I can think of two McDonalds in San Sebastian, the most visual being in the Boulevard, in the Bretxa shopping centre in the Old Part. As the popular Spanish phrase goes, it looks like an “Octopus in a garage”. Totally out of place. Now the marketing gurus at McDonalds have been trying to convince us for ages that their produce is just the bee’s knees. But no matter how many cows in open fields under blue skies up a swiss mountain they shove in an advert, I just aint buying it. I´ve eaten there. I´ve even worked in one. I know what it’s like. And it aint good quality.
So just cause it’s a place to eat in San Sebastian doesn’t mean you’re going to get the most wonderful, mouth watering delicacy as standard. Fortunately the big M outside the door gives McDonalds away. Unfortunately there are bars to avoid that are harder to spot. They all look pretty great from the outside. Bar weighed down with plates of pintxos. Check. Photos of La Concha beach, people chopping logs and mountains on the walls. Check. Blackboard behind the bar. Check. Surly, large barman. Check. A lot of old part bars just kinda look the same. But they aren’t all the same. Not by a mile.
A couple of months back, I had to take a friend to the 15.15 flight from Biarritz and we decided to have a couple of quick pintxos before we set off. Casa Bartolo in Calle Fermín Calbeton looked quite the thing, plenty of space at the bar and pretty quiet. If the Old Part is the pintxo heart of San Sebastian, Fermín Calbetón is its main artery. Can’t go wrong here. We asked for a couple of small beers and the barmen asked if we were going to have some pintxos. On getting an affirmative, he handed us a plate and told us “Take the pintxos you want, show me, and pay”. Wow, never come across that before. Normally you just lift what you want and tell them at the end what you’ve had.
Now this wasn’t a plate of average proportions. It was an enormous plate. A humungous plate. Put 1 pintxo on there and it´ll look like a pea on satellite dish. And there´s the scam, you feel embarrassed not to have at least 4 pintxos each just to fill a quarter of the plate. Which we did, each one worse than the previous. Awful stuff.
It happened again in Aralar, Calle Puerto. The people I was with wanted a seat, and this place has plenty of tables. Again the barman asks “You want pintxos? Ok, here’s a big plate”. Hmmm, loads of terrible pintxos. There’s a connection here.
Going for pintxos is a different experience to most eating experiences. You very rarely ever sit down for example. You certainly never put 5 or 6 on a big plate and go back to your table. But a few bars have realised that this isn’t what people are used to and have decided to adapt themselves to the tourist market. And offer substandard fare masquerading as the real deal. And the problem is they often look the most inviting from the outside. Big, long bars with plenty of space and a nice comfortable seating area.
The shame is that many people leave San Sebastian without ever getting the true experience. Cause often that experience is asking for something written illegibly behind the bar in a foreign language and eating it standing up in an incredibly crowded bar. And that’s a bit more difficult than that nice man with a big plate, loads of pintxos to pile on it and tables to eat it at. But the problem is by taking the esay route, you’d be missing a unique experience somewhere authentic. And you’d miss eating something truly exceptional. Like here >>>.
Aralar, Calle Puerto 10. www.bararalar.com
Casa Bartolo, Fermín Calbetón 38. www.casabartoloetxea.com