Casa Cámara - San Juan de Pasajes (Spain)

San Sebastian is famed for boasting the highest cluster of Michelin starred restaurants in the world, the Omega Centauri of gastronomy, sitting pretty on the French border within visible gloating distance. The famished epicure has a treasure trove of Michelin-starred restaurants from which to choose from, but one of my favorites has no star. Instead it boasts a long, very long history, charisma to spare and fabulous seafood delivered in a unique manner directly onto your plate.

 A Bordeaux friend introduced me to Casa Cámara a few years ago. It is not actually in San Sebastian itself, but nearby in the port of San Juan de Pasajes (or Pasaia as it is known in Basque country). Unlike the nearby city there is no sweeping esplanade with Art Deco street lamps or a warren of boisterous tapas bars. Pasajes is a fishing community built on the Rió Oiartzan, the inlet surrounded by docks and warehouses serving fleets of fishing vessels commuting in and out of the craggy keyhole entrance into the Atlantic and beyond. The walk through the village is worth undertaking. The cobbled pedestrian walkway is threaded through pretty ancient houses and overlooked by balconies, all the way through to the coast where you are rewarded with an al fresco bar grilling fresh sardines. Victor Hugo liked it enough to call it home for a few years.

Casa Cámara is located on this thoroughfare, nestling among the higgledy-piggledy 17th century houses tumbling down to the water's edge. It will not be the most salubrious restaurant you will ever dine at, however, it is steeped in so much history and exudes so much charm that you will not care a jot. Founder Pablo Cámara served the first meal here way back in 1884. Three generations and 132 years later, on a Thursday night, every table was full, so my hunch is they must be doing something right. One of Pablo's descendants is a grey-haired lady, always conservatively dressed in a white blouse and long dress, who takes orders and chats with regulars. Clearly an institution in these parts, she looks as if she could have attended the restaurant's opening day as a small girl. It is her daughter who now runs the restaurant.

A long latticed window forms the back of the restaurant directly on the water's edge and offers a wonderful vista across the bay. I recommend booking in advance and asking for a table here so you can watch the fishing boats go past—such a relaxing pastime. 

Now get this.

The tide floods the basement underneath the restaurant and among the tables you will find a wooden balustraded opening, above which hang pulley and ropes descending to the depths below. Peer down and watch the tide come in under your feet bringing with it lobsters and crabs that are caught in the metal cages. When orders start to arrive, the cage is hoisted directly into the dining area in front of gawping diners and awestruck children, pointing at the clawed and tentacled prisoners crawling around inside thinking: "I knew this was going to be a bad day."
Lobsters survey the restaurant in a mass of slightly panicked claws and tentacles.

"Mummy, what are they going to do with them?" asked my daughter. 

If your loved one is destined to become a vegetarian, then it will be at this precise moment. "You select the one you want to eat, take them out to that back room and cook them," came my reply. It must have sounded like a dark scene out of a Roald Dahl book. 

Once they get over the awful truth, best order something delicious from the cage tout de suite, so that they understand their martyrdom is for a good cause. The lucky ones, not on a one-way ticket to a main course, are lowered back down into the sea in a mixture of rejection and relief.

The menu is obviously geared towards the sea. The cooking here is exactly as you want it: simple and fresh. There are well-priced set menus that I highly recommend—just make sure that you have something winched up from down below. Of course we chose the lobster salad for starters and sure enough it lived up to the billing. I am not a huge lobster fan but I could eat this all day: paradoxically intense yet delicate in flavor with mouth-watering consistency. The plate of Iberico ham was perfectly oily and dangerously more-ish, the deep fried squid rings with a meaty consistency that is difficult to find—anemic squid rings served all too often these days. Next up, a sole meunière perfectly cooked, not drowning in oil and its skin perfectly crispy. The hake was stunning. Introduced whole before being filleted, the white meat slid off the bone and onto my grateful palate. It was almost gone too soon. I just had enough room to stuff in a delicious homemade chocolate mousse and then I was full. It was dead simple, dead straightforward and dead delicious from start to finish. 

Do not come here if you want a doorstep wine list and blue-chip labels served in immaculate Riedel stemware by a fleet of sommeliers. Appreciate the joys of their local whites that cost a pittance and give just as much pleasure. I picked a 2015 Txomin Etxaniz from Getariako Txakolina that had such spine-tingling salinity and matched the hake so perfectly that hand on heart, if you had offered a bottle of Montrachet I would have shoo-ed you away.

I cannot recommend Casa Cámara enough. This is not a restaurant for those seeking nouvelle cuisine, fine dining and immaculate service, all of which would destroy this institution. This is somewhere to come if you want a restaurant with personality and soul, to enjoy dining with your family, to just unwind and watch the world go by. Prices are extremely reasonable given the quality of dishes and you will depart already longing for the day you can return. It was five years between my first and second visits—I will make sure it is not nearly as long by the time of my third.

Oh, and I would not bring your best vegetarian friend.

More articles from this author