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The Culture of Food in San Sebastian, Spain

Food in San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian, Spain, called Donostia in the Basque language, is a city with more Michelin Stars per square foot than any other city in the world. On a recent exploration of the city’s food culture, I ate my way through the high-end and local-end of many of San Sebastian’s amazing restaurants. Along the way I even learned a few Basque words and some cider traditions. In this two part story about San Sebastian food, Part I deals with 1 of 3 three star Michelin restaurants here and an amazing vineyard. Then Part II has more Michelin stars and possibilities . . .

In the Basque region of northwest coastal Spain people tend to congregate and sit around the table enjoying the food and wine the region is famous for. Over long lunches and dinners you have the time to learn the personalities of the people and enjoy their company. Much business is also conducted this way.  It is a delightful tradition I was happy to indulge.

Starting at the top of my experiences, the images of Chef Elena Arzak dominate San Sebastian’s public buildings. She’s even on larger-than-life-size banners hanging several stories high on the historic facades. They show the lovely and youthfully vibrant Elena tossing peppers into the air. Awarded the coveted “Best Female Chef in the World” in 2012, Elena and her father run one of the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” and have earned a quarter century of Three Michelin Stars to prove it!

Besides being the perfect spokesperson for the culinary world in San Sebastian, Spain, Chef Elena is a most accomplished chef, business woman and hostess. Her dishes were innovative, whimsical and entertaining, besides being simply delicious. The most unusual dish she served me was the grilled pigeon course. It featured delicious chunks of squab that tasted like veal, served on a grill over guitar wood shavings resting on an iPad. Mine was supposed to have flames on the screen like my dinner companion’s, but it had crashing surf instead, as if this presentation was also used for a seafood dish. The waitress quickly changed it to flames so it appeared to be cooking at the table.

Sadly, the one fault I find with Arzak is that Chef Elena does not allow photos to be taken at the table, saying “I’d prefer the public sees my food photographed by the professional photographer we have here.” She then provided me with all the photos, some of which were corrupted files and would not open. This replacement photo is sans iPad, robbing the dish of all the fantastical whimsy the full presentation can bring.

Arzak (the restaurant) is a must stop on any culinary tour.  Chef Elena describes the food as “signature Basque cuisine, research-based, evolving to cutting edge.” Arzak, 21 Alto de Miracruz, San Sebastian, Spain. Email [email protected] Closed Sundays and the month of June. Tasting menu: 199 Euros – Reservations as available, inquire.

Txakoli, (pronounced cha KO li) is the name of a local white, slightly effervescent wine traditional to Basque country. At Akarregi Txiki, a small vineyard perched on the green hills above the Cantabrian Sea in San Sebastian’s outskirts, a tasting of their signature txakoli , called Olatu, meaning wave in Basque, occurred with fresh local oysters and tuna. In fact every ingredient was sourced locally, meaning within a few miles, except the English salt. The oysters were served alfresco in the vineyard, beneath the overhead trellised grapes, while inside, the tuna was the first of the season, rare with a pine nut sauce that was undoubtedly the best tuna I’ve ever eaten.

The winery is not a restaurant, but brings in top chefs for meetings and special events. That day it was Ismael Iglesias, the chef of KATA.4 restaurant in San Sebastian, famous as an oyster bar. Contact the winery for a tasting and to see what other arrangements can be made.

San Sebastian is truly a beautiful place to visit and the food is fantastic! For more information on these and other restaurants and attractions of Donostia/San Sebastian please visit this website.

Next: Continuing the Culture of Food in San Sebastian, Spain

Written by Richard Frisbie

Richard Frisbie is a travel, culinary, and garden writer whose work has appeared in a broad range of print and online venues, including EDGE Publications, InsideOut magazine,, and others. He is also owner of Hope Farm Press, editing and publishing regional books on New York State. Visit his websites,

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