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Crack! “Sit down when you’re eating”, mum would shout at my childhood self, “you’ll never digest your food standing up”. The crack was the sound of her ring hitting my knuckles. I was rarely hit as a child but I do remember a few occasions of being cracked and shouted at for eating while standing. Perhaps a slice of toast, a yogurt, a piece of cake - whatever it was, if mum saw me eating on my feet there’d be hell to pay. For her, if food was being chewed then it better be while sitting firmly on your ass. I always found it an odd rule but I was never brave enough to break it.
I guess that’s why my first visit to San Sebastián, a place where almost all people seem to eat standing more than they do sitting, was so scary for me. Food in this Basque city is laid across every inch of the local bars, often on top of slices of fresh bread, sometimes on it’s own but almost always held together by a long stick - or pincho as it’s called by the locals, a word meaning ‘spike’. A word that has basically given birth to a whole culture of eating while standing. “Let’s go for Pintxos” the locals will say, completely unaware that every bite of food I take standing increases the fear that at any moment my 60-year-old mother will come flying through the rustic wooden swing doors of one of these local Pintxos bars, fresh off the plane from England, just to crack me on the knuckles and tell me to sit down.
But that’s the problem, in the best Pintxos places, the ones locally famous for their speared specialities, sitting down isn’t really an option. It would just take up too much space, prime gastro real estate that’s in high demand in these places. After all, three people on legs can fill the space of one person sitting down. And filling the space is exactly what you have to do when trying to eat while standing in San Sebastián. You jostle, elbow and fight to hold your position, perhaps to sample just a few bites of a perfect egg tortilla cooked once a day at a specific time, for the joy of sharing a bite of perfectly melty, gelatinous beef cheek with four of your friends - just a few forkfuls each. To quickly grab at the top of sticks and devour a wonderful burst of ripe green olive, salty anchovy and the local’s favourite pickled chilli. To hopefully grab a taste of pig’s ear, kidneys coated in breadcrumbs or bright red peppers stuffed with the local’s favourite fish - bacalao, cod to most of the readers.
No one delivers your food in these places, there’s no table service, instead you wait and grab it at the bar. Dishes come in no particular order other than as they’re ready and together with your group you hold your space, a unit of food lovers only ready to move on to the next bar once the plates, bread or spears have been licked clean. The people, the dishes, the drinks, often young white wine served in quarter pints known as Txakolí, arrive in abundance and you keep fighting for that space you claimed just minutes earlier. It’s really not an easy experience - a sort of collective culinary endeavour every person partakes in as you pass a plate, make way for a beer overhead or allow a newcomer just a few valuable inches so they can also get in on the action. It’s not easy, but eating this good really shouldn’t be. I realised within just a few minutes inside my first Pintxos bar that my mum was very wrong for her sit and eat policy, but I kept one eye on the entrance of every bar, just in case she was about to burst in and catch me breaking her sacred rule - “how could you possibly eat so much food on your feet? You’ll never digest it”.
It’s truly a joy to partake in such a dining experience and outsiders will quickly note how the young and old, the hip, the trendy and even the traditional dine together in San Sebastián. True dining democracy, where no person can call ahead early to book a seat, where locals and tourists hustle for the same space and only those hungry and eager enough to arrive early can claim any type of advantage. You’ll also notice that the original Pincho (the sticks) are not such a hard and fast rule these days, some dishes have them and some, mainly the more modern places, are changing the style and plating food without a stick in sight. The locals still call it Pintxos and they all stand strong when fighting for their favourite bite.
For those brave enough to partake, it’s one of the finest food feelings you’ll ever experience and here’s my list of the best places to eat standing in San Sebastián - sorry Mum!
You can sit here and many do, but this is a standing guide so get yourself to the bar and go for two things. The original Pintxos which is called Gilda - AKA Banderilla - an olive, an anchovy and some guindilla (green chilli) all skewered on a stick and drowned in olive oil. Apparently named after Rita Hayworth’s character in the 1950s film Gilda, this is the sticky snack that locals will happily explain started the whole Pintxos party. You also need to order the tortilla - it’s thinner than most tortilla I’ve encountered in life but the gooey middle accompanied by soft potato and sweet onion is a bite of grandma style loving.
Calle de Peña y Goñi,
13, 20002 Donostia
A few things to grab in here - the pig’s ear which is going to be the biggest whack of gooey, tasty fat you ever tried, their beef cheek which comes with a sauce you’ll happily mop with bread, your fingers or the fingers of the random stranger standing next to you, and their ‘Kallos de bacalao’ - cod tripe is the translation but it’s actually the cod’s natatory bladder which is an internal gas filled organ that fish use to rise and sink in the water, this is served with a wonderful gelatinous sauce and a side of tangy alioli.
Fermin Calbeton Kalea 12,
Modern in the fact that you won’t see any sticks and that dishes wouldn’t look out of place served in a high-end restaurant. This place is famous for their seared foie gras which is served with a tangy apple sauce and perfectly cooked. Salt seasoning has never been more perfectly placed and personally, this is the place I think you should go a little bit mental and order it all; the beef cheek, the pig cheek - whatever cheek they’re offering to be honest - also the rabbit, the risotto, the razor clams - it’s all worth a nibble and the price is so good you can happily order like a king. Claim your space and get the lot, there’s some seats outside but they’re for the weak, remember, stand strong.
Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto 28,
Some of the best kidney I’ve ever tasted. Simply breadcrumbed and fried before it’s skewered on a huge stick. The crazy blue screens make this bar look more like a bookies where you’d place a bet on a well tipped horse but forget the screens and go straight for the kidney kebabs and black pudding blood sausage.
Fermin Calbeton Kalea 4,
This is the sweet end, middle, or - if you’re like me - the sweet beginning, middle and end to a day of eating standing. This place offers the most famous cake in town, a cheesecake so damn sloppy and tasty that any other you’ve tried will quickly seem uninspiring. A cheesecake with no buttery biscuit base, just a wonderfully caramelised crust thanks to a seriously heavy yolk and sugar laden filling that’s baked at temps most home cooks would fear. A cheesecake so good that upon sampling it, the famous chef Grant Achatz decided to create his very own homage at his three-Michelin starred Alinea restaurant back in Chicago.
It comes in slices of two and the bar back and sides are covered with baking tins full of the stuff. This is baked goodness that led me to call an airline and enquire about their onboard cake carrying policy. At around 50 euros for a full cake, I was perfectly happy to pay that and the extra ticket required to fly one home if only the airline would guarantee safe passage - even though part of me also wanted to be told, “I’m afraid you can’t fly with that, sir” before I whipped out my travel spoon - yes I have a travel spoon - and ate the whole thing while people’s bags were scanned around me.
Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto 3,