I had read that gastronomic tourism in the Basque country is one of the best in the world. From Bilbao to San Sebastian and beyond there are some amazing restaurants. This stems from food traditions that have been going on for centuries. They are famous for their pintxos (pinchos) which are appetizers or tapas found on most bar counters in the region which have now evolved to, in some cases, works of art. There are now competitions to find the best.
According to the En Euskadi guide of the area, a pintxo is a small slice of bread with a small portion of food. Its name derives from the fact that the food used to be secured by means of a toothpick although it is not obligatory. They are usually served with a glass of red wine called a txikito or beer called a zurito.
Here are the restaurants that I found and now recommend for you:
Bistro Guggenheim Bilbao: I had my first lunch here before visiting the museum. The bar had some really good pintxos. I opted for the tuna with greens on focaccia bread and a small dessert. I enjoyed sitting outside overlooking the entrance to the museum. They have a seated option inside.
Victor Montes, Plaza Nueva 8: If you want great food and atmosphere, this is the place. Located on a wonderful square in the old town this is restaurant, bar and outside café. I loved the bar for lunch and sampled six of the huge selection of pinxtos including, those featuring crab, quail and Iberian ham. Its belle époque atmosphere is perfect.
El Perro Chico, Arechaga 2: I stopped by for a tea after walking the old part of the city. The restaurant has been there for years and has tiles dating from the 1890’s. My hotel recommends it for the food as one of their favorites and Wallpaper* Magazine features it in the Bilbao guide for its old-world interior. It is located in a great spot along the river across from the Mercado de la Ribera.
I also checked out two neighboring pintxo bars which had a large bar crowd hanging out in the street in front. They were Gatx at Santa Maria 19 and Irrintzi at Santa Maria 8. Both were recommended by my hotel.
Bascook, Barroeta Aldamar 8: After reading several pieces on the restaurant, I went there my last night in town. The atmosphere was great as it is downstairs in an old salt cellar. The menu came in newspaper form, except for the English translation. I thought the menu was very good and creative with a column of vegetarian options, options from local products with more traditional preparations and a third of international influences. I enjoyed my meal, but felt that the sea bass entree was pretty expensive compared to the other options on the menu. You know you are in Spain, when you leave the restaurant at 9:45 and it is just filling up. I think it is well worth the visit but make sure you ask about the cost of the specials.
Café Iruna, Colon de Larreategui 13: I stopped by Café Iruna for a drink before my dinner at Bascook. It has been there since 1903 and has a very old world décor from that period with antique tiles, polychrome ceilings, wood paneling and stained glass. It is great for people watching.
Mercado de la Ribera: This is a two level market with great stained glass windows on the second level.
Turrones y Dulces Ivanez, Correo 23: Stop in for a sweet or marzipan at this shop that has been in business since 1860.