La Mejillonera, San-Sebastián
If you want fine dining*, go elsewhere. It’s frenetic, it’s noisy and, packed with locals and tourists alike, you’ll have to elbow your way to the front if you want to get served. In many ways it reminds me of a chippy back home: there’s no seating, just flimsy plastic stools and a stainless steel counter; decorated by large laminated posters of the limited dishes that they do serve and, of course, a blue and white striped Real Sociedad flag. Nevertheless, if I were forced to recommend just one bar after four wonderfully self-indulgent days in San Sebastián (or Donostia if you speak Basque) then it has to be La Mejillonera, pictured above after a typically busy Friday evening and found in the heart of the Old Town of this year’s European City of Culture.
Authentic is a tired cliché that I’m usually hesitant to use, but not in this instance. It’s the first adjective that springs to mind. Jose, who’s flat I rented through Airbnb (including his surfboard after a bit of haggling), boasts that the food’s so good that the waiters can be as rude as they like to tourists knowing full-well that they’ll return. He’s probably right, but don’t let this put you off. Yes there’s no pretence, but I found the lack of insincere smarminess that usually accompanies “good service” refreshing. You know where you stand. The 4 or 5 waiters behind the bar just get on with their job, bantering amongst one another throughout. They bellow your order to the kitchen staff and move swiftly onto the next customer who’s managed to jostle themselves into prime position. If you are generous enough to leave a tip, a cowbell is rung in understated but sincere appreciation.
And the food, which arrives before you can say Mejillones (which I pathetically still struggle to pronounce after almost two months in Spain) truly is exquisite — and excellent value, welcomed by cash-strapped, backpack-wearing punters like myself. As the name suggests you would be a fool not to order mussels which, washed down with a ice-cold beer, will set you back just €5. Or €7.50 if you are in need of a litre of beer following a tough day’s surfing or have been dragged around shopping by your girlfriend.
Follow the advice of the chief-waiter whose name has escaped me and go for tigres mejillones: comprising of 8 fresh mussels like the majority of their other dishes, the only twist being the artificial luminous spicy red sauce. This also includes a complimentary basket of bread which I shamelessly wolfed down without fail. Then fling your napkins and empty shells into the trough beneath the counter, hence the old guide-book adage to follow the napkins and to view a little grubbiness as testimony to quality. Now the hard part: resist the temptation to order another dish. Like an efficient waiter, settle-up and follow your gut (and of course wherever is littered with napkins) onto the next pinxto bar. The night is still young.
*Fortunately of which there is an abundance. San Sebastian is home to two of the world’s top 50 ranked restaurants (Arzak & Mugaritz, where Boragó’s Rolfo Guzman trained) and 16 Michelin stars, not bad for a city only slightly larger than Bournemouth. Although you can eat like a king for €20, I vow to return when I’m not so skint and wish to eat like a god.