Everyone goes to Basque Country to eat. The autonomous region in northern Spain and self-proclaimed “culinary nation” is well-known for pintxos in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo and the temples of Basque food in charming San Sebastián, the city with the highest concentration of Michelin stars in the world. More recently, Axpe, a small idyllic village nestled between the mountains in the interior, has become a pilgrimage site for food lovers thanks to chef Victor Arguinzoniz’s high-end restaurant, Asador Etxebarri. But fewer visitors to the region head for the small coastal village of Getaria, where the most memorable culinary experience is a simple plate of grilled seafood and a cheap bottle of wine. Too bad for them.
Pinched between San Sebastián and Bilbao, Getaria sits in an ideal spot on the Urola Coast, where throughout the year currents refresh the waters, alter the temperature, and even play with the salinity, creating a diverse environment for all sorts of fish and shellfish species. Every day, fishing boats deliver the day’s catch to the port. Workers carry the fish just a few meters to asadores — the city’s traditional, family-run seafood restaurants clustered by the water — where they’re laid on smoking parrillas (grills) and soon delivered to hungry customers, preferably with a bottle of txakoli, the dry local wine.
Though the fishing village has fewer than 3,000 inhabitants, it welcomes in-the-know visitors each year searching for turbot, monkfish, sardines, and lobsters, all grilled to perfection without any fanfare.
What are parrillas?
Long before tourists discovered the city, Getarian fishermen were cooking fish on charcoal grills set up inside their boats. “On board, the grill was an essential tool. It was a minimalist and basic way to cook, but fishermen became experts on mastering how to cook the fish they caught,” says historian Xabier Alberdi, director of the San Sebastián Naval Museum.
In the 1940s, the grills came ashore. After weeks at sea, sailors returned to Getaria carrying loads of fish. On their way home, they often stopped at bodegones (local bars) to drink wine and catch up on conversation. While these establishments only served alcohol, many of the owners built parrillas outside so the sailors could cook their own fish, allowing them to stay longer and consume more wine. “As this became a habit, other people who passed by the streets wanted to eat in these places, giving birth to the first asadores in the city,” says Maialen Gereka, owner of el Txoko, the city’s first asador opened by her grandfather in 1953. Little more than bars with grills in the beginning, she adds, the original asadors didn’t have any plates or cutlery, so bread was the only utensil.
Some restaurants have moved the grilling inside to their kitchens, but the old parrillas are still visible, in some cases built right into exterior walls, an inseparable feature of Getaria’s culinary landscape. “Today, we can say that the parrilla, as we know it, is something purely ornamental. But it has a history behind it that we try to maintain,” Gereka adds.
Parrilleros take years to master their craft. “It’s the highest level one can reach in a restaurant here. And the most respected too,” says Gorka Lazkano, part of the third generation of his family to run Astillero, one of the most famous local asadores. “It’s important to discern the size and how much fat a fish has before laying it on the grill, and the same fish is not the same in different seasons. A few seconds over the embers can change everything.”
It’s also a dying art, as interest in the industry dwindles among younger generations. “Decades [ago], it was natural for founders’ children to follow their legacy in the business. Today it has been very difficult to convince grandchildren and great-grandchildren to stick around,” says Aitor Arregui of Elkano, one of the most renowned local restaurants. To combat that loss of culture, in 2019 asador owners, scholars, fishermen, and civil leaders created the Maritime Culinary Association of Getaria, a multidisciplinary entity that provides classes for young cooks and promotes culinary heritage. Even as asadores have evolved beyond bars with DIY grills, Getaria’s residents have maintained the fishing and cooking techniques developed at places like Txoko decades ago. It’s as much this culture that draws in the tourists as anything on the grill.
What to know before you go
Juan Sebastián Elkano: Getaria’s most famous son, known as the first sailor to circumnavigate the Earth, Elkano is also somewhat of a patron saint in the city’s parrilla tradition. The navigator relied on grilled seafood on transoceanic voyages and bequeathed two grills in his will. One of the most famous restaurants in town, Elkano, is named after him.
Txakoli: Getaria’s hills are covered with hectares of vineyards lined with Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza grapes, which are used to create refreshing txakoli. The dry, sparkling white wine is quite acidic and suffused with sea breezes, making it the perfect pairing for grilled fish.
Kokotxas: This is what Basques call the soft and tender flesh around the fish throat, encompassing the gelatin-rich cheeks. It’s a favorite delicacy among locals, who prepare kokotxas in different ways: grilled over embers, confit, or served with pil pil, a sauce made by emulsifying olive oil, garlic, and the fish juices.
Fish-shaped grill baskets: Asadores typically use wire baskets shaped like fish to flip fish on the grill, making it easier for the parrillero to achieve the ideal cooking time on both sides — without even pressing the meat against the metal. They come in various shapes and sizes for different species, including a ubiquitous one for rodaballo (turbot).
Where to eat
Elkano is the most famous restaurant in Getaria, thanks to its awards and accolades, including a Michelin star and a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Since taking over the family restaurant after the death of his father, trailblazing businessman Pedro Arregui, Aitor Arregui has been showing customers how to treat fish like meat. “We usually think of the fish as a whole thing, which is wrong,” he says. His menu divides fish into several categories — oily fish, whitefish, rockfish, flatfish — but he also makes a point of highlighting different cuts of fish. When he serves turbot, cooked over a charcoal grill at the table, he separates each part of the fish to distinguish the different textures and flavors: the fatty back sections, juicy and meaty filets, and gelatin-rich cheeks. He suggests eating the tail with your hands “like a chicken wing.” In addition to stewed squid (a recipe from his mother) and kokotxas, Arregui is obsessed with jelly-like fish heads; the menu includes mackerel heads and, if you are lucky, lobster tomalley (the flavorful, gooey part of the animal’s digestive system).
The groundbreaking asador that was established in 1953 has evolved into an institution and benchmark for the rest of the Getarian culinary scene. Gereka runs the restaurant with her husband, Mexican chef Enrique Fleischmann. The restaurant’s essence remains the same as ever: The main dish is the catch of the day grilled over embers using 100 percent wild fish. Starters include piquillo peppers stuffed with seafood and parsley pesto; Fleischmann has subtly given his touch to the menu too, with more modern dishes such as slow-cooked octopus with potato and paprika, or corn toast with grilled seafood salpicón. “If we want to offer something more than just good food, we have to uphold our deepest sea-to-table philosophy and showcase the excellence of our local product,” Gereka says.
Since 1962, this family-run spot has been serving outstanding seafood cooked on a customized grill built into the restaurant exterior, surrounded by terrace seating. Most guests find space to sit outside, though there is a nautical-themed interior dining room for when the weather turns harsh. Through the years, Igor Arregi (cousin of Elkano’s Aitor Arregui) has developed one of the most amazing wine lists in Spain, with over 4,000 bottles, including rare vintages. Still every meal begins with txakoli, and the restaurant offers more than 20 labels of the local style. On the food side there are fresh oysters, asparagus, crayfish, lobster, clams, and whole grilled fish for two with either turbot or sea bream. During some months of the year, they also serve wild sole.
After leaving Getaria to work in haute cuisine across Spain, Pili Manterola returned to take over her parents’ asador after her father’s death, making her one of the few women in the country to run the parrilla. Tables are situated beneath exposed wood beams and netting hanging from the ceiling, making dining at Iribar feel like riding in a comfy boat. The food is equally reassuring, as Manterola follows the traditions of parrilla with hake, sole, and rodaballo, while adding her own takes on recipes focusing on vegetables (like crab-stuffed asparagus) and more refined techniques (such as the oxtail and mushroom mille-feuilles).
This asador occupies the first floor of an old mansion on the rim of Getaria’s fishing port, with a view of dozens of colorful little fishing boats floating in the bay. The open kitchen is the main stage in the rustic dining room, allowing diners to watch the parrilleros as they grill whole monkfish, sea bream, and sole. Service is kind and attentive, as if you were at the Lazkanos’ home for Sunday lunch. The kokotxas, bathed in oil, chile, and garlic, are especially delicious.
One of the newest asadores, located a bit away from the others, Balearri is located on Markobe Beach, where it started more than two decades ago as a beach bar serving grilled sardines, mackerel, and bonito. After their seating area was swept away by the sea three times, a 2016 renovation introduced a metallic structure with a wood balcony surrounded by windows that provide a stunning view of the sea. Colorful fish like sea bream and red mullet come daily from the fishing boats that dock nearby and are taken straight to the parrilla. The grills are also used for seasonal mushrooms, octopus, kokotxas, and a few cuts of meat. The selection of txakoli labels is also vast, and the service, led by the kind Iribar family, is friendly and professional.
Where to stay
This farmhouse tucked in the idyllic hills just outside of town is a five-minute drive from the city center. The luxury hotel has the atmosphere of a country villa, with eight airy, comfortable rooms, an infinity pool, txakoli vineyards surrounding the house, and a terrace for a glass of wine with a view. After a marathon of eating, relax in the tub as you stare out at Mount San Anton and its picturesque lighthouse. Rooms start at $280 per night.
A stay at this 15th-century gothic building in the historic center of town is like a trip into the past. Fireplaces, carpets, wood floors, thick stone walls, and an assortment of antiques make for rich, cozy furnishings. There are also some contemporary rooms with terraces overlooking the Bay of Biscay. Saiaz is close to the city’s famous asadores and a 10-minute walk from Gaztetape Beach. Rooms start at $100 per night.
For practical visitors, LUR focuses on functionality and comfort in stylish studios designed for four people. The apartments, which can also be rented by the night, are outfitted with minimalist decor, white walls, and light wood furniture. Despite the pared-down aesthetic, the property offers all the necessary amenities and a great downtown location, within walking distance of the city’s hotspots. The apartments are also equipped with modern kitchens, for those who feel inspired to try their hand at a seafood feast after a visit to an asador. Rooms start at $190 per night.
Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer living between Brazil and Portugal. He is the author of the book The Food Revolutions.