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San Sebastián: A food lover’s guide to Michelin restaurants, pintxos bars and gin joints

The charming coastal town in Basque Country has more than 100 pintxos bars

The Basque Country is a tour de force in high-end gastronomy; it has one of the world's highest concentration of Michelin stars per km sq and per population density. Between its two main cities, Bilbao and San Sebastián, 23 restaurants boast Michelin stars, and though Bilbao is larger and more urban, San Sebastián (Donostia) is the charming seaside sister bearing the finer reputation in food circles. Though the starred restaurants with notoriously long waiting lists, immaculate service and mind-blowing flavours are rightfully ranked among the best in the world, the more casual side to San Sebastián has a draw all of its own – almost independent of its finer counterparts.

Dining out in San Sebastián’s old town is less about nabbing bookings and appointing yourself tableside all evening, and more about meandering place to place, grabbing a drink and a plate of the best thing they offer, or snacking on one or two tiny pintxos (snacks) and then moving on; the culture convivial and the crowd easy-going and transient. Choose between more than a 100 pintxos bars dotted across the city, jostle for space at the counter and soak up the raucous conversation, laughter and sometimes music that erupts and often spills out on to the streets. No one lingers too long though, as there is a distinct flavour of FOMO (fear of missing out) in the air because the next place is always waiting, and the best dishes don’t hang around all night. . .

Cheap eats/casual: pintxos

Pintxos appoint the countertops of almost every bar across the city, most served on rounds of baguette but best practice is to order the good stuff directly from the staff behind the counter. The original pintxo, the gilda, has a connection to Hollywood movie star Rita Hayworth, as it was named after her character in the eponymous 1946 noir. The gilda is sublime in its simplicity: skewered crunchy and sharp guindilla peppers, salty-sweet anchovy and a brine-soaked green olive. One perfect mouthful of hot, sharp, salt, sweet, crunchy, chewy and soft, served neatly on a stick. That is what differentiates pintxos from tapas: more mere morsels than small plates to share, and the word pintxo relates to the piercing or spearing motion to grab something delicious to eat in one individual bite.

Bar Txepetxa (Arrandegi Kalea 5, bartxepetxa.es) does the best gilda in the city by the way, and takes anchovies several steps further in a dizzying array of variations, including a blueberry jam smear on top, which is surprisingly delicious. At mussel restaurant La Mejillonera (Calle del Puerto 15, no website) you stand at the bar and enjoy your molluscs, served in classic and challenging flavour combinations, then fling your empty shells in a trough under the bar – don't worry, it's positively encouraged for ease of cleaning up. Aita Mari (Calle Puerto 21-23, aitamari.com) nearby is the ideal spot to enjoy a dozen freshly-shucked oysters with a glass of txakoli (a slightly sparkling, dry Basque white wine), just metres from La Concha beach.

For meatier bites, the pork ribs at Borda Berri (Fermin Calbeton Kalea 12, no website) are sensational, the cochinillo (suckling pig) at La Cuchara de San Telmo (Santa Korda Kalea 4, labicidesantelmo.com) is one of its most popular dishes, and the legendary Bar Nestor (Arrandegi Kalea 11, bar-nestor.negocio.site) is a must for two dishes: its txuleta (steak on the bone) is cooked to order, and the tortilla, of which only a few slices are offered at lunch. It opens at 1pm daily (except Monday) but duck your head inside and get your name on the list one or two hours before opening. Gandarias (31 de Agosto Kalea 23, restaurantegandarias.com/en/), Atari (Calle Mayor 18, atarigastroleku.com/en/) and 148 Gastroleku (Iñigo Kalea 1, 148gastroleku.com/en/) are among the only bars that don't close for siesta, so if you're peckish mid-afternoon these are a great shout. Order the solomillo a la plancha (grilled sirloin) at Gandarias, the pulpo (octopus) at Atari and the gratinated sea urchin at 148.

Burnt Basque cheesecake (tarta do queso) has become a phenomenon all of its own, with many cafes and restaurants worldwide serving their take, but all rightfully pointing to the originator: La Viña (31 de Agosto Kalea 3, lavinarestaurante.com). Look up above the bustling bar and see the shelves appointed with foil-lined baking tins – those are tomorrow's bakes, as these cheesecakes need 24 hours to sit and set before cutting. Don't leave it to last orders or late night to pop here for a slice as it risks being sold out. If you are indeed lucky, order with a little sherry too, to anoint over the cake before eating.

Wine and cocktails

Though sagardoa (cider) and txakoli (sparkling wine) are the most-ordered sips, gin is also a popular choice and La Gintoneria (Zabaleta Kalea 5, no website) is the best spot in the city for a serve – whether you prefer a martini, cocktail or just a gin and tonic.

Fine dining

Almost all of the Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurants are located in the hills outside the city, with exceptions being Amelia by Paulo Airaudo (formerly of Arzak, and also behind two-starred Da Terra in London; Zubieta Kalea 26, ameliarestaurant.com) and Kokotxa (Calle del Campanario 11, restaurantekokotxa.com) – which has a 350-strong wine list focusing heavily on biodynamic and organic bottles. Akelarre (Padre Orkolaga Ibilbidea, 56, akelarre.net) and Arzak (Alcalde J. Elosegi Hiribidea 273, arzak.es) are the jewels in the crown, boasting three stars a piece, as is the eponymous restaurant of Spain's most Michelin-decorated chef, Martín Berasategui (Loidi Kalea 4, martinberasategui.com) who also has the one-starred eMe Be Garrote (Igara Bidea 33-37 emeberestaurante.com) which mixes Basque and Scandinavian influences.