Sometimes, the curses of living in NYC turn out to be its blessings. When you can stretch your arms out and touch both walls of your bedroom—or, both roommates—the great outdoors becomes less an escape and more of a living room. Luckily, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had your back even before you moved in with your "boyfriend." New Yorkers have long enjoyed recreational use of open public spaces. I like to uphold that tradition with the classic picnic in the park. And sure, grabbing a slice and flopping down on someone's sweatshirt in Washington Square can be perfectly nice—and easy. But with a little more effort, you can turn a simple snack into a luxurious idyll in the park. When the weather is nice, forget about brunch: go have a picnic.
You don't need to have a minivan packed with Costco pallets of Juicy Juice and card tables to enjoy a picnic in our city's fair green spaces. Nimble and portable are the hallmarks of good picnic prep: the subway and capricious summer weather often demand it. Here are some basics to get you started.
Start off with a good blanket. Something durable and waterproof is ideal for babies and clumsy drunks on damp lawns. Supplement that with classic Mexican blankets and beach towels, and you've got a respectable footprint for base camp.
To haul your moveable feast, traditional wicker pic-a-nic baskets just won't do, and they aren't practical. I favor a backpack-style with integrated food and wine coolers that frees up your hands to carry baguettes or grab a subway pole. You'll also need those hands for the reusable cooler bags that keep your baby carrots crisp.
While the picnic backpack offers basic utensils for a romantic cuddle with the girl in the gingham dress, you'll still want to have plenty of extras on hand for friends. God knows you'll get kicked out of Brooklyn for using plastic, so thankfully there are green options to save your artisanally hand-cured bacon.
And where there's bacon, there will be dogs. If you have dogs like mine that will guilt trip you forever for going to the park without them, try this doggie tie-down stake, which lets them join without tying you up. Plant the stake firmly in the ground, secure the leash to it, and there! the hounds have room to roam without traipsing through the deviled eggs.
For all of you haters, this is where a stroller comes in handy. My daughter is at her most useful whenever she can act as a mule for bottles of wine, footballs and frisbees.
Technically, booze is not allowed in NYC parks. But like speeding and removing liquids from your carry-on, I like to think of this as a suggestion rather than a hard-and-fast rule.
And speaking of rules, it's time to be honest with ourselves and realize that boxed wine isn't just for ice cubes and mothers-in-law. It's ideal for picnics. For one, it's practical: it's lighter than hauling glass bottles, packs a better punch than beer, and lasts for weeks after it's been opened. For another, there are actually several non-Franzia options available that are quite decent. The Steinschaden Gruner Veltliner is a liter and a half of summery goodness. The Bandit offers a passable Pinot Grigio that was made for Solo cups. You can get three bottles of drinkable rose in a "vinity case." That's a lot of value, versatility, and (alcohol by) volume.
Just remember to be discreet: brown bag it, bring plastic cups, keep your head on a swivel.
Now that you are loaded for bear, it's time to pick your picnicking venue. While New York offers a plethora of lovely neighborhood parks, I'm focusing here on the big ones: Central Park and Prospect Park.
In Central Park, I avoid the Sheep Meadow for one main reason: dogs are not allowed. Instead, I choose the lawn just to the northeast. It's less of a scene than the Sheep Meadow, there's plenty of shade, and it's in close proximity to the restrooms at the Sheep Meadow Cafe and Bethesda Terrace (hint: the Bethesda Terrace restrooms are less crowded/gnarly). On Sundays, you can grab a nice shaded spot on the eastern edge and watch the disco rollerskaters on the Central Park Driveway.
The locations I frequent in Prospect Park have similar amenities. The areas between the bandshell and the ball fields on the south end of the park, across West Drive, or at the edges of the Long Meadow near the Picnic House offer shade, proximity to the restrooms at Harmony Playground and the Picnic House, and are dog-friendly. Bonus: you can BBQ!
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Picnicking is not just for hot summer days, either. If you want to avoid crowds, ticket fees and beer lines, a proper picnic is the best way to experience Celebrate Brooklyn or Central Park SummerStage. Flop down in the grass with your crew and your vino on a summer evening while enjoying the strains of Sigur Ros drifting through the trees.
The best thing about a picnic is that it can be relatively spontaneous. You've got the gear, the dogs need a walk anyway, and the weather is holding steady. Just turn your leftovers into a great al fresco meal. Cold chicken legs leftover from last night, that box of Carr's you forgot you had, baby carrots and hummus, pasta and veggies that can become a quickie pasta salad—this would be uninspiring stuff for an indoor meal, but becomes instantly eclectic and great when served at a picnic. Best of all, it's easy to get packed up and ready to go, thanks to all of those takeout containers you save religiously.
And if you need some finishing touches it's easy to stop along your way. While everyone's got their own favorite spot for securing serrano ham or tempranillo rose, these are some provisioning spots I've collected that are close to the subway stops for prime locations Prospect and Central parks. Getting stuff to go is easy, the portions and containers travel well, so you can collect what you need on the way to the park.
There are several places to stock up on the west side of Central Park, close to the 1,2 and 3 or B, C lines. If you're approaching from the east side, my condolences. Fairway can be its own plane of Hell on a Sunday evening, but it's a New York institution that offers everything you need at its deli counter, from cold cuts to cold slaw, and has a great olive bar. You can even get cooler bags. If it's too much of an ordeal, Citerella is right next door. Typically less crowded, it's also more expensive with less selection, but this is a picnic we're planning for, not a wedding reception. If you're trying to impress a date, stop by Salumeria Rosi and grab a glass of wine while you try to figure out how guanciale can be incorporated into a picnic menu.
Wine shops on the UWS don't feel as loosey-goosey as those in Brooklyn, so I can't vouch for their boxed wine selection as of late. Acker Merrall & Condit is on the higher end of the scale, offers a selection of chilled bottles and has a decent liquor selection. Great California selections for those jonesing for the West Coast, which can sometimes be a challenge in Old World-centric NYC wine shops. Over on Columbus, you have the yin and yang of UWS wine stores. Nancy's Wine For Food is smaller, intimate, has great eclectic stuff from out-of-the-way places and a terrific selection of roses from Germany, Italy and Spain, most of them chilled. On the other end of the spectrum is the relatively massive 67 Wine and Spirits, which is oddly enough on 68th and Columbus. Two floors of boozy goodness, with the chilled stuff stashed behind a counter beneath the stairs to the second floor.
All of these places offer dog treats, by the way.
Similarly, on the south west edge of Prospect Park is a solid cluster of spots on 7th Avenue off the F and G lines that can outfit you for your trek into the wilds of Brooklyn. Start off at Russo's Mozzarella where the fresh pasta might not come in handy, but the handmade mozzarella might. So will the pasta salads, spareribs, and olive bar. Also, their sandwiches are obscenely large and awesome. Union Market is a solid choice for prepared foods and yet another good olive bar, plus you can get mochi for dessert. The Ploughman recently took over the old Grab Specialty Foods spot, has a great selection of charcuterie and cheeses, growlers of a rotating selection of beer (tastings on Saturdays!), and big, park-friendly 500ml cans of DAB Pilsener.
Conveniently next door is Slope Cellars, a tidy wine shop with a knowledgeable staff and cooler full of chilled bottles. When the weather turns warm, they are unapologetic about trotting out the boxed stuff, in a very good way. Great selection of booze, from Armagnac to Carpano Antica to goji berry liqueur. Across the street from Brookvin is Big Nose Full Body, owned by the same folks, although they pride themselves on not offering the same selection as the wine bar. While they don't sell booze, this tiny wine shop packs a punch, and offers a good selection of whites and roses that they can chill for you while you are checking out.
Thus armed, you are now prepared for a summer of picnic bliss. Remember, it just ain't a picnic without the ants.
Previously: Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus and How To Make Beer Ice Cream
John Ore regularly employs the phrase "a few sandwiches short of a picnic".Top photo by Matt Hurst.