Where to go for an Impromptu Picnic near New York's Great Parks
Despite yesterday's spooky morning fog, we're finally seeing some genuine Spring weather in New York! We're itching to spend a lazy afternoon in our favorite parks—ideally with a nosh from somewhere nearby. Here are some of our favorite portable bites for impromptu picnics in the parks we love.
Central Park, Southwest Corner
Be sure to hit up Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center for sandwiches and a pastry or two. Their grilled cheese and tomato soup are one of the better renditions that you'll find in this city, and roasted beef, pork, and turkey sandwiches are consistently great. Sticky buns and scones are excellent when fresh in the morning; TKOs (Oreo-like sandwich cookies) and peanut butter cookies are perfect for lunch. You can add some class to an evening picnic with a couple of their elegant miniature tarts.
Cheffier sandwiches and more pastry temptations lurk at Epicerie Boulud (Broadway and 65th Street), a few blocks North of Columbus Circle. Eating a hot dog in Central Park can make you feel like all is right with the world. But a spicy merguez sausage on a bun with harissa might be even better.
Central Park, Southeast Corner
If you can dodge the tourists crowding the Apple Store (why, tourists, why?) and the horse-drawn carriages, there's plenty of good eating to be found on your way to the park. To-go lunch at Ma Pȇche (56th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues) is a great way to experience Vietnamese-inflected David Chang on a dime (okay, $10, but still worth it). Their banh mi-inspired sandwiches and broccoli salad (!) are winners, especially when paired with a bag of spicy cassava chips—as fun to loudly crunch as they are to eat.
If you're coming from farther South, you have no excuse not to stop by the new Manhattan cart of Astoria's King of Falafel and Shawarma (Park Avenue and 53rd Street; 10 AM to 3 PM). These are some of the best chickpea fritters and spit-roasted meats in all of New York, and though the lines may be long, they couldn't be more worth it. You'll likely receive a free falafel while waiting in line; use it to sate your hunger on the way to Central Park's lawn.
There's also frequently street food right by the entrance to the park. When I worked nearby, the Wafels and Dinges cart was a welcome sight on afternoon and early evening strolls. You can get a full- or mini-sized waffle depending on your appetite. But a shmear of speculoos—gingerbread cookie paste that makes Nutella cry uncle—is mandatory.
Bryant Park has one of the most attractive outdoor spaces in Manhattan, and you could spend a day just hanging around punctuated by trips to the library. For the past couple years, Southwest Airlines has been sponsoring a public veranda on the Southwest corner (get it?) of the park. There's comfortable seating with shade, free wi-fi, courteous table service, and absolutely no requirement to buy anything to sit there. It's an example of corporate sponsorship gone totally right, and I'm always shocked that it's not more popular than it is.
You should consider taking a meal there. The menu comes from Serious Eats favorite 'wichcraft and includes sandwiches, salads, and bar snacks like guacamole that are perfect for sharing with friends.
Should you be coming from the West, you may be better served by a trip to the Biryani Cart (6th Avenue and 46th Street). Kati rolls—griddled parathas wrapped around spicy fillings like chicken curry or cauliflower and potato—come two to an order for $6. They're hefty and plenty satisfying, some of my favorite chow in Midtown; certainly my favorite street food.
Or how about a big pile of Mediterranean vegetables? Takeout from Akdeniz Turkish Cuisine (46th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues) offers Turkish classics that taste way more indulgent than they are. Split the fried eggplant with tomatoes, the shepherd salad, and some cheese- and dill-stuffed burek with some friends. And be sure to get some bread to sop up the vegetable juices.
Madison Square Park
So. Yes. Shake Shack. It's here, and one of the best parts of picnicking in Madison Square Park is being able to watch the ebb and flow of the line. Pick your moment carefully and you won't have to wait long, even on a sun-drenched day.
If Shake Shack's line is too long for your tastes, fulfill your fatty meat and oozy cheese on bread cravings with a sandwich or two from Beecher's Handmade Cheese (Broadway and 20th Street). Soppressata and Egg and Fig and Cheddar are both fine, fine choices.
Eataly (5th Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets) is something of a zoo at peak hours, but it really is perfect for picnickers. Fruit, cheese, cured meat, and even wine (we won't tell) are all readily available—makings for the perfect picnic. You can also get in and out quickly if you limit yourself to some airy focaccia or a hefty roast beef sandwich. But for an "it's almost summer" experience, don't leave without at least considering some ice cream. Eataly's gelati and sorbetti aren't especially intense in flavor, but their textures are just right. For a relatively modest dessert, try their Fior di Latte, which highlights the flavors of pure, just-sweet-enough cream. Compared to Shake Shack's OMG DAIRY custard across the street, it's downright light.
Union Square is a street food haven. At any given time you can expect three food trucks parked along the Southwest corner, selling everything from tacos to french fries to ice cream sandwiches. This is ideal if you and your picnic companions can't decide on just one thing for lunch or dinner. The quality of these trucks varies, but there's always plenty to choose from.
The area is also home to the downtown Maoz Vegetarian (Park Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets), a go-to spot for respectable falafel and a surprisingly good (not to mention bottomless) salad bar. Don't skip their lemonade, pleasantly tart and totally refreshing.
If you want something more hearty, Dos Toros (4th Avenue and 13th Street) has you covered. This San Francisco import doesn't represent the best of what the Bay Area burrito has to offer, but it's better than a vast majority of the Mexican food in New York. The ingredients are clean and honest-tasting, which on a perfect day may be all you need. Massive, overstuffed burritos are the obvious draw, but the quesadillas travel better; the ample (really, ample) cheese acts as waterproofing to keep the tortilla from falling apart.
Washington Square Park
I've known college students who eat every meal as a picnic, so it's no surprise Washington Square Park has plenty of portable noshing options. Say what you will about the NYU-ization of the area, but if it's even remotely responsible for drawing in Thelewala (Macdougal Street between West 3rd and Bleecker Streets), there's serious opportunity for redemption. This Indian street snack-inspired shop is one of the few places in Manhattan to get a decent plate of chaat, some vegetarian curries, or some great kati rolls. Everything here is worlds better than 95% of what you'll find in Murray Hill uptown.
Thelewala doesn't sell dosas, but Thiru Kumar does at his New York Dosas cart on West 3rd Street along the South side of the park. These may be the ultimate shareable picnic chow: huge, messy enough to inspire joy, and designed to be eaten with your hands. Though his fillings aren't as impressive as what you might find at the better Jackson Heights dosa houses, the crepes themselves are exceptionally crisp and light. Be brave and get as many relishes as you can. They're wickedly spicy and totally spot-on.
Not in the mood for Indian? How about some beautifully flaky boureki from Snack Taverna (Bedford Street and Morton Street)? Salads and sandwiches are worth a look too, as are any of the cooked vegetable dishes. Yes, we're suggesting more Mediterranean vegetable dishes. But they're great at room temperature, so they're perfect for outdoor snacking.
If you're up near Grand Army Plaza, options for a picnic dinner abound. Gourmands should head without delay to Bklyn Larder for absolutely everything a picnicker could dream of: breads from New York's great bakeries, a tremendous cheese selection, beautifully composed sandwiches, plus drinks and sweets and prepared foods and, well, everything. Just know that you'll pay upmarket prices for this upmarket picnic.
If you're thinking a little more all-American, stop by Bark; they've got burgers and dogs and chili fries, plus killer milkshakes. (Both Bark and Bklyn Larder are about a 10-minute walk from Grand Army Plaza.) If you want something a little cheaper? The stretch of Flatbush nearer Grand Army has a Five Guys for burgers, Christie's Jamaican Patties for flaky meat pies, and El Castillo de Jagua for huge plates of rice and beans or pork sandwiches for $5.
Coming from the Slope? Bierkraft makes some of the very best sandwiches in the 'hood, and they come with chips or an apple, making them even more picnic appropriate. (And, clearly, they've got an incredible beer selection—not that we endorse public drinking.) And while it's maybe a little messy for fingers, we're such huge fans of the oxtail and shepherd's pie at The Islands that we'd feed our picnicking friends with Jamaican takeout any day.
—Special thanks to Carey Jones for this section.
What about the High Line?
Honestly? Good luck trying to relax up there. Once it gets warm outside the High Line is more of a highway than a park, with DSLR-toting tourists replacing lumbering SUVs. But if you're feeling up to it (and with that view of the sunset, I hardly blame you), check out our guide on where to eat near the High Line.