The first thing you need to know about tapas in Bilbao is it’s not called “tapas”. Here in the Basque Country (Euskadi) it’s all about the “pintxos”. Pintxos have become synonymous with Basque cuisine and, as the largest city in the region, there’s no better place to sample them (okay, maybe San Sebastian).
Most pintxo bars work on an honesty policy. Just ask for a plate for each person in your group and the bartender will either serve you what you point at or let you grab whatever you fancy. Then you just count cocktail sticks at the end.
Clean, contemporary decor and creative, comic-book-style murals perfectly compliment the old town setting at Irrintzi Pintxos & Friends. Fresh ideas and fresh ingredients keep things casual and draw an artsy, alternative crowd. Highlights are the pork and pineapple pintxo with Dijon mustard dip, and the Japanese-seafood-tempura-inspired swordfish and shrimp sticks served with aioli.
Santa Maria Kalea, 8, 48005 Bilbao
One of the most central of Bilbao’s best tapas and pintxo spots and the talk of the city right now, El Globo has made a name for itself with its melt-in-your-mouth morcilla (Spain’s answer to the black pudding) and other unique takes on classic pintxo dishes. The mushrooms topped with cream and crispy Spanish ham are also not to be missed. Nor is the bacalao gratinado (cod fish in a mysterious but delicious sauce, topped with a generous serving of cheese and grilled until golden-brown). These can all be enjoyed under neon lights on their terrace and washed down with a Basque craft beer from the likes of Bilbao’s own La Salve brewery.
Diputazio Kalea, 8, 48008 Bilbao
The beautiful Plaza Nueva (the “New Square” back in 1827) is essentially a pintxo bar bazaar, and it can be difficult to know which one to choose. Rest assured though, Bar Charly is definitely everything it’s crabbed up to be. (Sorry, tapas humour.) “Pintxo” is the Basque spelling of “pincho”, meaning something punctured or pierced, but in the same way that tapas no longer exclusively “top” a drink, the pintxos at Bar Charly are so much more than just something tacked to a piece of bread with a cocktail stick. Plus, they even serve the classic tapas dishes such as bravas, tortilla española and crispy croquetas.
Plaza Nueva, 8, 48005 Bilbao
When it does come to the more traditional, bread-based pintxos though, nobody does it better than Panko Bilbao: a restaurant, café and, most importantly, bread shop…or “bread temple” as they prefer to refer to themselves. Choose from more than a dozen different types of hand-made, wood-fired bread, including wholemeal oats, orange-peel brioche and black olive focaccia. The name panko is actually Japanese for “breadcrumbs” and, sure enough, you’ll find many Japanese-inspired dishes here among the pintxos and bread baskets, from maki rolls to crispy octopus sushi.
Marqués del Puerto, 4, 48008 Bilbao
Estoril’s pintxos are one of Bilbao’s best kept secrets. Located in the centre of Bilbao, Estoril is the haunt of local Athletic Club Bilbao football fans on their way back from a game at nearby San Mamés Stadium. Within the beautiful blue exterior you’ll find friendly, down-to-earth staff, great martinis and some of the best, most traditional pintxos in Bilbao.
Plaza Emilio Campuzano, 3, 48011 Bilbao
Just round the corner from Estoril, García Rivero Street is one of a small handful of spots in Bilbao where all the locals seem to descend for their pintxos. With almost every doorway tempting you with offerings of tacked treats, it’s unclear whether Zera – the best of a brilliant bunch – benefits from the “group weighting” effect, or suffers in obscurity, sandwiched between so much admirable competition. One thing is clear though: the pintxos are among the best in Bilbao. In fact, sometimes it’s so popular it can feel like Día de Pintxos Muertos with so many of the poor pintxos in various states of carnage. It costs €10.90 for a tray of six and the cañas (draught beers) are sufficiently generous.
García Rivero Maisuaren Kalea, 7, 48011 Bilbao
La Viña del Ensanche
Where El Globo, across the road, is your young, trendy friend, La Viña del Ensanche is family, hailing from a time before chain restaurants, when life was slower, more relaxed, and people still took the time to talk and listen to one another. This third-generation tapas bar has weathered the years with dignity and still contains the same, tavern-style furniture as it did over sixty years ago. The food has evolved with the times, though still errs towards simplicity: Jamón ibérico (Iberian ham) and good vino (wine), and the time-tested concept of quality over quantity. Their experience and expertise has earned them the title “best restaurant in Bilbao for tapas”. Just remember to make a reservation.
Diputazio Kalea, 10, 48008 Bilbao