the black pudding pintxo with a txakoli like Bengoetxe, made in Olaberria (a couple of kilometres away from the hotel).”
As well as Sherry, Dolarea also lists red, white and sparkling wines, mostly from Spanish regions such as Galicia, Bierzo or Cataluña, among others.