Eating in the Street
When the sun goes down in San Sebastian, the Spanish city's residents and a teeming throng of tourists pile into the streets of the old town for dinner. The meal is a hectic, roving ritual where diners wander from one bar to the next for tapas, which they call 'pintxos' in the northern Basque region.
The bars range from tiny rooms with standing tables only, to average sized restaurants with additional seated tables, but they all share one thing in common: they're absolutely packed. Patrons standing shoulder-shoulder shout their orders over the bar to fast-moving bartenders who – in a performance of hospitality I've never seen matched elsewhere – catch every order, remember every name, and never miss a beat. They sling veal cheek, anchovies on toast, foie gras, grilled octopus, and glass after glass of wine and beer over the bar with astonishing efficiency, and they're smiling the whole time to boot.
To eat dinner in the city, you just spend between the hours of 8pm to 11 wandering from place to place, grabbing one pintxo here, another there, maybe an entire ración (large serving) if you particularly like the dish and managed to snag a table.
Since most of the bars are far too small to accommodate the number of people trying to eat in them, the guests just spill out onto the streets. A small crowd lounges on the steps of a 16th century church, wine glasses in hand, listening for their name to be shouted from the kitchen of a nearby restaurant. A tiny oceanside beer bar – like eight stools kind of tiny – serves pint after pint to the 100-odd people who have congregated on the adjacent boardwalk to watch the sun set over the water.
After a couple of days in the city, I finally realized what was so beautiful about this experience. Not that the part where you wander around eating and drinking wasn't beautiful enough on its own, but there was something else I couldn't put my finger on – a constant, comfortable background to the pintxo ritual's more obvious delights.
And then it dawned on me: there are no cars.
Save for two main thoroughfares (where the speed limits are low and you still can't park), the overwhelming majority of San Sebastian's old town is free of cars. The result is a city center where hospitality businesses can thrive, where children can run ahead of their parents, where you can sit and enjoy a glass of wine in a plaza without inhaling exhaust and having your conversations drowned out by the hum of a thousand engines.
And it's not just San Sebastian, it's everywhere we've visited.
The Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Spain; they differ in myriad ways but they all share this in common: they are good at using public space.
Now, I would be far from the first person to observe that western Europe excels at urban planning. It is, in fact, known worldwide for exactly that. But it's my first time being here so I'll be damned if I'm not going to talk about it.
All of these cities and towns sit at the perfect intersection of people-focused urban planning and a relaxed attitude to public consumption laws that – unlike in most North American cities – don't go out of their way to protect people from themselves.
Children play in central plazas while their parents stop to enjoy a cold beer on a hot day, an elderly man wheels his scooter right up to the bar, dogs lie at their owner's feet on a café's sidewalk patio.
While strolling through European cities I can't help but compare the scenes in front of me to my home city of Vancouver, where dogs aren't even allowed on the beaches and you can hardly open a bottle of wine on your front lawn without applying for a permit first.
And for what? Safety? Keeping the peace?
I was discussing this subject one day with our friend Tina, who joined us in Berlin, and she relayed a story of trying to take advantage of one of Vancouver's few liquor-licensed patios on a summer day with her newborn. When she and her partner wheeled the baby in his carriage on to the deck, they were promptly informed that he couldn't be on the patio since it was licensed as a bar. Because, you know, as a 3-week-old he is not of legal drinking age and could therefore be a liability.
So they did what any responsible parents would do, and wheeled the baby back onto the sidewalk where he remained for the duration of their happy hour; Tina stuck her leg out through the fence to rock the carriage with her foot.
“Like he was a street dog I wanted to pet but not with my hands,” she laughed as she recounted the ridiculous occasion.
This is where Europe excels at a subject most of North America just can't seem to grasp. While we make law after prescriptive law, seemingly just for the sport of it, European municipalities take the (unthinkably bold!) step of assuming most adults are responsible enough to have a bit of fun in public without collapsing the social order.
While I'll hand it North America on a few things, (we do urban green space and practical public amenities well), our dismissal of leisure as frivolous and our occasional outright criminalization of fun only serves to hurt us in the end.
“Imagine if you could just serve wine straight onto the street like this,” Michael said one night as we sat a table outside a tapas spot in Seville. The body of the restaurant was made up of only a 10x10 foot room the lone bartender stood inside, passing sherries and sliced cured ham to his customers who all sat at tables in the alleyway outside. “You could make a killing as a restaurant owner.”
And this is precisely where we shoot ourselves in the foot. By regulating the shit out of everything, all we do is create barriers.
The financial barrier to entry for owning a hospitality business is prohibitively high when you need seats for 100 people, a license for this, a license for that, an approval for this code, a renovation for that one. Even food trucks are too expensive for most people to get into the game.
The social barriers are equally - if not more - detrimental. Parents become isolated when they can't participate in any “adult activities” with their kids in tow. Elderly people or people with mobility restrictions become isolated if they need to be driven to town by a relative any time they want to socialize. Low-income people are barred entry from participation in the public social life if the only place they can have a drink is a restaurant or their own home.
Your dog is sad when you go out for dinner.
By prioritizing – or at least creating space for – public leisure, European municipalities democratize the social lives of their cities. While there may be fewer public bathrooms and, admittedly, more dog shit on the sidewalks than I'm used to, there is the sense that people here have more opportunities to combat the prevailing loneliness so many urban dwellers succumb to at home.
As we wander back to our AirBnb one Saturday night in San Sebastian, the daylight long since faded into night, we walk past bustling streets still alive with activity. A mother chats to her friends with her sleeping toddler slumped over her shoulder. Two elderly women order another round while the three of us, in our twenties and thirties, are ready call it a night. People clink glasses over the hum of lively chatter, uninterrupted by car horns and unconcerned about bylaws.
The result of all this anarchy, as far as I can tell, is not the scourge of humanity some North American municipalities seem to expect. None of these children seem poised to drop out of elementary school to sell crack as a result of their enduring proximity to beer.
It is, quite simply, an epidemic of people enjoying themselves in public.