Top 5 Sit-Down Meals in San Sebastián's Old Town

Oh, San Sebastián. Everyone loves you for your outer beauty, for your beaches and your pintxos.  But those of us who know you well know that there is so much more on the inside to appreciate. We know that it's not always time to hop from bar to bar, drink in hand. Sometimes you want the ambience of the Old Town, but in a seated, more relaxed setting.  It's a question that consistently gets raised among my friends and I: where can we go sit down and have great meal, without getting too far from the action?

That's why I've compiled this list, my Top 5 places to sit down for lunch or dinner, right in the heart of San Sebastián's pintxo scene.  The fruit of much thought and research. So ignore (if you can) those small bites lining the bars and pull up a chair at one of these fine establishments. On egin!

ALDANONDO JATETXEA

Steak + wooden tables + simple sides + tradition = Basque Country. Aldanondo is the no-frills, locally recommended Old Town spot to enjoy this tried-and-true formula. Sit back, order a bottle of Rioja and a plate of croquetas to begin, and wait for your steak and its adornments to arrive.  And just feel so....Basque.

 Euskal Herria Kalea, 6, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa | +34 943 42 28 52

BODEGÓN ALEJANDRO

There's something about Bodegón Alejandro that just seems to make it the right choice on every occasion.  It's a spot where you can eat without breaking the bank (daily lunch prix fixe runs you about 30 euros), but where great flavor meets just the right amount of innovation. Bodegón Alejandro has a deep, connected local history, once belonging to the family of famed chef Martín Berasategui. Now they offer traditional plates with pleasing touches of modernity.

 Calle de Fermín Calbetón, 4, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa | +34 943 42 71 58

ASTELENA 1997

Astelena has been one of my favorite sit-down spots since I first ate there years back.  This restaurant could easily be overlooked by a tourist in San Sebastián, but its unremarkable façade houses some serious cooking.   Most notable here, for me, are the veggies. I go to eat cardoon, artichoke, white asparagus...whatever is in season, knowing that it will be carefully cooked and presented. And its chef de cuisine, Ander Gonzalez, hosts the national Basque cooking show I appear on as a judge each week.

 Euskal Herria Kalea, 3, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa | +34 943 42 58 67

KOKOTXA

This spot, headed by chef Dani López and Estela Velasco, garners its mention mainly for its Michelin star. It's not Kokotxa's fault that there's three three-star Michelin spots in this tiny town. López's cuisine draws inspiration from all over Spain, with delicate and picture-perfect plates. A great place in the Old Town to experience Michelin without going all-out Arzak/Akelarre/Berasategui/Mugaritz. (photo: http://bixigarri.com)

 Calle del Campanario, 11, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa | +34 943 42 19 04

CASA UROLA

Casa Urola is one of those restaurants that has been around for a long time, since 1956 to be exact. However, in 2012 it was updated and handed over to the capable hands of Pablo Loureiro, a local chef who has trained in many of the city's top kitchens, from Rodil to Branka.  What sets Loureiro and Urola apart, however, is an absolute and unwavering commitment to local, seasonal products of highest quality. This is one of those spots with producers passing through the back door throughout the morning, arms loaded with boxes of mushrooms or coolers of line-caught squid.  The perfect place to experience classic yet updated Basque food based squarely on its amazing product.

 Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 20, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa | +34 943 44 13 71

HONORABLE MENTION

This list is super how-do-hipsters-say curated, but there is one spot that deserves an honorable mention: Ganbara.  Didn't make the list because I personally have never been in the dining room, but it comes highly recommended by all chefs in town and Amaia is an amor.  Look for a post in the future!

lunes lekuak (My Monday Spot)

It seems like every European city has some sort of open-air market. Some are seasonal, some are for tourists, and some are stacked high with Idiazabal cheese, freshly gathered walnuts, shelled legumes, and green garlic, like the one in the old part of San Sebastián.

Lunes Lekuak is the weekly post where I explore my favorite spots to just be in San Sebastián. Last week's is here, if you are new to the series and care to check it out.

lunes Lekuak (My Monday Spot)

It's morning. The sun is shining. Get out of bed, hop on the bike, and ride a few blocks over to the spot where the river Urumea spills out into the sea. Grab a coffee and a friend on the way, and just sit, staring.

Lunes Lekuak is the weekly post where I explore my favorite spots to just be in San Sebastián. Last week was a bit more...bouncy, if you are new to the series and care to check it out.

 

Iñauteriak in Tolosa

Is it Mexico? Is it Halloween? Nope, it's Mardi Gras season in the Basque Country.

And that means our annual venture on our friends' float in Tolosa, always filled with kalimotxo, rain and fun.

In fact, looking ahead at blogposts I have waiting to be published, it is looking like it is going to be a Tolosa month. So sit back, pour yourself a bowl of beans, and relax as I take you on a tour of one of my favorite villages in the world, Tolosa, Goierri, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country, Spain.

Starting with the timely, or the Carnival/Mardi Gras celebration that for some reason has an outsized tradition in this town in the interior, about thirty minutes from San Sebastián.  I don't know how I ended up in the New Orleans of Basque Country, celebrating the same holiday that used to see nine-year-old Marti perched on wooden ladders, waving for beads on the banks of a canal.  

Well, actually, I do....whatever version of fate you subscribe to had me meet a Tolosarra on vacation here who turned out to become a great, lasting friend, inviting us on his cuadrilla's float four years ago. We've been smurfs, we've been legos, and this year we were mariachis.

The town of Tolosa explodes with activity the weekend before Mardi Gras, and each day has a different vibe. Sunday is the Day of the Friends, where groups of lifelong friends mount their floats and parade through the city. Monday is the Day of the Bands, where makeshift musicians march around. And Tuesday is the big day, more popular with the general public, where the friends hit the street again with their floats.  

What makes Tolosa Mardi Gras special? One thing that I find especially ingratiating is the total lack of sexy.  Halloween in the States has been sexi-fied and commercialized beyond recognition....you buy costumes and you often buy them with exaggeratedly short hemlines.  In Tolosa, however, the population takes pride in crafting their own costumes, placing the emphasis on wit instead of seduction. Take this group of friends, dressed as the famed market of Tolosa.

This year, we went South of the Border, wei, because what is funnier than dressing up, talking and dancing like people who are like you but with funnier accents and facial hair?

A day in the life of Carnaval in Tolosa looks like this: 

  1. wake up to rain
  2. drink a colacao
  3. at 9 or 10am (if you skipped out on the diana, or official opening ceremony where pajamas are de rigueur) get on the float and pour yourself a beer
  4. parade through the streets, dancing, drinking, talking, waving, and just being until around 3pm...lunchtime!
  5. back on the float for 7pm...that's right, a 4-hour lunch....and do it all again, but by nightfall!

So long, my mariachi friends. Until next year, Carnaval.

Lunes Lekuak (My Monday Spot)

Bouncing around on the edge of the world. A bay, an island, a whole city teeming below, and just you and your cama elástica in the clouds.  The theme park on the top of Monte Igeldo has a long history, with quirks that date back to the Franco era, and the decadent negligence it suffers is actually quite charming.

Never change, Igeldoko Atrakzio Parkea, never change.

This is the fourth edition of the new addition to the blog, Monday Lekuak. This Basque-English phrase means that on Mondays I will be featuring my favorite spots in Basque Country to just be. Maybe it will be in a restaurant, maybe it will be in a mountain, but it's a spot that has a special meaning to me.

If bar-hopping and vermouth drinking is more your thing, you may want to check out last week's Monday spot.

vermuteke, sirimiri edition

Another day, another vermuteke. 

The International Society for the Preservation and Enjoyment of Vermouth is now a year old! Our most recent vermuteke (aka party to celebrate the glorious beverage, vermouth) was held in Sirimiri, smack dab in the middle of the old part.

Another vermuteke by night, this one featured three vermouths and three cocktails, prepared by the barmen at one of the city's best cocktail spots.

I don't know, maybe it's just me, but when your mise en place includes strawberry-infused vermouth...HOW CAN ANYTHING GO WRONG?

Zecchini, Casa Mariol...two favorites. Plus the brand new vermouth Txurrut, locally produced with Hondarrabi Zuri grapes (that's txakoli grapes to you).

A madhouse of vermouth, beautiful people, and hard-working bartenders.

We even crowned a few new socios.

Stay tuned for the next event...we have some amazing stuff in the works!

Lunes Lekuak (My Monday Spot)

General Artetxe Kalea, or the story of what happens when city planners give up. 

This cul-de-sac slash (if Google maps is to be believed) perpendicular junction of two streets has only one name, a curious phenomenon in the otherwise predictable streets of Gros. What it does have more than one of is bars...there are four right on this little street.  The conglomeration of bars (including the best vermouth bar in the city) and the narrow, untraveled street make this nook a cozy place to spill into the streets on Sunday, which is just what we locals do when weather permits.

This is the third edition of the new addition to the blog, Monday Lekuak. This Basque-English phrase means that on Mondays I will be featuring my favorite spots in Basque Country to just be. Maybe it will be in a restaurant, maybe it will be in a mountain, but it's a spot that has a special meaning to me.

If you missed the first leku, click here

 

Iñudes y Artzaias

Even after living here for nearly five years, I can still be surprised.  And be surprised to be surprised by, of all things, wet nurses and shepherds.

After gathering for breakfast on Sunday morning, to say goodbye to a dear friend, we set off to see a concert in one of Gros's liveliest venues, Garoa.  We were distracted by some music on the street, and like the children of the pied piper, we followed the sound. Needless to say, we weren't expecting to stumble upon a parade of Belle Epoque characters —women dressed in white, wielding tennis racquets, a bishop waving a giant sub sandwich, and several women dressed as nannies, carrying baby dolls.

It's a parade that celebrates the Belle Epoque of San Sebastián, and features caricatures of all its wackiest characters, waving and prancing through the streets of both Gros and the Old Part.

Depending on which song you catch the parade at, you might see baby dolls flying in the air. Or nannies flirting with shepherds. Or perhaps you will see the nannies carrying their babies to the doctor, to receive vaccinations and check on their health, before they stop at the priests to receive a blessing.  But always, the parade starts with a rendition of 'Festarik Behar Bada', whose title in translation ("Yes You Gotta Party", more or less) sounds more Black Eyed Peas than Basque.

The history of the parade is one that began over 125 years ago, on February 2, 1885, set around the Feast of the Candelaria, a Roman Catholic celebration of a sighting of the Virgin Mary. However, the tradition diminished after Pope Pio XII took away the feast day status of the holiday, and nearly disappeared before the Kresala society brought it back in 1977. 

In San Sebastián, the celebration is set to music of the beloved composer Raimundo Sarriegi, who composed the anthem of the city that resounds all day long on the 20th of January and yearlong in the hearts of all Donostiarras, #ak.  Apart from the nannies and shepherd characters for which the celebration is named, mayors, secretaries, bishops, shoe cleaners, bakers, street sweepers, and other characters from the Belle Epoque of Donosti take the stage. 

Stuffed between Caldereros and Carnavales, it's another event to help mark the slow passing of winter in Basque Country.

 

MONDAY LEKUAK (LUGARES DEL LUNES)

I am sitting here, typing, looking out over a view worthy of any textbook treatment on European coastal villages.  To my right is a glass of Verdejo, I just ate a goat cheese salad, and I'm buckling down for a couple hours of work. Whether you are having a rendevouz with someone unfamiliar with the city, or need some wifi to make a Skype call in the gloriously, chandelier-capped lobby, Hotel Niza/Narru form a spot near and dear to my heart.

 You won't catch many locals in this haunt, but I find it to be the perfect spot for bringing together the American tradition of "working" hours on your laptop with the Spanish tradition of eating well and nursing a glass of wine for hours.  

This is the second edition of the new addition to the blog, Monday Lekuak. This Basque-English phrase means that on Mondays I will be featuring my favorite spots in Basque Country to just be. Maybe it will be in a restaurant, maybe it will be in a mountain, but it's a spot that has a special meaning to me.

If you missed the first leku from last Monday, click here

February's Vermuteke

It's that time again....vermuteke time!

This time around we (the ISPEV) will be hosting the vermuteke under the shadows of Santa María in San Sebastián's old part. We have three vermouths on the roster, and mixologists at Sirmiri will be crafting three different cocktails with them. Time to get drinking!

☞ Cuándo: Jueves 12 de febrero, de 19.30h a 22.30h
☞ Dónde: Sirimiri. Calle Mayor 18

On the vermouth front, we also have (mostly) finished our website: www.vermutsociety.com

And, for your viewing enjoyment, we have the last vermuteke in video format.

Monday Lekuak (Lugares del Lunes)

Sweeping views of the river, dumping out into the sea. When you're in there alone, it's just you, echoes, and sometimes the sound of wind whistling outside, especially now, in winter.  

This new addition to the blog, Monday Lekuak, is Eusko-English to say that on Mondays I will be featuring my favorite spots in Basque Country to just be. It might have to do with food, or, like in this case, it might just be a special place or even a special moment captured in an image.

This, the first edition, is from inside the Kursaal, that distinguished square building in the front row of San Sebastian.  Or, as a snide Cali hipster stranger once informed me, San Sebastián's only example of modern architecture. Jmmm, you learn something new everyday.

Elkano : Getaria, Basque Country

Well, folks, we did it.

My unstoppable friend C. and I finally made a big ole check off of my Basque Country To Eat list.  (What? You don’t have one of those?)  This check was in the form of a visit to the venerable asador in nearby Getaria, Elkano.

She knows me. She knew (with much more sureity than I) that Elkano would be a dining experience for the books.  You see, of all the main food groups, fish is the one that drives me the least wild. I never had that desire to just keep eating, moaning, over a plate of salmon like I do over steak, cheese, or even garbanzos.  That is my pathetic excuse for never gracing the dining hall of this spot that foodies love to love.  But C. refused to listen to my (admittedly weak) protests and booked us a table.

The amuse bouche was verdel, a type of mackerel that fills the port of Getaria with regularity.  I love mackerel, for its not-too-fishiness, and for how nice it eats when cooked, not by flame, but lightly in an acidic dressing.

A round of jamón is generally my default pre-appetizer appetizer. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs, when I see a white tablecloth, I am conditioned to order something fizzy to drink and a plate of Iberian ham.

At this outing, for the main events, I deferred to my more-experienced dining companion.  To be clear about what kind of people we are, "more-experienced"  means that she had been to Elkano the week before and was already ready for Round 2. When she suggested it as our spot for our “goodbye” lunch, I scoffed.

 “Are you SURE you want to go back? You were just there! And your time is limited!

 “Yes.  We’re going.” I was still baffled by her response (I mean, why not try something new?) until we actually went.  

 Turns out, she knows me.  First she ordered kokotxas, which I have not given their due on this blog: flesh from under a fish's chin, tender and gelatinous. Three ways, with an extra serving of the way she found to be her favorite a week ago, in pil pil sauce. We had a plate of these, drenched in an emulsified oil-fish stock sauce, and they were perfection. Plus one perfectly grilled fish chin flap (oh! the awkwardness of translating kokotxa) and one perfectly fried and battered V-shaped jowl (now I'm just being awkward on purpose. but seriously, how do you say kokotxa???).

Then it was time for the main event: rodaballo, or turbot.

Grilled outside, on a well-seasoned rack of adjustable-heigh grates, this is the true star of Elkano. If you are going to eat, in fact, it's best to reserve your rodaballo beforehand, lest you miss out on the day's catch, which consists of only the fish deemed worthy by the chefs.  

If the turbot came out, and you ate it, and that was the end of the story, it would still be an amazing dish.  But at Elkano (spoiler alert? is that a thing for restaurants?), they bring you the dish, allow you to ooh and aah, cut you a portion of the filet, and after you chow down for a while, along comes Aitor.

Aitor Arregui is the son of Pedro, the original grillin' man behind Elkano. This is a photo of Aitor and C., admiring an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a fish bone. 

I think that about sums up Aitor. And the day.

But my point is this: Aitor comes by, explains how to eat every single weird little corner of the fish, as he carves it out for you. Gelatinous bone bits? Check. Eyeballs? Check. Cheek? Check. And on and on, for 20 minutes. (Or was that because we were the only females in the restaurant that day?)


Fish perfection. Which is what makes this tiny spot in a tiny village worthy of a Michelin star. 

Finish that off with—what else—cheese ice cream.

Elkano: Herrerieta Kalea, 2, 20808, Getaria, Guipúzcoa | (reserve by phone) +34 943 14 00 24

More reading:

Quique Dacosta (famed Spanish chef) pays homage to Elkano's Pedro.