San Sebastian is known for its gastronomy, especially its pintxos. And although eating pintxos may seem like an easy thing to do, I’m sure that more than one person has doubts about the protocol to follow once in front of the counter. To help any visitors who might be lost, here are some tips on how to eat pintxos like a true Donostian.
First of all: CALM
We know that having a whole counter full of pintxos in front of you can be overwhelming, as you won’t know where to start and you’ll want to eat it all, so take a breath and take a leisurely look at the options. There’s no rush, many bars are open all day and those that aren’t are open at lunchtime and in the evening. What you don’t have time to eat now, you can eat later. But start early, at midday around noon and in the evening around 8 p.m., as the kitchens usually close early.
Visit several bars:
Every bar in Donosti has one or more specialities, pintxos that they make better than anyone else and that we locals know well. If you are going to eat pintxos, you should visit at least 4 or 5 bars (depending on how hungry you are) and eat 1 pintxo in each bar. Only the best or the one that looks the best. If you don’t know what the speciality of the bar you are in is, ask! The waiters are happy to help you and know their products better than anyone else, so let them advise you.
Choose the right bar:
In the Old Town there are dozens of bars, some are very good, some are very bad, some are very well known and some are very touristy. So, how to choose? It’s easy. If the bar you have entered is very big and has lots of tables to sit at and pictures of all its pintxos in several languages… bad business. However, if the bar is small, has very few tables to sit at, and people crowd around the counter to eat standing up… That’s a good place, so make room at the counter (or at a table if you’re lucky enough to find a free one).
There are two types of pintxos:
Pintxo bars usually have a bar full of these little delicacies, all of which look very good although they all seem to have bread in them. Do we eat that much bread? No. Those pintxos you see on the bar are cold pintxos. We donostiarras eat them as snacks, they are something small, quick and easy to eat between meals. Look carefully, somewhere in the bar, usually on blackboards hanging on the wall, or on a paper menu that you can find at the counter or on the tables, you will see a list of hot pintxos. These are the good ones, the specialities, and in fact, some very good bars have hardly any pintxos on the counter because they only have the hot ones. So if you walk into a bar and don’t see any pintxos on the counter, fear not! That means you’re in a good place.
Try the raciones:
Raciones (portions) are usually dishes to share, often they are larger portions of pintxos, or different dishes. If you are with a group of friends or your family, or you are very hungry, you can eat a portion, and it is another way to try the food of San Sebastian.
Pintxos can be accompanied by many different drinks: water (yes, water), wine, beer, must, cider… Normally with each pintxo you have a drink and it doesn’t have to be alcoholic. Bear in mind that sometimes we visit up to 6 bars when we go out for pintxos, and 6 wines can be too many, even if you are also eating. So drinking a glass of water from time to time can be a good idea. And if you’re going to drink wine, you can drink red or white or try txakoli, the local sparkling white wine. You can also try our cider, acid and bitter, very different from other European ciders. And if you prefer beer, a little tip: in Donosti when you order a caña, they usually serve you a big glass of beer, which can be too much to eat a pintxo. The smaller version of the caña is the zurito, and it is the perfect amount of beer for a pintxo. Remember: ZURITO.
How to order:
Once you have decided on the bar and which pintxo and drink you want, it’s time to order. Go up to the counter, greet with kaixo (hello) and ask the waiter for your drink first. You can then order your food, while they give you the drink you have ordered. In many bars they will ask you for your name so that, once the food is ready, you can pick it up at the bar. Once you have ordered everything, when you receive your drink, thank them with an eskerrik asko (thanks a lot) and enjoy the atmosphere of the bar while you wait for your food to arrive, which can take a while.
Pay at the end:
When you go out for pintxos, you usually pay at the end, before you leave. Imagine that you’ve paid for your drink, you’ve enjoyed a delicious pintxo… But you’re still hungry, and you’ve got a table at a bar that’s packed and that mushroom pintxo that the person at the next table is eating looks really good. Going to the bar, re-ordering, creating a new bill and paying again is a hassle, that’s why pintxos are paid for at the end, so you can re-order as many times as you want without any problems. And don’t worry if you don’t remember everything you’ve eaten once you go to pay, the waiter has it all written down. Once you’ve paid, say agur (goodbye) and go on to the next bar.
On egin! (Enjoy your meal!)