How to Throw a Perfect Summer Picnic

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The sun is shining, the whole friend group is vaccinated and everyone is ready to make up for lost time. Sure, you could book a table for eight and eat inside at a restaurant — it’s still a thrill — but we spent the last year figuring out how best to eat and socialize outside, and this summer is an opportunity to apply what we’ve learned. Restaurants, too, have adapted during the pandemic, working out which sandwiches wrap up best (sorry, sloppy Joes) and which cocktails translate well in to-go containers (it turns out there’s no bad receptacle for a margarita). And so we are living, it seems, in the golden age of the picnic. Here, a list of some the best restaurants across the country offering park-friendly fare, recommendations for colorful rugs and durable dinnerware to eat it on and a pair of recipes to try if you feel like playing chef for the day.

Kokomo, Brooklyn

This restaurant on the Williamsburg waterfront has a serious party vibe and, if you order during business hours, offers picnic baskets filled with items from its menu of modern Caribbean food. Each one includes a flatbread pizza (with toppings like oxtail or pineapple shrimp), an entree (try the jerk chicken or, for a vegetarian option, the jackfruit tacos) and two cocktails (perhaps a pineapple-infused Aperol spritz or a coconut Negroni), all ready to be toted off to the park across the street. Baskets start at $45.

Olmsted, Brooklyn

Last July, the seasonally focused Prospect Heights restaurant Olmsted turned its backyard into Summer Camp, an outdoor dining area where patrons could play Jenga while sipping punch poured from a watermelon rigged with a spigot; this year, the concept has returned but the kitchen is also offering weekend picnic baskets through Resy, and in partnership with San Pellegrino, that are complete with cocktails, fried chicken and dessert. During the pandemic, Olmsted’s owners have also built out the next-door brick-and-mortar store, Olmsted Trading Post, where you can pick up herb-infused cocktails featuring lavender bourbon or rosemary mezcal, bread and spreads (baguettes and duck liver mousse, for instance) and snacks like duck fat popcorn. $25 for a loaf of bread and a wheel of cheese.

Saison, New York City

Every Saturday, the cook and food and interiors stylist Samantha Rees packs up garden-inspired picnic sets composed of handmade herb crackers, cheeses from Saxelby and seasonal fruit, as well as something sweet and baked (like a lattice-topped pie or a berry tartlet), in boxes — or you can pay more for a woven basket — that also include compostable utensils. The results are available for pickup at several locations around the city, and Rees can also create custom spreads for larger parties. Boxes start at $45.

Daybird, Los Angeles

Few things feel more picnic-friendly than fried chicken, and this recently opened Sichuan spot in Silver Lake, run by the James Beard Award finalist Mei Lin, offers boxes of the crispy stuff, as well as fried chicken sandwiches prepared to a spice level of your choosing, ranging from “no heat” to “extreme.” The restaurant can also put together a large-format order (for parties of 20 or more) with a few days’ notice, if you’re planning to go big. Sandwiches start at about $13.

Lady & Larder, Los Angeles

This colorful cheese shop in Mar Vista, co-owned by the sisters Sarah Simms Hendrix and Boo Simms, sells almost rococo cheese and charcuterie boards — imagine a kaleidoscopic array of crudités circling homemade dips and dressed up with flowers and herbs — for both pickup and delivery. Any one of these creations would make for a dramatic picnic centerpiece, whether you’re hosting in your backyard or at the beach. Boards start at $65.

Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya, Berkeley, Calif.

Fish & Bird, the modern Japanese restaurant in downtown Berkeley, offers all its greatest hits — like golden brown chicken karaage, shrimp katsu sandos with ume shiso tartar sauce and local sea bean tempura — to go, but its extensive sake list (try the locally made Den Sake or the unfiltered Shirakawago Sasanigori) and bouquets of fresh flowers from Sunrise Nursery outside of San Jose take its picnic options to the next level. $90 for two sandos and a bottle of sake.

Eleven City Diner, Chicago

This diner right off Grant Park is beloved for its pastrami sandwiches and extra-large milkshakes, and makes fully loaded brunch boxes, stuffed with nova lox and three to five bagels, or everything you need for an all-out deli sandwich featuring roast beef, corned beef or pastrami. There’s also a bloody mary box complete with finishing salt for your glasses. Boxes start at $36.

Three Dots and a Dash, Chicago

Three Dots and a Dash is as iconic as the drink it’s named for. The latter was invented by Don the Beachcomber, a founding father of tiki; the former is run by Paul McGee, one of its great modern-day evangelists. His River North speakeasy began bottling to-go cocktails during the pandemic — a win for the city’s al fresco drinkers — and, in addition to McGee’s riff on a three dots and a dash, the menu includes the down periscope, made with blanco tequila and mango brandy, and large-format cocktail kits, so you can mix up mai tais or a round of Pinky Gonzalezes for the whole crew. Just bring your own orchids for the garnish. Bottled cocktails start at $16.

Nido, Washington, D.C.

During the pandemic, what was once a small-plates Spanish restaurant in Mount Pleasant called Mola transitioned to a wine-and-snack shop selling Mediterranean pantry items, spreads and sides. Grab a bottle or two from the well-curated collection of Spanish wines, and some smoky romesco sauce and hearty tortilla Española to go with a loaf of the house-baked focaccia. A Spanish cheese box, a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine starts at $55.

Russian House of Austin, Texas

There aren’t many picnic items more decadent — or appreciated — than caviar. Russian House of Austin, which has long offered traditional Russian and Eastern European food alongside an impressive vodka list, now sells a wide selection through its new online store. Get a tin of osetra (pleasingly mild but on the expensive side) or white sturgeon (if you want something a little brinier), plus some oladushki (sweet pancakes) and cream cheese to go with, and have your friends bring the champagne. A one-ounce tin of caviar starts at $50.

Cafe Roze, Nashville

The East Nashville all-day spot Cafe Roze relaunched as Cafe Roze Bodega in March 2020, and while the original outfit reopened for dining this spring, the owners still offer fresh produce, dried goods and prepared foods, as well as an extensive to-go menu online. That includes top-tier picnic stuff — think fresh sourdough bread with creamy avocado hummus, spiced lemon labneh and a big salad packed with greens, tomatoes and crunchy sprouts — plus elegant cocktails (like a Pimms cup or a rosewater-tinged old-fashioned) to go. There’s even lambrusco by the can. Pack a couple in your cooler along with your sandwiches, and head to nearby Shelby Bottoms Nature Center for an afternoon by the river. $35 for a loaf of bread, some hummus and a cocktail for two.

Throwing a picnic is all about creating a mood — aesthetic, musical, culinary. But it’s also about comfort, which means, for one, making sure nobody has to get up halfway through the meal to find plastic forks at the local corner store. Start with the essentials: a fully kitted-out picnic basket, like the classic woven version from West Elm, will keep your plates and napkins strapped down for safety, and a bright, boldly patterned blanket (like Lisa Corti’s block-printed throw) will serve as an ideal backdrop for whatever you’re serving up. Or you might opt for something sturdier, like Reflektion Design’s hand-dyed mud cloth throw, especially if you’re heading to a gathering on less-than-pristine grass. Bring along a few pillows for lounging on (perhaps Goodee’s striped versions) if you want to feel like you’re in a George Seurat painting. And consider a good market bag, like this one from Sincerely, Tommy that can easily take you from the farmers’ market to lunch in the park.

When it comes to dinnerware, ditch the paper plates and go with melamine versions — they’re lightweight, practically unbreakable and easy to find in a variety of both demure and wild patterns. Ditto enamelware cups (bonus points if you also bring an enamelware saltshaker, like GSI Outdoors’s.) The Japanese tableware brand Kinto makes some of the best reusable bamboo utensils, which can help elevate even the most last-minute store-bought salad. And if you need a hard surface on which to slice your Gouda and pepperoni, the ReBoard from Material is small enough to be easily portable, doubles as a serving plate and is made from recycled plastic scraps.

Colorful napkins are always a nice touch; Auntie Oti’s come directly from craftspeople in small, government-sponsored weaving groups all across India, and can stand up to any and all picnic foods. And for transporting cocktails, few options are better than a superinsulated thermos, like this timeless one from Stanley, which keeps drinks icy for hours. Lastly, consider picking up a small citronella coil, like this one from Fredericks & Mae, unless you want mosquitoes ruining your feast.

If you’re less inclined to pick up a premade basket and are looking for something to whip up at home, well, it’s the season for that, too. We asked Dave and Krystiana Rizo, the owners of the San Antonio-style taco joint Yellow Rose in Manhattan, for a couple of summery, picnic-friendly recipes. Below are two of their favorites: a salad of Tuscan-inspired grilled zucchini and a strawberry tomato soda, which Dave developed with Yellow Rose’s bar manager, Larissa Ciancarelli. The former, says Dave, is a perfect dish to take to the park or the beach “because it’s supposed to be eaten at room temperature and can be made hours ahead or right on an open flame.” (Just don’t overcook the zucchini, he advises; it should still have a little bite.) What’s more, he adds, the avocado dressing can do double duty as a dip for crudités.

For the Pickled Hibiscus Onions:

  • 1 cup red wine vinegar

  • 1 cup water

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 2 teaspoons salt

  • 10 hibiscus pods

  • 1 red onion

1. Cut your onion in half and slice it into ¼-inch-thick half-moons. (Too thin and your onions will be stringy; too thick and that’s a whole lot of onion.) Put them into a heat-safe container. Combine the vinegar, water, hibiscus and salt in a small pot and heat until everything is dissolved and just about to boil.

2. Pour the hot brine over the onions, and let them sit for about 10 minutes before putting them in the fridge. Let your pickles cool completely before serving.

For the Avocado Dressing:

  • ½ cup white vinegar

  • ½ cup water

  • ¼ cup grapeseed oil

  • ½ cup good olive oil

  • 2 teaspoons salt

  • 7 teaspoons sugar

  • 1 teaspoon lime juice

  • ½ teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 Hass avocado

Put all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. You can also use an immersion blender.

For the Grilled Zucchini:

  • 6 small zucchini, cut into oblique-shaped pieces about the size of a half dollar

  • ¼ cup grapeseed oil

  • ½ teaspoon cracked black pepper

1. Heat a pan over high heat; the pan is ready once you start to see some smoke coming from it. (Beware your smoke alarm. You can also use a grill, if you have one.)

2. Toss the zucchini with the oil and black pepper in a bowl, then place in your hot pan cut-side down. You want some space between the pieces, so grill in two batches if you need to. Cook for one minute on the first side, or until you achieve a nice dark color. Flip zucchini using tongs and cook for about another two minutes, or until they have a good color. The goal is to have a lot of grilled and almost-burned parts of the squash without overcooking it into mush. Once cooked on all sides, transfer the zucchini from the pan onto a plate or tray and arrange in a single layer to cool.

To Serve:

  • ¼ cup picked herbs (for example, mint, cilantro and parsley)

  • Avocado dressing

  • Pickled onions

  • Salt, pepper and red-pepper flakes, to taste

  • Mexican oregano

In a medium-size bowl, add your cooked zucchini, herbs and enough avocado dressing to coat them. Adjust seasoning if needed with salt, pepper and red-pepper flakes. Finish by topping your salad with pickled onions and a small pinch of Mexican oregano.

Makes 1 quart of syrup, or about 20-25 drinks’ worth

1. Add tomatoes and strawberries into a medium-size heavy-bottomed pot. Add 3 cups of water, or enough to completely cover the fruit. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The strawberries should turn a very pale pink, and the tomatoes should start looking a little wrinkly.

2. Strain the liquid into a clean bowl and then transfer back into the same pot. Add 2 cups of sugar and bring back to medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Strain one more time into a glass container or Tupperware. Stick in the fridge to cool.

3. When ready to serve, add ½ oz. of syrup into a 6 oz. cup and top with ice, if you’ve got it, and Topo Chico. If you want to add alcohol, we suggest adding a splash — about ¼ oz. — of gin or vodka to each cup, as well. Squeeze and drop in lemon wedge and give a quick stir. Add sliced strawberries for garnish and enjoy. Any leftover syrup will stay delicious for a week in the fridge.

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