Few cities in the world have had a greater culinary influence than San Sebastian. From my first trip there back in 2012 with the crew from Atera, I saw how Spain had such an impact on his life and career. It really opened my eyes to where some of the influences for the restaurant were coming from. It was on that short trip that I had the best lunch of my life at Mugaritz.
On my second trip, Bryce and I visited shortly before we opened Betony. We weren't necessarily seeking inspiration from one particular restaurant or looking for specific ideals for any particular venture. We were simply looking to broaden our perspectives on a region with a highly specific cultural identity for dining and food and drink. On this trip, we spent several days walking around the entire city, taking in the sights and getting a feeling for San Sebastian in a larger sense - the architecture, the markets, the people, and of course, the dining scene.
Here are places that have stood the test of time, that I would happily visit again and again:
We were very fortunate to be able to stay at this century-old hotel that exudes timeless beauty and is operated by a team of kind and generous professionals. It is a truly beautiful property located right on the water. (More info here).
One of your first stops in San Sebastian should be Gran Paladar. This hole-in-the-wall charcuterie shop makes little snacks that change every day and they're all about sausages, jamon, and olives - the local products that San Sebastian does best.
As amazing as the food is though, what's really special here is the people. The family that owns Gran Paladar is larger than life. They're so welcoming, kind, and energetic and more than happy to give you the local scoop on the best drinking and dining in San Sebastian. Here, they'll also vacuum pack whatever you buy so you can take it on the go with you. Tons of sausages were purchased and eaten from here. The picture above shows our team in the store with them.
Arzak is a super well-known restaurant in San Sebastian. Elena, the chef, upon hearing why we were visiting, invited us to come back and take a tour of the restaurant, cellar, and kitchens the next morning. When they took us into the test kitchen, it was so incredible to see all the different components of the amazing meal we'd just had the night before in-progress. I remember there was a crab course baked inside a bowl that had me thinking, "How did they make this?" Seeing how labor intensive all the dishes were was so cool, but feeling how welcoming and hospitable the people at the restaurant were was even better.
Really, more than anywhere else in the world, in San Sebastian you have a culture that is incredibly genuine. They are so in love with what they're doing that THEY love that YOU love what they're doing and they're just so happy to tell you about it. I really look forward to getting back to San Sebastian and being a part of that culture.
The family that runs the restaurant makes everyone feel like they're a part of the kitchen team. We went with the chef to visit the library downstairs, where he showed us all of the books he had collected. This is a guy who's at the forefront of "molecular" cooking, and he exuded an aura of so much kindness, warmth, and welcoming.
The food itself was incredible. I watched them do things that were hyper complex, but also pure and simple. There's one particular dish that really stands out in my mind. It had a cloth bag filled with incredibly hot salt, and on top, laid these super fresh raw shrimp cooking from their own steam just underneath the salt. It was so simple, yet so inventive, and so beautifully juxtaposed with some of the more progressive techniques used throughout the meal.
Here, we were served a picnic accompanied by estate-grown txakoli. The property itself is beautiful, with gardens and a vineyard on-site. Our first course was out-of-this-world good - the best boquerones I've ever had. Every aspect of the restaurant was brilliant, pristine, and beautiful. I loved the emphasis on lunch here and throughout the rest of San Sebastian in general - these big expansive meals in the middle of the day with no set beginning and no end. Very much like the landscape of San Sebastian where everything feels so open and all-encompassing. Azurmendi really embodies the landscape of San Sebastian in how they behave, speak, dine, and drink.
This restaurant is super refined and poised, in all the best possible ways. The Chef was very courteous and had this sharpness about him that I loved.
Downstairs, there's a TV studio on the basement floor and it's so much fun to walk into the set for a comedy show where everything is funny, engaging, and lighthearted before seeing the sharp juxtaposition against the mature elegance of the dining room.
It’s impossible for me to say enough about this restaurant. The maître d', Joserra Calvo, is absolutely incredible. He's the best I've ever met in my life. So much warmth and kindness that I'm not exaggerating when I say that someone should find a way to have him visit anyone who's sad, depressed, or ill because if you're around Joserra, you feel well. One of the things I most look forward to is going back to Mugaritz and getting a hug from him.
Now the food. The food is nearly unparalleled. It's not a stretch to say that some of the best dining experiences for me have been at this restaurant. There are places in the world that think about things with intention, and this is one of them. I've seen how experiences crafted upon a foundation of knowledge, which is exactly what Andoni Aduriz has done, are more beautiful, more interesting, more engaging, and even more challenging, yet still seamless and natural. That's what you'll find when dining at Mugaritz.
The restaurant has a natural and organic quality to it, and the flavors are intense, unabashed, and wonderful. On top of that, there's a stunning view and a patio where you can walk out and take in the sunshine and ocean air.
Bar Zeruko has produced some of the most extreme and delicious examples of modern tapas I’ve ever had. Tapas inspired by tradition but progressive in their technique and presentation.
Beyond Bar Zeruko, just walking around San Sebastian you'll find a host of other tapas bars that are so much fun. A lot of them are very traditional, some are predictable yet comforting, and others, like this one, are more rock and roll. One place has the best mushrooms, another the best egg - it's absolutely worth it to take a tour and pop in the various places to have the txakoli, beer, sherry, and then run off and try 3, 4, or 5 other places!
I’ll make this one short: I had the greatest, most interesting cheesecake of my life here. The filling is so rich, so thick, and so creamy, and it’s topped by an incredible caramelized crust on top.
If I were to do San Sebastian all over again, these are the places I would hit. All of them are really amazing, full of flavors, great wine, and great food. I haven't said much about the wine in San Sebastian, but it's wonderful. It's a place where they don't overprice their lists and it's easy to keep things reasonable and approachable. We focused on Spanish wines during our meals, but also had some of the best Loire Valley wines that were a great complement to the food.
As I've said throughout, while the food here is undoubtedly incredibly special, it's the people and sense of cultural identify that makes San Sebastian as place I always look forward to coming back to. Coming from a city like New York, where so many people are still trying to find themselves, it's refreshing to be in a place like San Sebastian where they already know. Everyone here knows why they're here. They aren't searching, they've found it, and you can see it in their presence, their reverence, and their sense of respect for all things that are alive.
Photo Credits: That Hungry Chef, SpainIsCulture, VinoWine, Michele Brodi, José luis López de Zubiría, JB55