Not quite going out to eat, not quite cooking at home, picnics can combine the best of both worlds. With minimal planning, you can enjoy a plein air banquet on a blanket to satisfy any appetite. Assemble a make-ahead meal at home (or choose your faves from a nearby restaurant or deli), grab a cooler and a blanket, and head off to the closest park. The ingredients can be a basic as a sandwich and a soda, but why stop there?
Picnics are simplicity in a basket, but the pic-a-nic basket itself has come a long way since Yogi and Boo-Boo’s day. Shops such as C’est Cheese (825 Santa Barbara Street, 965-0318) offer a surprising assortment. For example, a zip-tote that looks like it would hold a few CDs, but instead holds everything a hip couple would need for al fresco dining, from plates to utensils, all the way to cloth napkins (for just over $30). You’ll find traditional wicker hampers and some decidedly “Bring the basket, Jeeves” options as well.
With all these choices, there’s no place at your picnic for flimsy plastic. Bring utensils from home, or consider buying up a few odd pieces at the thrift store to keep in the car for spontaneous meals. If you are buying food to go, many places will be happy to fill up containers you bring from home, rather than using throwaway boxes. Quite a few area parks will even allow you to bring a bottle of wine or Thermos of mojitos. Check online before you go at santabarbaraca.gov/Parks (using the “parks” features grid).
The Parks & Recreation summer Concert in the Parks series is a picnicker’s paradise. Concerts are held Thursday nights through August 21. Experienced locals arrive an hour or more in advance to lay out their blankets. If you will be rushing from the office, C’est Cheese offers a special pre-packed “Concert in the Park” basket that serves 2-4 people for $55. Alameda Park and Alice Keck Park Garden are two other picnic-perfect spots, especially with Cantwell’s (1533 State Street, 805-966-3902) well-stocked deli and variety of picnickables just a few blocks away.
The Farmers Market is another instant picnic. Bring some hummus or veggie dip, plus a jug of water from home (for rinsing off fresh produce), and enjoy your crudites on Stearns Wharf with some fresh bread and cheese.
Here are a few other picnic ideas inspired by Santa Barbara:
Dozens of Dozens of Roses: Picture you and your sweetie leaning against each other, gazing above the multitude of living bouquets at the Mission Rose Garden. Set the stage with a small table (such as the roll-up “Table in a Bag” from CrateandBarrel.com). The Mission Garden is one of the county parks that allows alcohol, so choose an excellent wine to complement your meal (remember the corkscrew). Fresh, bite-sized foods invite nibbling, so cheeses, olives, and other antipasti are an obvious choice. Bring a few votive candles (and matches!) and some dark chocolate to complete the evening. As the evening comes, it’s likely to get a bit chilly. Perfect for snuggling.
Lady and The Tramp Special: Bringing your dog with you is easy at Elings Park. You will need to purchase a special tag to allow your dog off leash (tags are good for the year). After a few laps around the field, your dog will be ready to relax with a treat and a water bowl while the humans enjoy a table carefully set with a checkered cloth, a few daisies in an empty wine bottle, and a basket of garlic bread. You can substitute a chilled pasta for the spaghetti featured in the film, but your dog will appreciate a meatball or two.
Lazy Weekend Brunch: What better way to welcome the weekend than a luxurious brunch with friends? And how much easier if you don’t have to clean the house first! Delegate muffins, coffee, fresh fruit : add a quiche or frittata if you’ve got a hungry crew. A few mimosas or simple juice spritzers are a festive touch. For morning newspaper junkies, copy a few crossword puzzles to share. This is a good time for games like croquet, Frisbee, or some light soccer, before the day gets too warm.
There are a few basics to keep in mind for any picnic. Starting from the bottom: comfortable seating is important, even if that seating is a blanket. If you or your guests are not as nimble as you once were, select a park with benches or bring a few beach chairs. Depending on the weather and time of day, you may want to bring sunscreen, insect repellent, hats, or warm jackets. It’s easier to relax if you’re not fighting leg cramps and mosquitoes.
Last but not least: food safety. Be sure to keep cooked foods well-chilled to prevent spoilage. Anything that was refrigerated should be eaten within an hour or two (mayonnaise is a frequent culprit).