The taxi driver turns his head all the way around so that he can get a good look at me. “Of course I know where Arbelaitz is,” he scoffs. “It is a very good restaurant. One star Michelin. One of our best.” He raises his index finger to emphasize that point.
“But, you know,” he says, his finger now wagging at me, “you really should go to Arzak. Three stars Michelin. The finest in Spain!”
“I’m going there tomorrow,” I say. It feels strange that I somehow need the approval of my taxi driver. He looks at me differently now, though. He turns to face the road, slaps his hands on his thighs, punches the meter on the dashboard and stomps on the accelerator. Our Mercedes swerves into traffic and hugs the perimeter of San Sebastian’s clamshell-shaped La Concha beach at breakneck speed. Two Jonathan Rhys Meyers look-alikes dash across the boulevard with surfboards tucked under their arms, barely outpacing the taxi’s front bumper.
“Arbelaitz!” The driver is suddenly talking again. “Ahh, yes, you will enjoy. But Arzak…” His voice trails off. He is in his own world now. Remembering. Tasting. Savoring. A poached oyster with sea-scented mayonnaise at Arbelaitz, perhaps. Or maybe the crayfish at Arzak, their heads still attached, resting in a broth of liquefied corn. These are the things I find myself thinking about two days later as I’m headed out to dinner once more in the Basque Country.
Fast cars. Soccer. Surfing. Fashion. Even women. To the men of the Basque Country, nothing is more important than food. This semiautonomous region has been inhabited by the ethnic Basques for tens of thousands of years. It’s an area roughly the size of Maryland that straddles the border of Spain and France where the two curve together between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Atlantic seaboard—and its restaurants famously boast more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world except Tokyo. The Basque influence is more intense on the Spanish side, but being on either border is quite unlike anywhere else in Spain or France.
The primary coastal cities are Bilbao and San Sebastian in Spain, and Biarritz in France. Bilbao is the biggest, with more than 350,000 residents. San Sebastian, with fewer than 200,000, is the region’s undisputed culinary capital. And Biarritz, the chicest, is just a blip on the map, but don’t tell that to the locals (or the Parisians who own summer homes here).
There are several other things you should know before embarking on a culinary adventure in the Basque Country. First, the much-revered Michelin Guide—whose top rating is three stars—doesn’t always get it right. Some of the guide’s top picks are terribly outdated and stale. However, many of the restaurants do compete with the finest the world can offer. The second thing you should know is that lunch begins in earnest at 3:30pm, and dinner doesn’t get going until 9:30pm at the earliest. Which means there’s plenty of time in the morning and in the afternoon for surfing or a nice jog to work off all that ham. On most menus, seafood options far outnumber the meat selections, yet no restaurant actually refers to itself as a “seafood restaurant.”
Here, the ocean is simply inextricable from daily life, and that extends to the dinner table. However, the Basques also worship ham, as you will notice from the thousands of Ibérico and Bayonne hams hanging by their hooves from the ceilings in the smoke-filled restaurants and bars everywhere you look. The third important detail is this: Not one hotel in this part of the world measures up to the five-star standards to which we’ve grown accustomed at, say, Mandarin Oriental or Four Seasons. But these places are perfectly charming and fun—and your room usually costs less than dinner. Just don’t come expecting the holy trinity of fawning service, functioning technology and sublime comfort all in one place.
Back at Arbelaitz, in San Sebastian, I am savoring the last quivery bite of garlic panna cotta—it’s the silkiest custard imaginable, the perfect foil for pan-roasted cod—when my waitress leans in and whispers, “Do you know who that is at the table just to your left?” She discreetly motions toward a bespectacled man with a big smile and a round belly that seems too large for his 5-foot-8-inch frame, and another man, much taller, who wears an enormous mustache. “No,” I say, although I’d noticed that the staff and chef had been showering them with special attention. She beams. “That’s misters Arzak and Subijana.”
Being Basque, she assumes I know who they are and leaves it at that. I have done my research, though, so I know she is referring to two of the most important chefs in Spain, including the one whose restaurant I had discussed with the taxi driver. I nod in their direction. They nod back.
The taxi driver was right. Arbelaitz (+34.943.308.220) is outstanding. But Arzak (+34.943.278.465) is the best in San Sebastian. The best in the entire region. From the outside, it looks like it’s going to be frumpy and traditional, like so many restaurants here tend to be. Just beyond a quaint foyer and bar, a frosted glass door magically disappears into the wall, making a quiet swoosh, like the doors on a starship, through which I am led to the dining room, a thoroughly modern, whisper-quiet space with concrete walls, polished wood floors and long white tablecloths that skim the floor. The man with the big smile and round belly is now squeezed into a white chef’s jacket, and he recognizes me from the day prior.
“Hola! You like to eat!” he exclaims. He rushes to shake my hand. Other diners turn to look. Moments later, he’s introducing me to his daughter, Elena, the co-chef. Waiters decant not just the wine but also every bottle of water. There is an immediate, almost overwhelming bombardment of tiny bites sent from the kitchen: a miniscule fritter of rockfish wrapped in porcupine-like chards of kataifi pastry, crab salad sandwiched between dime-sized wafers, long silver skewers threaded with pickled scallops. I marvel at the plumpness of oysters and the sheer perfection of a poached egg, which had just been laid today, I am told. It is infused with truffle oil and served atop caramelized mushrooms along with a drizzle of something that tastes like liquid chorizo—but I can’t quite decipher the Basque-to-Spanish-to-English translation.
It’s best to balance this sort of Michelin-starred extravagance with a casual night of barhopping and pintxos. Pintxos (pronounced peench-os) are Basque tapas, and San Sebastian’s compact Parte Vieja (aka Old Town) is the regional epicenter of this lively tradition. Locals drive from neighboring provinces and crowd the streets, strolling from bar to bar, throwing their paper napkins to the ground and raising their wine glasses for frequent toasts. At most of these bars, a walk-up window opens to the sidewalk so that you don’t actually have to go inside—just grab the food and drink through the window and keep the revelry moving. Most pintxos bars (all clustered together just steps from each other) serve relatively the same tidbits of cured meat or fresh fish on slices of crusty bread, but there are a few places that stand out.
Elsewhere around Bilbao, you can fare much better. There is a truly stellar restaurant called Zortziko (011.34.944.239.743). It is a careful blend of past and present: crystal chandeliers, orange velvet drapery, classic French side chairs mixed with mid-century chrome armchairs. Waiters behave like butlers, using both hands to carry large silver trays, even when they’re delivering something as simple as a fresh napkin. Yet, Zortziko isn’t the least bit stuffy. And this is going to sound absurd, but I find myself truly enjoying smoked salmon served alongside coconut ice cream. Equally thought-provoking and delicious, a curl of grilled squid arrives with a tiny scoop of squid-ink gelato. Chef Daniel García understands precisely how to toe that aforementioned line.
In Biarritz, life revolves equally around food, but also something else: surfing. Michelin predictably steers us toward the formal, grandiose dining rooms like La Villa Eugenie (old-world opulence) and Le Relais (exquisite cheese trolley and desserts). But I’m drawn to what’s going on at Sissinou (011.33.559.22.5150), a matchbox-sized, modern French restaurant with only 26 seats and two waiters (one of whom doubles as the bartender while the other also acts as hostess and manager), which is probably why Michelin gives it only one star. But you won’t find better mackerel sashimi anywhere else in Europe. And the braised veal tendons with creamy polenta have me convinced that connective tissue is my new favorite food.
Similarly chic is L’Opale (011.33.559.24.3030). Look for the Hermès boutique on the main promenade, then notice the stairs immediately to the left. That’s the entrance to this sleek, cozy beachfront space with gauzy curtains, a snowball chandelier, expansive ocean views and a plasma TV playing looped runway shows from Paris. And lest you momentarily forget where you are, the milk-fed lamb on the menu comes from the nearby Pyrenees—and it doesn’t get much better, or more Basque, than that.