Getting food to go is a ritual in nonstop New York City, but during the peak picnic season of summer and early fall, it can also be an occasion to slow down and enjoy the scenery. With that in mind, we've paired some of our favorite takeout places in all five boroughs with nearby picnic locales—some are bucolic spots off the beaten path, others afford panoramic views of the City and still more are right in the middle of the action. And whether you head out to Little Odessa in Brooklyn or Little Italy in the Bronx, all these picnic pairings should serve as excellent points of departure for exploring the surrounding neighborhoods.
We recommend making the trip in the early evening, before a Yankee game—the stadium is just a two-minute walk down the hill. With the pleasant rumble of the elevated train in the background and the bustle of the Bronx County Courthouse and the Grand Concourse in the foreground, the long rectangular glade of Joyce Kilmer Park, the Bronx's answer to Bryant Park, provides a quiet spot amid the bustle. For provisions, try the Feeding Tree, a Jamaican restaurant on Gerard Avenue, one block over. The atmosphere may be somewhat utilitarian, but the jerk chicken, various stews (goat, oxtail) and rotis are tasty and filling (the main dishes come with corn bread, rice and beans and sweet plantains), and besides, you'll be ordering to go. Settle in on the park lawn, near the cooling white marble and rushing water of the Lorelei Fountain, and enjoy.
Along Arthur Avenue, the main drag of the Bronx's Little Italy, food options abound in every direction, and especially at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, an indoor bazaar built in the LaGuardia administration as a permanent home for the neighborhood's legion of pushcart vendors. At Mike's Deli, a fixture since the early years of the market, you can get all the fixings from scratch—provolones, prosciuttos, pane di casa, whatever hits the spot—or order one of the scores of sandwiches off the menu. Try the Wanderer (sweet sopressata and homemade dry mozzarella), which pays homage to local doo-wop king Dion DiMucci, or perhaps the powerhouse Big Mike Combo (mortadella, ham, salami, capicola and provolone). Hero in hand, head up to the New York Botanical Garden. Grounds admission is free all day on Wednesdays, but it's worth the $13 price any day of the week. You can eat at wooden tables under the shade of the open-air picnic pavilion, and then wander about the winding paths, through the meadows, past the lilac and azalea gardens, and deep into the native forest. There, in the cool shade of the old-growth woodlands, quiet but for the gentle current of the Bronx River, it's easy to imagine that the City itself is nothing but a dream.
In picnicking, as in so many pursuits, taking the high ground has its advantages. Sunset Park isn't the highest point in Brooklyn, an honor that goes to a patch of nearby Green-Wood Cemetery, but the park's perch, 167 feet above sea level, affords fine views of the borough, the bay, Lady Liberty, the City skyline and, as its name suggests, the setting sun. In recent years, a Vietnamese community has established itself in the neighborhood, giving picnickers a number of worthwhile banh mi joints to choose from. Ba Xuyên, a block from the park, stands out by virtue of the fresh, crunchy baguette; savory meats (pork is traditional, and recommended, but there are other options); and a confederation of textures and flavors (cucumber, pickled daikon, cilantro, fish sauce, chili sauce) that approach perfection. They don't take credit cards, but with the banh mi priced at $5 a pop, it won't take a lot of cash to fill your basket to the brim.
When we're in a hurry to hit the beach, we'll admit to taking the easy route at Gold Label, by picking up a few piroskhi and stuffed pastries from the to-go window out front. The signs aren't in English, so if your Cyrillic is rusty, just point at the various options and the woman watching over the wares will conduct a brief tour, Little Odessa–style: “mushroom…meat…cheese…cabbage…potato.” Prices range from $1.50 to $3, and word to the wise, the dumplings are plenty filling. Entering Gold Label, a bazaar where each nook commands attention, can turn into a day trip of its own: charcuterie piled to the rafters here; cheeses of all kinds congregating there; scads of smoked fish across the way; a score of cold salads and slaws nearby; figs, dates and nuts filling one cranny; a sea of caviar flooding another. Back outside, head to the boardwalk and consider two options: setting up camp in the Brighton Beach section, which is generally quieter, or making the 10-minute trek along the boardwalk to the heart of Coney Island so you can soak up the high spirits of the summer crowds.
Takeout: Blue Apron
Picnic Location:Long Meadow, Prospect Park
It's no secret that Park Slope has been at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement avant la lettre, and likewise that Prospect Park was designed by Olmsted and Vaux in the finest 19th-century English romantic tradition as a place for the common folk to cultivate all the virtues associated with nature and the outdoors. In other words, picking up eats at artisanal mecca Blue Apron and chowing down at a sunny spot on the Long Meadow is the recipe for the ultimate Brooklyn picnic. Blue Apron has freshly made sandwiches there for the taking, or work with the folks behind the counter to mix and match from the tantalizing array of sopressatas, salamis and prosciuttos to make something special.
There are few signs left that the Upper East Side neighborhood of Yorkville was once a German enclave, but luckily the traditional wurst-maker Schaller & Weber, just off of 86th Street, has continued to thrive. The store, which is still owned and operated by the Schaller family, first opened in 1937, doubled its quarters in 1964 and, we're glad to report, hasn't changed a dime's worth since. They make and distribute their own wursts, wieners and kielbasas; bacons and hams; and salamis and deli meats. Select from the cold cuts, German breads and cheeses (just ask for recommendations—these guys are happy to talk shop all day); toss in slaw, pickles and one of the house mustards; and head to Carl Schurz Park, tucked away along the East River just south of Gracie Mansion, aka the de Blasio digs. Schurz was a 19th-century progressive and reformer involved in politics first in Germany and then here in New York City, and the quiet jewel-box park, bedecked with flower gardens, small groves of trees, lush grassy lawns and a picturesque river view of Astoria and Roosevelt Island, pays him fine tribute.
If Yorkville is the place to go for a taste of New York City's picnic past, then Chelsea is the neighborhood of picnic present. The High Line, an elevated freight line cum urban oasis, dressed to the nines in wildflowers, native grasses and classy hardwood street furniture, has established itself as a must-stroll destination since its first section opened five years back. True, it's more pedestrian path than parkland, but the long patch of lawn at 23rd Street makes a good perch for people watching, and the mix of old warehouses, rowhouses and spiffy starchitect-designed luxury condos provide a fitting backdrop. Just a block away, nestled behind Ralf Kuettel's Trestle on Tenth, is Kuettel's takeout joint, Rocket Pig. Deciding what to get is easy, as there's only one dish on the menu board: the Rocket Pig sandwich (pulled pork on a ciabatta), and to make things easier still, they offer a “pignic box,” complete with sandwich, pickle, slaw, chips, dessert and soda. Note well: the pignic box comes with an “original” (read: large) sandwich—rather than the more modest “shorty”—which, unless you're ravenous, should be enough for two.
For an echt Upper West Side picnic, go to Barney Greengrass, the self-proclaimed Sturgeon King. You won't bump into Barney himself—the now-deceased founder opened the smoked fish emporium back in 1908, and his grandson runs the shop today—but his spirit reigns over the long flanks of lox (salmon, salt cured), Nova (salmon, smoked), sable (Pacific codfish, smoked by the gods themselves) and the splendid sturgeon. For two people, a quarter pound of fish is plenty; to go with, get a few bagels and a bialy (no hole, but more character), some cream cheese and maybe a matjes herring or some whitefish salad, for variety's sake. Just a few blocks away, Central Park's pinetum, a cozy grove of conifers just north of the Great Lawn and south of the reservoir, offers the benefits of cooling shade and picnic tables. To complete the tradition, pick up a Sunday paper along the way so you can do the crossword puzzle while you nosh.
Takeout: Rockaway Taco
Picnic Location: Rockaway Beach
This hand-painted wooden surfer shack a block from the beach has become an institution since it started turning out top-notch fish tacos back in 2008. As a result, lines can be long, particularly during peak hours on weekends, but in this case, as the saying goes, it's worth the wait. Carne, chorizo and tofu tacos are on the menu too, along with quesadillas, sides like guac and chips and Mexican-style spicy corn on the cob, and fresh watermelon juice. (It's cash only, but they've installed an on-site ATM). When you hit the boardwalk, take a left and head to the nearby surfers' cove, which runs from Beach 92nd to Beach 87th Streets. There you can unfurl your blanket and watch some of Rockaway's big kahunas working the waves while you eat.
The expanding chain of parks along Long Island City's waterfront has something of a movie-set quality to it. Sparkling-new apartment buildings with curves that evoke Miami more than Manhattan, accented by the bold red-gothic lettering of the 120-foot-long Pepsi sign (all that remains of a bottling plant that stood nearby), form the backdrop to the manicured lawns at the northern end of Gantry Plaza State Park. Across the East River, the City skyline gleams like a VistaVision tableau. What's more, the area is so recently developed that even on a sunny weekend, there's plenty of room to spread your blanket. As for food, much-heralded John Brown Smokehouse, just a few blocks away, serves Kansas City–style rib tips, brisket and pulled pork. All of the meats are available as platters or sandwiches (including specialties, like the John Brown Reuben, made with house-cured pastrami) and can be paired with traditional barbecue sides (collard greens, corn bread, slaw). Be sure to check the board for specials from the pit and to take plenty of napkins for the road.
The tortillas and tamales are made on the premises the old-fashioned way here—the word nixtamal refers to the traditional Mexican process of soaking corn with lime before grinding it into masa dough. Three tacos make a good order, and there are plenty to choose from—pork (pulled, grilled or slow cooked), skirt steak, chicken, lamb, shrimp, fried skate and, for the non-paleo crowd, sauteed veggie, grilled cactus and roasted chile options. Pick up a horchata or agua fresca to wash the tacos down, and you might want to take home a bag of fresh tortillas for good measure (a one-pound bag of 15 costs just $2.25). It's a straight shot up 47th Avenue to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and this being the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World's Fair, choosing a spot on the grassy fields surrounding the Unisphere, the fair's enduring symbol, would seem to be in order. While you're in the neighborhood, consider a postprandial visit to another treasure from the fair, the Panorama of the City of New York, a vast block-for-block, building-for-building scale model of the entire metropolis, housed in the Queens Museum, just a stone's throw away.
The tram ride to Roosevelt Island is one of the City's great pleasures: it positively glides over the East River, a three-plus-minute ride so enjoyable you'll forget you're on mass transit. (Though operated by Roosevelt Island, not the MTA, MetroCards are accepted.) First, though, pick up some grub on the Manhattan side at Gourmet Garage's East 64th Street location. It's nothing less than a one-stop picnic mart: the prepared foods (all sorts of salads, sandwiches, sushi bar, rotisserie chicken) are made with locally sourced meats and produce; at the deli counter, you can get sandwiches made to order or, if you prefer, get all the fixings, along with some bread or rolls, fresh from local artisanal bakers, so you can do the assembling yourself. Just a few minutes' walk from the tram terminal, FDR Four Freedoms Park, a triangular wedge at the southern tip of the island, offers respite from city traffic, cooling river breezes and a postcard-worthy view of the East Side—with the United Nations, a key part of Roosevelt's legacy, front and center.
Just a 10-minute walk from the Staten Island Ferry, the Little Sri Lanka section of Tompkinsville has a number of tasty to-go options. At New Asha, a small storefront cafeteria on Victory Boulevard that's built up a word-of-mouth following far beyond Staten Island, you can't go wrong with any of the curries, dosas or rotis, and the prices are so inexpensive, you couldn't put a dent in your wallet if you tried. The lake of Silver Lake Park, just another few blocks up Victory Boulevard, was used until 1971 as a reservoir, the end point of a vast water supply system that starts high up in the Catskill Mountains. Even in retirement, the pond retains its charms as a pleasant backdrop, and the rolling grassy fields surrounding it provide plenty of picnicking real estate to choose from.