Parks and picnics go together like a bottle of merlot and a wedge of smoked Gouda. But this is San Francisco, and we do picnicking our own way. Whether it's sushi at Mount Davidson or piroshkis at Golden Gate Park, there's no reason why picnics have to be straight-laced, wine-and-cheese affairs. In the spirit of summer fun San Francisco-style, here are some of our great parks, a few lesser-known gems, and the nearby provisioners that can make each of them the site of an A+ picnic.
Jack Early Park
Technically, Jack Early Park isn't a "park" at all. This romantic lookout big enough for two is accessed via a little staircase tucked away off Grant Street between Chestnut and Francisco. Keep your eyes peeled or you might miss it altogether. Your discovery will be well rewarded with panoramic views of the bay from bridge to bridge. (You'll also have the smug satisfaction of knowing where the heck this little-known nook is.) Luckily, finding food isn't as difficult. Neighborhood hangout Café Francisco (2161 Powell at Francisco, M-F 7 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-8 p.m.) has great falafel, hearty salads, and some dozen sandwiches, including the San Fran, a tasty grilled chicken, bacon, and avocado job served on pugliese bread. Be forewarned though: Asking the owner what's good won't help you decide. He swears up and down that everything on the menu is.
Washington Square Park
It's an understatement to say that Washington Square Park, smack in the middle of North Beach, is a popular summer spot for a picnic. It's popular period. An ample grassy square skirted by benches, monuments, and a playground, the park attracts solitary readers, couples engaging in PDA, and dogs sniffing toddlers' shorts. Weekend activities here include pick-up volleyball games and art shows. If you're inclined, pop on over to Saints Peter and Paul Church, a lovely sanctuary of silence. But then it's across Union Street to Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store (566 Columbus, M-Sat 10 a.m.-midnight; Sun 10 a.m.-11 p.m.), one of the oldest Italian cafés in the city. The awesome baked sandwiches (made with fresh focaccia from Liguria Bakery on the opposite corner of the park) make great picnic fare, and Coit Liquors across the street has everything you could want, beverage-wise. Less picnic-friendly but also yummy are Mario's cannelloni and marinated sweet bell peppers in a homemade marinara sauce. On the sweeter side, Italian confectioner Z Cioccolato, at Columbus and Green, has barrels of saltwater taffy and childhood favorites like Nik-L-Nips and Necco Wafers, not to mention truffles and house-made fudge to die for.
With a backdrop of candy-colored Victorian homes and postcard views of the city, Alamo Square at Steiner and Hayes is an idyllic park that serves as a popular hang for cell-phone-chatting sunbathers and leashless dogs. The Bean Bag Cafe on Divisadero (at Hayes, M-F 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat-Sun 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) serves smoothies, sandwiches, and kick-ass crepes. For an especially good cup of joe and coffeecake to make you cry, head over to the ultrahip Café Abir (Divisadero at Fulton, 6 a.m.-1 a.m. daily). You can pick up a few magazines for your sunning session in the adjoining smoke shop.
Flanked by Folsom and Alabama, this strip of green is a good space for Frisbee, touch football, or any other game that requires people to run great distances without looking where they're going. Besides providing ample running room, this neighborhood park, skirted by homes, trees and a mural-covered elementary school, includes a kid's play area and a lovely nook with a memorial bench. Speaking of benches, The Park Bench Café at the corner of Folsom and Betsey (3214 Folsom, 7 a.m.-5 p.m. every day) is the obvious choice for eats. For the last 15 years, this one-time butcher shop turned mom-and-pop café has been a favorite with the locals, serving up sandwiches, soups, and the occasional advice (like, "Try Sam's calzone"). The Cancilla Market (M-Th 7:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; F 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sat 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun 8 a.m.-9 p.m.) across the street has an excellent wine selection, chilled beverages, fresh produce, and a freezer full of ice cream trucks' treats, like Push-Ups, Eskimo pies, Drumsticks, and those red, white, 'n' blue Missile Pops that turn your tongue purple.
Mission Dolores Park
A favorite spot for knitting groups and poetry cliques, Mission Dolores Park (18th Street and Dolores) attracts all sorts of informal gatherings, from neighborhood art shows to impromptu concerts. It's also one of the most popular parks for dogs to exercise their owners. The spacious park offers a playground, soccer fields, and tennis and basketball courts. (It's got professional-grade hills for rolling down, too.) Regardless of what you end up doing at Mission D, you won't have to leave for something sweet. The park has a liberty bell to "commemorate Mexico's cry for independence," but the tinkling you'll hear signals the close proximity of frozen treats. Mission Dolores must be the dispatch point for the city's fleets of fruit bar carts, because there always seem to be two or three within whistling distance. Frozen goods aside, there are a number of spots nearby for snacks, but the Bi-Rite Market (3639 18th St., M-F 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-8 p.m.) is by far the coolest. This classic market has an outstanding wine and cheese selection and a well-stocked deli case, making it probably one of the best places in the city to get a sandwich made just the way you like it. Dishes vary from week to week, and can be anything from salmon to spare ribs, but you can count on well-prepared, savory staples like potato or pasta salad. If you're really in doubt about what to get, just ask chefs Tom and Eddie. They'll point you in the right direction.
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