Rube-ish question about ordering in San Sebastian....
This is going to sound somewhat rube-ish, but I've done all my research on which bars to hit for the best pinxtos (although suggestions are still welcome!) but I am concerned about the ordering process! Do we sit at a table and wait for the server? Do we go to the bar and point? Do you take a number?
help!!! And thanks!
I spent 10 days in San Sebastian for my honeymoon 2.5 yrs ago. In my experience, the ordering process varied a lot from bar to bar. Most places you ask for a plate and help yourself. Some places you point to what you want and they plate it up for you. All have menus with additional hot items available. Some places run a tab for you with everything you asked for, then charge you when you leave. others, when you ask them to charge you, ask YOU what you had. Others simply count the toothpicks on your plate. Just relax and go with it. I should note- almost every single tapas bar also has a dining room- these are seated by a host, and serve larger "raciones" portions, and paella, local favorites, etc. Didn't try any of these myself, was having too much fun having a bit in each place! Also note, when you order tapas, and your order a vino tinto (red) or blanco (white), it will be a small glass in a flat-bottomed tumbler. It's small, but it's really cheap too. You can also order a "Zurita" which is a small pour of beer. I highly recommend the white wine called "txakoli" pronounce Chah-koh-lee! It's slightly effervescent, tart and refreshing, and usually poured from a great height into the glass by the bartender, so as to bring out some of the bubbles! Also, 2 local dishes I ordered at real sit-down restaurants that I feel should not be missed- Txipirones en su tinta (squid in its own ink) and Txangurro (basque spider-crab baked-stuffed in its own shell- DELICIOUS!
Your question is not 'rube-ish' at all. It all depends on the places. Generally:
For counter places: go up to the bar, ask the person behind behind the for a plate, and order your drinks. The counter will have platters of bite size pintxos all served room temperature. Just help yourself. Besides those, some places might have occasional platters of hot items coming out of the kitchen; watch for those. Just help yourself and save any toothpicks, skewers, shells, etc. because that is what will be counted to determine your tab. Some will serve small portions of food (ie, slices of jamon, cheese, small casseroles, egg dishes, etc), usually listed on a blackboard or a small card, for you to order. Go back to the counter for more and order more as you go; never pressure to take or order everything at once. Very informal, no numbers, no utensil unless needed, no cloth napkins, not much fuss). These can be packed with little paper napkins all over the floor. There may be a few small tables, stool seating, etc. Plan to stand if one goes during prime time as popular ones in the Parte Vieja spill out on to the streets. Pay when you are ready to leave (some will ask you to pay for the drinks when you order). Just watch the other patrons; you'll get the hang of it in no time. Parte Vieja is just pack these places and people just hop from one to the next.
Some places will have a counter in the front and also a dining room. The dining room will have menus and table service just like any sit down restaurants; some do full course meals.
It seems complicated and confusing at first but after one or two places, you'll get the hang of it. The people are friendly and most bar staff are very helpful. The whole Basque are is wonderful.
I guess I'm a bit of a whimp, but I always ask the bar man/woman for whatever it is that I want. If I don' t know the name (majority of the time) then I just point and say "uno de estos" (one of these). If they want me to grab it myself, then they'll say to, usually "cojelo."
When I'm ready to leave said bar, I say "me cobras por favor" (charge me). Sometimes you'll get asked what you had, and you just tell them, for example, 2 canas (draft beers), 2 tintos, and 4 pintxos.
My laid back advice...don't get too hung up on feeling like you have to check off every bar on your list. You can walk into the crappiest bar in the entire Basque Country and you'll still get a room temperature slice of tortilla that will be delicious. Just look into the bars and see what food they have. You'll know from the doorway how good the place is.
Great point about not having to check out every bar and the crappiest looking one can be very good. Just drop in and order a drink and have one or two pintxos to survey the place. And since one has invested so little, just move on if for whatever reason, the place is not for you. The bar has no problem with that. After the first one, everything falls into place. Another point is that people tend to eat late, therefore, not unusually to have places packed late into the evening, especially on weekends and warm weather. And the 'honor system' still exist in most of Spain.