Eating pinxtos in San Sebastian was recently named the number one food experience in the world by Lonely Planet. Here's how to do it in style.
Mention eating out in the Spanish city of San Sebastian, and most people picture the starched white linens, polished silver cutlery and bow-tied waiters ubiquitous at European Michelin-starred restaurants. That reputation is not undeserved. Thanks to the likes of Elena and Juan Mari Arzak (Arzak), Pedro Subijana (Akelarre) and Andoni Luis Aduriz (Mugaritz), the fine-dining scene here is among the best in the world.
But this pretty waterside city in Spain's northern Basque Country is also the birthplace of pintxos, small flavour-packed bites that feature whatever is fresh and in season.
Once, they were distinguished from tapas by sitting atop bread, skewered with a toothpick to stop them tumbling over. But today, pintxos have evolved to cover just about anything you can consume in a mouthful or two.
The most traditional, and fun, way to eat pintxos is by organising a night of txikiteo: hopping from bar to bar, having a drink and a graze at each place.
There are dozens of dining options on offer in Parte Vieja, the city's oldest district. My first stop is Bar Txepetxa, where I order San Sebastian's original pintxos, known as gilda. The bartender says it was inspired by Rita Hayworth's character in the film by the same name, although no one is sure how or why, exactly.
It's a simple, but note perfect, union of silky white anchovies, guindilla peppers and two green olives. Salt, spice and sour on a toothpick. If you're not a fan of anchovies, this dish will change your mind.
It's best accompanied by txakoli, a slightly sparkling, very dry white wine native to this part of the world – bartenders pour it from well above the glass rim to give it extra fizz.
Before moving on I'm persuaded by those around me to try other salty treats, including antxoas a la jardinera (white anchovies with a fresh onion, tomato and green pepper salsa) and antxoas con crema de centollo, anchovies toned down with an unctuous spider crab cream.
A few steps away is Goiz Argi, a no-frills-but-perennially-packed place where prawn skewers are grilled over an open flame, white asparagus comes with Iberico ham "dust", and saucer-sized scallops are dressed with a warm almond-milk soup.
I follow the lead of locals and order mari juli, a smack-you-in-the-face combination of smoked salmon, roasted green pepper and anchovy that is made to accompany a zurito, or small glass of beer. It's like San Sebastian in a mouthful.
It should be noted that if you order a drink at a pintxos bar, it will only be a sip or two – just enough to see you through your bite. And every pintxos has a perfect drink partner.
At Borda Berri, the mostly braised bites are beautiful with txikito (a small glass of wine). Chewing is optional with the bar's briskly delivered octopus, which many hail as the best of its kind in the city, while the braised beef falls apart at the touch of a spoon. It's served with a side of puntalette, a type of pasta that resembles rice, turned into a risotto with rich Idiazabal cheese made from unpasteurised sheep's milk, native to the Basque region.
It's now 9pm, and most Spanish locals are emerging for their first pintxos of the night. Which means I have to jostle my way to the bar at Gandarias, a rowdy hangout where house specials are scrawled on a blackboard.
Over the counter hang fat legs of smoked jamon, while on it are daily changing pintxos, which might include petite crab pies, stuffed fried mussels, and solomillo, a steak sandwich that only takes a mouthful or two to devour, even though you'll want the flavour sensation to linger forever.
Nearby, the crowds at Ganbara resemble those at a football match, rather than a hole-in-the-wall bar. The place is famed for its fresh wild mushrooms, and you'll see different varieties piled up along the bar, if you can reach it. They're cooked simply in a buttery sauce with a soft-boiled egg on top. If they weren't so pricey – they're easily the most expensive dish I encounter – I'd eat them all night.
I break up mouthfuls of cepes (mushrooms) with spider crab tartlets, blistered padron peppers and txistorra, a handmade sausage wrapped in pastry.
One of the Old Town's most popular pintxos is la hoguera (the bonfire), which is the only reason I need to head straight for Bar Zeruko.
It sees a shallow ramekin filled with a smoking rosemary twig, covered with a grill and topped with thin slices of cod. You cook your protein as little or as long you like, then enjoy wafers of herbaceous fish chased by a shot of creamy asparagus soup and onion crostini. Another highlight here is the artichoke stuffed with seared foie gras and sprinkled with hazelnuts – an earthy union with plenty of texture.
Things get a little more fancy, but no less tasty, at A Fuego Negro, where the menu is inspired by Catalonian, rather than Basque, cuisine – gasp!
That doesn't stop crowds of locals descending every night for modern interpretations of classic tapas, including makcobe with txips (a Kobe beef slider on a ketchup-flavoured bun with handmade crisps and house pickles), not to mention the vermouth cocktails that are so potent your eyes will roll, in a good way, after your first sip. It's crowded, but it's hard not to linger over "baca-bits" (fried codfish bites that taste like bacon bits) while listening to '70s funk in the blacked-out bar.
Located in the shadow of Santa Maria church, Atari Gastroteka is my second-last stop for the night. People spill out of the dining room here onto the steps of the heritage cathedral building, congregating around standing-room-only tables where waiters deftly deliver plates of wafer-thin raisin bread and artisan foie, used here like a rich butter. It's almost as addictive as the sugary dish on offer at my final stop for the night.
I'm told that while it's not a pintxos, Basque burnt cheesecake is the only way to end an evening of tapas tasting in San Sebastian.
At La Vina, the un-crusted, baked dessert is made with an ingredient we're all familiar with, Phili cheese, but it's prepared in a magical way that makes the cake at once wobbly yet rich, creamy yet bitter, and perfectly caramelised all over.
The 11pm queues here hint at its popularity – it's regularly voted among the best of its ilk in the world. I only need one bite to understand why.
Natasha Dragun was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent.
Bar Txepetxa, bartxepetxa.com
Goiz Argi, Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 4, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Borda Berri, bordaberri.com
Casa Gandarias, restaurantegandarias.com
A Fuego Negro, afuegonegro.com
Atari Gastroteka, Calle Mayor, 18, 20013
La Via, lavinarestaurante.com