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.
Stern Grove Park
Ah, the smell of eucalyptus. It might remind you of runny noses and mentholated Halls in winter, but in June, for many city natives, the scent evokes a stroll in Stern Grove (19th Avenue and Sloat). This popular picnicking destination has plenty of secluded nooks and boasts bocce ball and putting greens, tennis and croquet courts, and a playground. Because of the park's abundance of towering trees and lush foliage, the mood here is decidedly tranquil, but Stern Grove does have another side. At 2 p.m. Sunday afternoons, from June 15 to August 17, the park's amphitheater is packed with music lovers for the Stern Grove Festival, a popular free concert series held every summer since 1938. This year's lineup includes a string quartet, an Afro-Celt band, and a jazz-funk group. (For a complete list of concerts, check out www.sterngrove.org.) For goodies, you'll need to make a pit stop on West Portal Ave first. The modest Café Rain Tree (118 West Portal between Vicente and 14th Ave., 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily) has a generous menu of salads, soups, and grilled sandwiches. For your fruit, check out West Portal Produce (222 West Portal at 14th Ave., M-Sat 6:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Sun 6:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.), where they'll even help you pick out your persimmons.
Buena Vista Park
Even if your Spanish is a little rusty, there's no way you won't remember that Buena Vista means “good view” after a visit to this park. Named by 18th-century Spanish settlers as the place to get the lay of the land, this 36-acre spread (off Haight between Buena Vista East and West) has hiking trails, tennis courts, and a children's play area with killer views from its two vista points. Bring your camera. Your best bet for grub is among Haight Street's secondhand stores, tattoo parlors, and head shops. Taqueria El Balazo (1654 Haight at Belvedere, M-Sat 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sun 10 a.m.-10 p.m.) isn't the most convenient eatery, but it's well worth the walk. The flautas, tacos, tamales, and burritos make perfect portable picnic fare. However, if you're feeling especially hungry, indulge in an El Balazo platter, with entrée-size portions that are the perfect precursor to a park siesta. If your tastes run more toward sipping soy milk and nibbling asparagus on a hemp blanket, check out the Haight Street Market (1530 Haight, between Ashbury and Clayton, M-sat 7 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m.), which has an excellent selection of organic produce, fresh juices, and healthy snacks like pita chips and hummus.
Just a block away from the towering Transamerica Building, Portsmouth Square proves that parks don't have to be grassy to be good. This mostly concrete commons in the heart of Chinatown bustles with tourists and city traffic, making it a great place to people-watch. The Chinese Cultural Center is nearby, and the park is a mecca for players of mah-jongg, Go, and chess. You might even be able to get in on some early-morning tai chi. On Saturday nights during summer, the Square becomes the site of the Chinatown Night Market Fair — a weekly cultural festival with lion dancing, martial arts, Chinese operas, karaoke singers, and musical performances. Markets and restaurants surround the square. The Chinatown Restaurant (744 Washington at Kearny, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily) across the street serves delicious dim sum all day. For a quick snack, Hong Kong franchise Aji Ichiban (two locations: 704 Kearny at Clay, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; 905 Grant at Jackson, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily) is worth a visit. This self-proclaimed “munchies paradise” sells a huge assortment of exotic Asian treats, from spicy squid rolls to sugar-crusted licorice whips. Also nearby is Ross Alley (between Washington and Jackson), one of the city's oldest. Once known for its brothels and gambling halls, Ross is now home to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookies (56 Ross Alley, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily), where you can watch your fortune get wrapped in a cookie, fresh every day.
The name may remind you of fat, irreverent cartoon characters, but this lazy, tree-lined South of Market park (off Third Street between Bryant and Brannan) is surrounded by designer clothing boutiques, art studios, and fine sit-down dining. Still, if ever there were a place that warranted breaking away from the usual wine-and-cheese affair, this is it. Grab “nuclear” wings or a chili-loaded bratwurst at Zeke's Sports Bar and Grill (600 Third St. at Brannan, seven days a week until two a.m.) or head to the 21st Amendment (563 Second St., M-Sat 11:30-2 a.m.), a trendy brewery, bar, and restaurant, for burgers, pizza, and an excellent roasted half-chicken. While you're at it, pick up a “Growler” — 64 ounces of your favorite specialty brew to go. Incidentally, Pac Bell Park isn't too far off; consider South Park for your next pre-game rendezvous.