Stories / Guides and Tips, Trending

Six Places to Eat in Bilbao, Spain

Mitchell Davis

September 18, 2018


Restaurante Azurmendi Photo Mitchell Davis
Just 10 minutes outside of Bilbao, Azurmendi is a restaurant with an admirable and delicious mission: to deliver the finest quality contemporary cuisine consistent with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. (Photo: Mitchell Davis)

If you’re anything like us, the first thing you do when planning a trip—perhaps even before booking a plane ticket—is figure out where you’re going to eat while you’re there. Museums, sightseeing, and shopping are all well and good, but food is often the main attraction. To make trip planning a little easier, we’ve compiled lists of our can’t-miss spots in some of our favorite places. Below, our chief strategy officer (and resident globe-trotting gourmand) Mitchell Davis shares his top eats in Bilbao, Spain.

While everyone frets over the fate of Catalonia, across Spain in the semi-autonomous Pais Vasco (Basque Country), folks seem too busy eating well to notice. Home to the highest concentration of Michelin stars per capita than any other region of the world, Basque Country boasts a passionate culinary heritage that ranges from casual pintxos bars to elegant temples of gastronomy. It’s no wonder a recent trade and tourism campaign attempts to make the designation “Culinary Nation” stick. While the influential Basque Culinary Center is situated in they city of San Sebastián—some say the region’s culinary heart, and where you will find most of the Michelin stars—out of the shadows of Ghery’s Guggenheim, Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque) has many of its own tasty temptations.

Restaurante Azurmendi  
Legina Auzoa, s/n, 48195 Larrabetzu, Bizkaia
+34 944 55 83 59

Located just a short taxi ride outside the city, Azurmendi is housed in a LEED-certified modern glass box perched on a verdant hill adjacent to a winery. The vision for this Michelin three-star restaurant is consistent with and in support of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), complete with greenhouses and a sustainability and seed museum on its roof. The meal is transporting, literally and figuratively, as it begins with a picnic basket of snacks in a tree-lined antechamber, moves into a greenhouse filled with daily-changing naturalistic plantscapes in which hors d’oeuvres are hidden, and finally arrives in a spacious, elegant dining room for the main part of the meal. Course after course parades out of Eneko Atxa’s kitchen. Playful bites, beautifully presented, using local ingredients—tiny seasonal Jesus’s tears peas, jamón Ibérico, Atlantic lobster, and other specialties. The food is lovely, but the deeper sense of indulgence comes from the consumption of space, time, and scenery that make lunch at Azurmendi a truly luxurious experience.

El Globo and La Viña del Ensanche

El Globo
Diputazio Kalea, 8, 48008 Bilbo, Bizkaia
+34 944 15 42 21

La Viña del Ensanche
Diputazio Kalea, 10, 48008 Bilbo, Bizkaia
+34 944 15 56 15

Technically two separate establishments, these popular pintxos bars are located across a pedestrian street from each other, and, since any good pintxos experience requires more than one stop, I will combine them. The bar at El Globo groans with a wide variety of tapas arranged traditionally on slices of baguette, that include a warm, creamy crab topping, fried squid, tuna, and many others. Order a couple of the emblematic Gilda skewers—cured olives, pickled peppers, and salted anchovies doused in olive oil. They are omnipresent but the flavor and texture of El Globo’s provided a revelatory sense of gastronomic synergy. Said one dining companion, “This is the taste of Spain.” A few more substantial hot tapas are also available as specials on a daily basis. We tried seared tuna, octopus, and foie gras, each of which proved to be fine foils for a glass of brightly acidic Txakoli, the local white wine drunk out of stubby glasses. At La Viña, the party continues with a fine tortilla española (potato omelette), creamy patatas bravas with a smoky pimentòn mayo, jamón ibérico finger sandwiches, sautéed cuttlefish, and other treats, more Txakoli, and ample table seating. La Viña also operates a gourmet shop (and restaurant) with a few carefully curated canned and preserved items and selection of hand-sliced Ibérico hams.

Basque Pastry Mitchell Davis
Nowhere are the famous local custard and meringue tarts known as Carolinas de Bilbao more dramatic or more delicious than at Pastelería Don Manuel. (Photo: Mitchell Davis)

Pastelería Don Manuel
Urkixo Zumarkalea, 39, 48010 Bilbo, Bizkaia  
+34 944 43 86 72

If olive oil lubricates the savory Basque menu, then whipped cream lubricates dessert. The wide array of oversized pastries available at this celebrated shop is impressive by any standard. Puff pastry and whipped cream prevail. Elephant-ear-sized palmiers, plain, glazed, or dipped in chocolate, layer cakes and nut tortes, myriad cookies, comparatively restrained gâteaux Basques, everything tempts. My unscientific survey suggests the Basque prefer their puff pastry dryer, flakier, and less buttery than the French, for which they compensate with—you guessed it—whipped cream. Don’t miss out.

Restaurante Ágape
Hernani Kalea, 13, 48003 Bilbo, Bizkaia
+34 944 16 05 06

More of a break from than a stop on a gastronomic tour, I’ve included Ágape because it impressed me for reasons beyond the food itself, which was yummy. Located both literally and figuratively on the other side of the tracks, this stylish, comfortable restaurant serves homey and wholesome food for an unbelievably good price with good humor and warmth. For lunch I had a fine pasta with Basque pepper sauce, pan-seared veal tongue with romesco and mashed potatoes, and a bowl full of sweet, seasonal cherries, also a carafe of wine, a bottle of sparkling mineral water, and an espresso for €13.50. I still can’t believe such satisfaction is available for so little. 

Asador Etxebarri
San Juan Plaza, 1, 48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia
+34 946 58 30 42

I’ve saved the best for last because I wanted you to read through the rest. The truth is, if I could eat just one meal in Basque Country, maybe just one last meal in my life, it might have to be at Asador Etxebarri. Not undiscovered, lunch in this small restaurant in a tiny town about 35 minutes from Bilbao is a gastronomic pilgrimage. I had made the trek 10 years ago, when the experience was a little less refined, but the food was nevertheless remarkable in its simplicity and precision. The famous grills were all located outside then. The dining room felt like a college mess hall. Now the kitchen is enclosed. The dining room is more plush, but still rustic. There are fancy wines and fancy wine glasses. Luckily the food remains ethereal in its simplicity, with such evidence of skill in its cooking that everything you taste is as flavorful and delicious as you imagine it could ever be. The first bite, a house-cured anchovy on a cracker, remains one of the most memorable, for the anchovy was lightly salted and had an almost creamy texture and sweet flavor. I defy anyone who thinks they don’t like anchovies not to love this fish. We insisted on a second round. The famous red shrimp, gambas de palamós, lightly grilled and smoked, are perfection—so fresh and sweet you don’t want to just suck on the heads, you want to chomp on them to get every last drop. There were so many other highlights: smoked goat butter, tiny seasonal peas with egg yolk, whole grilled sea bream, and a large steak from an aged dairy cow with a deep, rich flavor of beef. It was truly a masterful meal. Remarked one famous French chef, also a fan, to whom I recounted my experience, “Ah, Extebarri. There is no bullshit there.”

Want more travel inspiration? Check out more trip ideas.


Mitchell Davis is chief strategy officer at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.