Instead of calling it tapas, here in northern Spain, it is known as pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”). I really enjoy the wide selection of pintxos available in the bars, although if you order many at one go the bill would add up. Treat the pintxos like snacks, ordering one or two at a time to go with a beer/wine.
The way to eat pintxos, (tapas in the Basque Country) in San Sebastian or Pamplona is quite different from other cities in Spain. There are two kinds of tapas: cold and hot ones.
Don’t attempt to eat pintxos if you’re starving; you’ll treat it like a buffet and prices will easily rack up as everything seems more appealing. Only get a couple of pintxos at a time, as sometimes what looks really appealing has been sitting on the bar the whole day, and is past its use by date. Test the waters.
Cold ones are displayed on the bar. Just ask the barman for your drink and pick the pintxos yourself. If you need a plate, just ask. Hot ones must be ordered from the barman and they take a short time to be cooked. There is always a hot tapas menu hanging from the wall.
When you are done with your pintxos and drink, ask the barman for the bill, and you have to tell him what you have eaten. It is very important to be honest, as it is a long tradition. Locals will be upset if they find people eating and not paying. I really like the trust system of paying for pintxos and not having the barman note down each dish that you ordered. Some bars even heat up the pintxos for you.
Normally you don’t eat many pintxos at one bar but move from bar to bar, drinking a beer (caña) or wine and eating one or two tapas, then you move to another bar.
Traditionally, residents would have one or two pintxos in the early evening to stave off any hunger before a later sit-down meal, rather than making a meal out of many pintxos.
On Thursday evenings, the bars have a kind of happy hour called pintxo-pote which starts from after work to just before midnight. For this, you get a pintxo from a pintxo-pote list often seen behind the bar, and a small drink for €1. Isn’t this such a good deal? Unfortunately I didn’t stay till Thursday so I could not enjoy this happy hour.
Generally, if the barman asks you to show your plate to them before you start eating, you know the bar markets towards tourists and is sub par and more expensive than it should be. A good bar will ask you what you’ve eaten as you pay, and you should also see a chef working at the back.
Most pintxo bars can be found in the old town, particularly on the streets parallel to Boulevard. Generally a pintxo will cost €2-3. At some bars the pintxos are all priced the same, at others the price depends on the pintxo.
Pintxos (tapas) bars are numerous in the Parte Vieja (Old Town), but to avoid the tourist crowds, venture slightly further to other areas such as Gros and Centro. Most bars charge by the toothpick or plate from €1-5.