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Apr 15, 2010 06:45 AM

Smoking in San Sebastian Pintxo Bars

I'm working on planning a trip to Europe for an upcoming birthday and heading to San Sebastian and the Basque country is currently at the top of my list. However, through researching restaurants in San Sebastian the issue of smoking in the restaurants has come up a few times and I'd like to get a better sense of how bad it is. My wife has a very low tolerance for smoke and it bothers me as well so I'm afraid it would prevent us from enjoying the atmosphere and most importantly the food in the various pintxos bars in SS. So, for those of you who've been bar hopping in SS, how bad is the smoke? Does it interfere with one enjoying the food inside or is it mostly people smoking just outside the bar in the street?

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  1. We were just in San Sebastian in March for 4 days. We were there mid-week, not during the weekend, and tended to be out on the early side so perhaps that had something to do with the lack of smoking that we observed. Never did I return to the hotel with a smokey smelling coat or hair. The incredible thing about SS is that if you are in a place with smokers, there's another fabulous place a few steps away that might be smoke free.

    Enjoy your trip!

    1. Last Saturday when I was in San Sé for an afternoon, the bar scene in the old town was especially intense because there was an important rugby match at 4pm, and all the Biarritz fans were doing the obligatory pintxos crawl in the old town.
      I must say that even though I am no fundamentalist about non-smoking, I had to back out of a couple of the bars immediately. They were La Mejillonera and La Cepa. Just couldn't do it. I feel so sorry for the waitstaff. They should present their case at the UN Human Rights Commission, really.
      In the old town I ate - faaabulously - at the pintxos bars La Cuchara de San Telmo, Astelena, Ganbara and Tamboril.
      At Astelena and San Telmo, there was a lot of smoking, but one could take one's pintxos and drinks outside. Astelena has an outdoors café section. San Telmo has a few tables outside too.
      I seem to have smelled no smoke at Ganbara and Tamboril, but it could be that I had just staggered out of La Mejillonera choking. Any air that had more than 50% oxygen seemed like the Swiss Alps to me then…

      But remember: people smoke in Spain. While some bars declare themselves non-smoking, nearly every table has someone lighting up on a café terrace.
      This is something one needs to incorporate in one's expectations.

      6 Replies
      1. re: Parigi

        I appreciate your thoughts and I inquired precisely for the reason of setting appropriate expectations so there wouldn't be any negative surprises on arrival. Unfortunately, your account has made it unlikely that San Sebastian will be my choice for a destination which is a shame as I'd planned to visit Arzak, Mugaritz (if/when it reopens), and Akelare along with trying the various pintxos bars. I could probably tolerate smoke for a little while, but not my wife. I'm sure some won't understand this reasoning, but I'd really hate to end up traveling such a long distance to suffer through smoke filled bars and not be able to enjoy the food when I could return to France or Italy.

        1. re: michaelstl

          "your account has made it unlikely that San Sebastian will be my choice for a destination which is a shame as I'd planned to visit Arzak, Mugaritz (if/when it reopens), and Akelare along with trying the various pintxos bars"

          The larger restaurants have a non-smoking section. Arzak definitely has one. It is a matter of the size of the establishment. Under a certain number of square meters, a bar or resto must declare itself one way or the other. For example, my fave bar in Barça - Miramelindo - switched to non-smoking. My other fave bar - Mudanza - remains a smokeout holdout.
          Café terraces - being outdoors - are not subject to this rule of course.

          On the other hand I agree it is a real shame if you give up on all the pintxos bars. Their excellence jumps at you. The quality and inventiveness of the pintxos there are really amazing. My husband and I agreed that the level there was clearly much superior to the best bars of Barcelona, and we loooove Barcelona. Are you sure you don't want to train taking a deep breath, running inside, placing your order, still holding your breath and running out?
          When I went, it was indeed under the worst - or best - circumstances, during pre-rugby lunch time. After squeezing in and out of 4, 5 bars, I must say my clothes did not stink of tobacco. So for me it was doable. Not only doable but an experience of exquisite fun.

          1. re: Parigi

            Arzak SAYS they have a non smoking section, but when I was there, I wasn't able to find it. I booked 2-3 months in advance and they said they were unable to accomodate my request for the non-smoking section. My hunch is that it either doesn't exist or consists of a single table.

            I've never been able to find someone online who can confirm that they indeed were able to book the non-smoking table. Maybe Arzak has a prejudice against reservation requests made in English, I don't know.

            The smoke was unbearable for my husband towards the end of our meal. :( A shame because the food was great, second only to Extebarri on our trip. We didn't have this problem in Madrid and Barcelona.

            If you do end up in SS, perhaps go only to the bars in Gros and take a trip to Extebarri? Also consider booking a hotel with both a non-smoking ROOM and a non-smoking FLOOR as I found smoke often crept inside our room from the hallways.

          2. re: michaelstl

            My experience of the top restaurants in SS is that they are mostly non-smoking. I have been to the three you mention, and I think Arzak has one section for smokers, and Mugaritz and Akelare are smoke free (from memory smoking is in the garden at Mugaritz). So no smoke issues in these restaurants.

            As Paringi says the bars do vary, the law in Spain provides for smoke free bars and restaurants unless the specifically place opts out, and if it does this needs to be clear to customers with big signs on the door to say smoking is permitted. Thus there are lots of places where smoking isn't a problem, and the smoking places are obvious. Given the idea of Tapas is to cruise from bar to bar and often eat standing up, and given the vast number and proximity of bars in SS I think it is perfectly possible to cruise around and easily avoid places that are smoky. In the old town people spill into the open air and so even if it is smoky inside it won't be a problem on the sidewalk.

            It would be a shame to miss SS for this reason, after all in France even though smoking is banned inside you still need to run the smoky gauntlet of people puffing away in the doorway to get into a lot of places, thus in some respects not that different.

            1. re: michaelstl

              I agree with Parigi. Smoking in Spain is no different from that of France and Italy. as a matter of fact, during our last trip, there's been less smoking specially in restaurants. We also enjoyed our food more in Spain than France and Italy partly because of quality and cost. There's a lot more really good food at even better need to mortgage your house!

              1. re: trvlcrzy

                > Smoking in Spain is no different from that of France and Italy.

                Hmm, that's not correct. I live in Spain and it's nothing like Italy where smoking has been entirely prohibited in restaurants and bars for several years. This January the law is finally supposed to change here, but it hasn't happened yet.

          3. If the weather is nice, some places will at least open their doors/windows. But people are definitely smoking inside.

            I think you might prefer pintxo hopping in Gros which is overall less crowded. And at least one place we went to had "no smoking near the food" signs.

            1 Reply
            1. re: kathryn

              i concur.
              the smoking in SS old town is disgusting. people smoking on top of or around the food. we had to leave a few bars without eating because it was awful.

            2. Smoking ban in public places to come into effect on January 2, 2011

              5 Replies
              1. re: JuanDoe

                Wow! I'm curious to see if this is actually followed!

                1. re: kathryn

                  Well, for a start it's indoors only so you will still have smoke coming in through open windows or when you're sitting at an outdoor table. It was a big discussion when I was in Spain last month - I suspect it will be ignored in small local bars.

                  1. re: mr_gimlet

                    Well, traffic smoke comes in through open windows. Are you a driver?

                    1. re: mr_gimlet

                      Hmm, why do you think Spanish smokers are bigger smoking fanatics than French or Italian smokers?

                      1. re: Parigi

                        Curiously, Spain accounts for about 60% of Cuban cigar exports.

                2. I was in SS in late October and the smoking at most of the bars is pretty bad, we did a lot better when we ate early, when they had just openned like for lunch, there's a lot less people and less smoke. I is not easy to find "non smoking" pintxo bars. But the food is truly outstanding even in the smaller ones, so take your time and look around. Just before you enter the "casco antiguo" (which is old part of town where most bars are) there are a couple of bars with terraces, where you could also seat outside (weather permitting, it might be too cold now), they charge a little extra for the food and drink if you do decide to eat there, but it's worth it if you can avoid the smoke.