The waiting women of San Sebastián


At the end of my fourth excellent meal in San Sebastián, north-west Spain, I was reminded of what someone, whose name I have long forgotten, advised me when I was beginning my career as a restaurateur back in 1980. ‘Hire only waitresses', he said, ‘you never see a customer trying to hit a waitress.’ 

His advice was of its time, obviously, but it resonated with me after meals at Geralds Bar, Ganbara, Bodega Donostiarra and Portuetxe, where the waiting staff were all female, all highly knowledgeable, all smiled, all were fun, and not all of them were from San Sebastián. 

In fact, Bella Bowring, waitress at our first meal, Sunday lunch in Geralds Bar (pictured right), could not have been more English. Having started work in her grandparents' restaurant at the age of 10 in Skipton, she arrived in this city a couple of years ago and began working for Gerald Diffey, the London-born restaurateur who made his name with the original Gerald’s Bar in Melbourne, Australia, before settling with his wife, Esther, and her two children in San Sebastián.

Three years ago when I met Gerald and Esther they were talking of opening a bar in San Sebastián. I tried to put them off but fortunately they did not listen. Following his heart, Gerald started looking and was shown the then-closed Bar Bolivar, a sight that set his professional heart beating very fast indeed.

Occupying a corner site, the bar, larger than many in this city of small bars and with a bigger kitchen than most, also possesses an enviable interior, with the bar itself made from now well-polished African teak originally imported to furnish government offices, a scheme that was subsequently abandoned. To this Gerald has added his own personal and rather eclectic mementos – photos of footballers George Best, Tony Cascarino, guitarist Chet Baker, an impressive record collection as well as a large jar of Colman’s mustard and a Martini sign.

When Bella arrived at our table, the banter stopped as she quietly let the table know who was in charge. Is it, I wonder, because our first lessons in good behaviour come from women, either as mothers or as primary-school teachers, that we all, men and women, take so much notice of women? Or is it because, as Elena Salvoni, my maitresse d’ at L’Escargot, once explained to me, that it was her lack of height that contributed to her influence. At just over five foot tall, she looked most customers in the eye when they were sitting down rather than looking down on them, a factor that immediately put customers at their ease.

Whatever the psychological explanation, it worked at Geralds Bar, and it was eyes down for a most enjoyable four-course lunch of a ravioli filled with goats cheese, lightly salted cod coated in black sesame, a great piece of Iberico ham cooked in a Green Egg barbecue and accompanied by some of the chef’s very special barbecue sauce, followed by a deliciously creamy cheesecake. With these courses Bella chose three fascinating wines for us: a local Elkano Txakoli from Guetaria 2016 (100% Hondarribi Zuri), a Box Grove Roussanne from Victoria 2011 and finally a 2014 La Solana Listan Negro from Suertes del Marqués from Tenerife. Finally, a coffee along with the recommendation to head on the Monday when Gerald’s, along with many other eating places in the city, is closed, to Sakona, a coffee bar and roaster at Ramón Marí Lili 2 facing the water.

Bella’s equivalent at our Monday lunch at Bodega Donostiarra must remain nameless although the photo of our brochette below reveals her at work: small, dark hair, patient and seemingly curious as to what we would order. And, as was to be revealed shortly, she was in possession of that other essential ingredient for anyone working in the hospitality industry, an excellent sense of humour.

The corner table next to us was soon taken by Andoni Luis Aduri, the famous chef from Mugaritz, who was to give a speech later that afternoon entitled ‘Skirting entropy’. Despite or because of the fact that he spends his entire working life creating and cooking dishes that are far from normal, he obviously enjoys more down to earth Basque cooking when he is not in the kitchen.

Andoni obviously enjoys a rib of beef. I know this not just because a huge plate of beef was delivered to his table as we were leaving but also because he gave the waitress and us a practical and memorable lesson in how he would like his beef cooked.

Taking our smiling waitress’s left hand, he pressed her thumb and forefinger together and then pressed the flesh at the bottom of her thumb. This, he explained, equated to the texture of a rare piece of cooked meat. As he again took her fingers, he pressed her thumb against the remaining three fingers and asked her to feel the increasing tension at the base of her thumb, ending with the firm flesh that resulted when her thumb met her little finger. As our waitress took back her left hand and picked up her iPad to take the rest of the table’s orders, I was left wondering – how comfortable would Andoni have been had he used a waiter’s rather than a waitress’s hand to explain this?

The waitress’s iPad may be the most modern aspect of this bodega. Founded in 1928, it seems to have changed little since then. Sunlight still pours in from the front, where there are tables on the pavement; the kitchen and bar, stocked with many different types of pintxos, occupies one side, tables and chairs line the other. There is hardly any space in the middle as this bodega is so popular.

We began like the natives we felt like after 24 hours in this charming city with plates of anchovies and a lovely, runny tortilla before moving on to two of their specialities. An admirer of black pudding in its many different national guises, I have long been a fan of the Basque version that is surprisingly light. Morcilla de arroz a la brasa con pimientos is the precise name of this dish that was unquestionably black pudding in flavour but heavily tempered by soft rice and plenty of sauteed sweet red peppers.

This bodega’s other distinctive dish, as much for the quality of its ingredients as for its presentation, was a brocheta de polpo e langoustinas, a giant brochette of octopus and shrimps. This was presented with the octopus and shrimps hanging from a strong hook, interspersed with grilled tomatoes and onions. The whole edifice had to be deconstructed to be shared and cut up between the four of us but it was a fine example of a dish that one should order in a restaurant – one that is far too complex to be cooked at home.

And as our waitress proved here and all over San Sebastián, this was food served with a feminine charm that I have rarely encountered elsewhere.

Geralds Bar Iparragirre 13, San Sebastián; tel +34 943 08 30 01. Closed Monday.

Bodega Donostiarra Calle Peña y Goñi 13, San Sebastián; tel +34 943 01 13 80