Bilbainos consider good pintxos a fundamental joy of daily life, and bars dedicated to providing them abound; jocular crowds rather than fancy decor or high prices are the clue to the best. Many also offer a good-value menú del día. The best place to get a flavour of what’s on offer or start a pintxo crawl is Calle Ledesma, in the centre of Bilbao. It’s an eating party street lined with bars, with outdoor tables all the way down the middle. Explore pintxo styles through the ages by starting with old favourites such as Cafetería el Molinillo and Artajo and then move on to stylish additions like Bilbao Berría (now with a central London branch).
El Huevo Frito
The name (Fried Egg) fits in with the cheap-and-cheery local “caff” ambience, although being the Basque world, this is actually a bar, and the eggs are quails’ – adding glamour and a gooey layer to top-ranked pintxos, lined up on slates balanced on tins of tuna along the counter. This is also the spot for a good gilda (a skewered, oily dripping olive, anchovy and pickled chilli combo); for warming cazuelitas (a fry-up with bacon, ham or sausage for €3.50); and prize-winning (deboned and diced) pigs’ trotter pintxos. This place is a slice of Bilbao life: fabulous food without fanfare, plenty of Athletic Bilbao footie paraphernalia, framed cartoons mocking celebrities, a TV in the corner, and effervescent txakoli. The area, Indautzu, is home to several good bars, popular with an older (over 30) crowd.
• Maestro García Rivero 1, +34 94 441 22 49, on Facebook. Open Mon-Wed 9am-midnight, Thurs-Sat 9am-1am, Sun noon-4pm
This place is the cool and popular all-purpose hostelry you dream of having on your doorstep: a place for coffee, lunch (the weekday menú del día €13), dinner – possibly every day. It’s also a bar and a recommended port of call in hipster district Bilbao la Vieja. Until recently it was an old men’s bar; those of them that wander in now are no doubt puzzled by the swing, the top-knotted barman, the cocktails, the art, music, and quinoa served in kiln jars. But they’ll recognise the scene in the panoramic photograph above the bar – a massive ship moored in the industrial docks which, for much of their lives, were just round the corner.
• Calle San Francisco 1, +34 944 36 01 90, pesoneto.es. Open Mon-Sun 11am-1am
Bar El Globo
Exposed brick walls and stylish low-hanging lights provide a warm, upmarket ambience for a well-heeled crowd, many from nearby government building Palacio de la Diputación. These pintxos are so plump, moist and beautifully crafted that anywhere else they’d be party food. Listed on blackboards, each reads like a Michelin restaurant starter: alcachofas en tempura con crujiente de jamón (artichoke tempura with crispy jamón); anchoa marinada con huevos de lumpo y salsa tartára (marinated anchovy with lumpfish eggs and tartar sauce), txangurro gratinado (spider crab au gratin). The recommended strategy is to find a stool at the right-angled bar and try whatever takes your fancy that’s within reach. El Globo also has a seating area and standard menu that includes, unusually for Spain, a good selection of salads (from €6).
• Calle Diputación 8, +34 94 415 42 21, barelglobo.com. Open Mon-Thurs 8am-11pm, Fri 8am-midnight, Sat 11am-midnight; closed Sun
La Viña del Ensanche
Founded in 1927, La Viña retains its charm and quite a few original furnishings and fittings; letters sent from travelling Basques to the stamp-collecting founder, Bautista González, cover the walls. This was a taberna for tertulias, gatherings of artists, writers, philosophical drinkers, and for jamón. It still is. Hugely popular and always packed, the bar’s speciality is slithers of acorn-fed Joselito jamón, though good raciones (plates to share) and media raciones (half plates) are available. Now run by Bautista’s grandchildren, la Viña has expanded next door to include a deli, and more formal restaurant.
• Calle Diputación 10, +34 944 15 56 15, lavinadelensanche.com. Open Mon-Sat 8.30am-11pm, closed during Semana Santa and for 30 days during summer (usually from mid-July)
Winner of hard-fought gastronomic contests including 2016’s best pintxos bar championship, Gure Toki does an admirable job of giving traditional Basque home cooking a new twist. Long ago this bar was known for doing giant portions of patatas bravas, now its speciality is a grilled foie with apple and Pedro Ximenez sweet sherry. It also has an excellent location in the beautiful Plaza Nueva, Bilbao’s pintxo epicentre (it’s enclosed by pintxo bars on four sides) and has plenty of outdoor seating.
• Plaza Nueva 12, +34 94 415 80 37, guretoki.com. Open Mon-Tues and Thurs-Sat 9am-11.30pm, Sun 9.30am-4pm, closed Wed
Like the Plaza Nueva itself, this former grocer’s (now restaurant, bar and gourmet deli) is a well-loved, striking landmark. Go, if only to marvel at the gorgeous decor. As well as delicious, complex pintxos (wild mushrooms with brie and squash chutney), it offers a reasonable three-course weekday menú laborable, or menú del día (€30, including a glass of wine). Incidentally, the restaurant is where the agreement was signed to build Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum.
• Plaza Nueva 2, +34 944 15 01 18, restaurantevictor.com. Open Mon-Sat 8.30am-11.30pm, closed Sun
The architect’s passion for the Islamic palaces of Andalucía, makes this 1903 Monumento Singular the most spectacular setting for breakfast in Bilbao. While locals eat on, visitors ignore their food and gape at the glorious walls covered in vibrant tiles, the murals, stained glass, ornate ceilings, chandeliers and even the gleaming tiled floors. With its banquettes and white cloth-covered tables, and its reasonable prices, the cafe combines the splendour of a golden-era Parisian brasserie with the brisk bustle of a station cafe. Staff don’t overdo the charm, but the decor, location (by the Jardines de Albia) and ever-reliable breakfasts, lunches and dinners make up for it. There are good pintxos and a bargain menú del día (€14 weekdays and €19 weekends) of three courses, bread and Rioja crianza thrown in. Breakfasts are €2.60.
• Colon de Larreategui 13, +34 944 237 021, cafeirunabilbao.net. Open Mon-Thurs 7am-1am, Fri 7am-2am, Sat 9am-2am, Sun10am-1am
If you approached a business adviser with a plan to open a pintxos bar in the Casco Viejo district they’d look at you as if you were foolish – because it’s already stuffed full of them! But Baster, which opened just over a year ago, has carved out a space for itself, adding something cool and fresh to the existing mix. The individual tortillas, made to order, are highly rated and if you like vermouth, you’ll find lots of it here along with nice people. It features arty lighting, a good corner location and is open for breakfast too.
• Calle Correo 22, +34 944 07 12 28, basterbilbao.com. Open Tues-Thurs 9.30am-10pm, Fri-Sat 9.30am-11pm, Sun 9.30am-4pm
Bright, shiny, and modern-looking, this family-run fast food joint is a Bilbao institution, famed for oozing, indulgently waist-thickening sandwiches to be eaten at the bar or scoffed in a plaza or park. While it is possible to order from a menu of traditional Basque basics, it’s the classic sandwiches – comprising homemade bread doused in mayonnaise and, crucially, a top-secret chin-dribbling sauce – that justify its boast: “El de siempre, el único” (which roughly translates as always the same, always unique). They’re the best in the world, say locals. Try a triángulo (ham, lettuce) or a spicy, surprisingly orange-coloured torre (Cantabrian anchovies, lettuce) and dare to say otherwise.
• Calle General Concha 5, +34 94 443 42 98, on Facebook. Open Mon-Sat 10am-11pm, closed Sun
Yes, you can find pintxos here, but also all-round entertainment and a good-value lunchtime menú del día (€13). Antzokia is primarily a cultural centre, HQ for a non-profit radio station broadcasting locally in Basque and offering courses in the Basque song and dance that was banned under Franco’s rule. Basque bands figure large in an action-packed, well-attended programme of events, including club nights that run till dawn. During the day, the space is transformed into a retro-looking dining hall. A slightly fancier special (Saturday) menu (langoustines and pesto, followed by confit duck in fruit sauce, and pancake stuffed with plantain and chocolate mousse, with a glass of Rioja, for example) costs €17.
• Calle San Vicente 2, +34 944 24 46 25, kafeantzokia.eus. Open for lunch weekdays 1.30pm-3.30pm, Sat 2pm-4pm; venue open Thurs-Fri 9.30am-6am, Sat 10am-6am, Mon-Weds 9.30am-11pm, closed Sun