Gourmet guide Eskerne Falcon helps you navigate the city with the most Michelin stars per capita in the world
For foodies around the world, the tiny coastal city of San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque country is a must-visit pilgrimage site. It is, after all, the city with the most Michelin stars per capita in the world.
How did one little town come to have so much good food? San Sebastian’s award-winning food tour guide Eskerne Falcon thinks it’s all to do with its unique location. “There are both mountains and sea… We have both fishermen and farmers with very good products, so we have both food from the sea and food from the mountains,” she said.
Falcon is in town in conjunction with The Pintxo Exchange (an event that ran until August 25) at TXA Pintxo Bar at The Alkaff Mansion, where TXA’s Basque chef Marta Elvira Segales recreated three special pintxos from the famous San Sebastian bars Casa Urola and Txuleta.
Pintxos, similar to tapas, are a highlight of Basque cuisine, a style of cooking originating in northern Spain.
“The famous Basque gastronomic societies, only for men at first though now some allow women, first originated in San Sebastian – which, in a way, can be interpreted as a sign of our gastronomic passion,” Falcon said. “Some of the oldest of these private societies have been alive since the end of the 19th century. Of course, these societies are more than just about food; but they first began as a way to get together and cook and eat. Cuisine is a big part of our culture and life.”
Another reason for San Sebastian’s prominence on the food map, she said, could be “a very important culinary movement that was started in the late 1960s by some of the top chefs here; many of them have won their restaurants Michelin stars. They learnt many new techniques and shared their knowledge unreservedly, which was instrumental in developing the food scene here.” This movement, known as the New Basque Cuisine, was strongly influenced by the nouvelle cuisine of neighbouring France.
There are many well-known restaurants and bars in San Sebastian, and now that the city is such a prominent destination for foodies from as far away as Australia and Korea, it’s hard to avoid the sense of the touristic that permeates it, especially in the high season.
“Nowadays, there are many tourists in every bar! People may not know the difference (between a bar frequented by tourists and a bar frequented by locals) until they try many,” Falcon said.
To avoid wasting time, she recommends going on one of the city’s many food tours, including the ones she herself conducts. “It’s a very good way to discover the pintxo bar scene in San Sebastian,” she said. “I can only speak for my own tours but everything is more enjoyable when the tours can be tailored to the guests. I have a couple of Australian guests who enjoyed themselves so much that they’ve done the tour a total of three times now.
"The first time, the two sisters took the tour by themselves; the second, they came with their partners and two other friends; and the third time, they had a party of 35 people to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of the sisters. I assume they liked the tour! There was also a guest who planned a private pintxo tour as part of a special wedding proposal. His partner loved food experiences as did he; the tour was the start of the day and after that, he took her to Mount Igueldo to propose! She said yes.”
Well, who wouldn’t, after being fed a rapid succession of delicious pintxos while hopping from one charming bar to another?
And if you’re in San Sebastian, here are Falcon’s top recommended restaurants you’d have reason to say yes to.
A restaurant that achieved three Michelin stars in 2006 and has maintained them ever since. It’s situated in a beautiful five-star hotel, opened quite recently in 2017 and also called Akelarre, with spectacular views of the coast – a perfect place to stay for drinks after lunch or dinner. The head chef and owner Pedro Subijana is widely acknowledged as one of the most important figures of Basque cuisine.
Recently awarded a Michelin star, Amelia was opened by Paulo Airaudo, a young Argentinian chef of Italian heritage. The small restaurant – only 22 seats – cooks with a lot of local seasonal products from small producers, but has also a very international outlook.
3. Asador Portuetxe
This is a family-run restaurant that has been open since 1982. They offer traditional Basque cooking, as well as very good grilled fish and meat.
The chef of this one-Michelin-starred restaurant is local, and offers simple and beautifully cooked food that is rooted in Basque traditions but with a modern touch – and much love for Basque history.
This Michelin-listed restaurant was established in the historic farmhouse home of founder Txomin Rekondo, and is famous for its amazing wine cellar. The cellar is the passion of the owners – they describe it as a “wine museum”, and it certainly has won many accolades and awards from magazines such as Wine Spectator and La Revue du Vin de France.