It’s bright and sunny and you’re ready to grab your blanket and cooler and venture out for a picnic at Millennium Park, Ravinia, or any of Chicagoland’s other gorgeous outdoor venues. But oops … you haven’t gotten around to shopping for all the good things you want to put in your picnic basket. Not to worry! Many local restaurants, specialty shops, and catering services have you covered with a range of delicious food and drink to be enjoyed au plein air.
Here are a few singular places that know how to prepare, pack, and send you on your way with a picnic lunch or dinner that will make your outdoor dining experience especially enjoyable … and easy (which is what summertime living is all about, right?).
Toni Marie Cox at Toni Patisserie and Café tells us, “Our pique-nique boxes are filled with made-to-order delights including baguette sandwiches, fresh salads, savory sides, and exquisite Frenchy desserts. Our Chicago location is right next to Grant Park, where there’s always something going on. From the summer film series to concerts of all kinds, a pique-nique box is the perfect grab-and-go for a fun afternoon or evening. Oh, and did we mention there’s wine?” In the Loop and in west suburban Hinsdale, Toni Patisserie and Café prepares for you a tidy red box, filled with everything you need for a low-effort, high-quality picnic experience. It’s a little like opening a Christmas gift: a pleasant and thoughtful surprise.
With an immense range of options, Paramount Fresh gives you everything you need for a picnic, and they do it with style. Lemon-tarragon chicken salad with roasted red pepper and feta dip, fresh-cut veggies, and cheese, much of it sourced locally. As a bonus, Paramount Fresh delivers, so you can have them bring your packed meals right to your home or office. Work downtown? Get your Paramount Fresh delivered and head straight to Millennium Park for a summer concert. Deliveries are free for first-time orders.
Chicken is traditional picnic food, and the world’s most popular bird is the specialty at Clucker’s Charcoal Chicken in Highwood and Libertyville. If there are just a few of you, select from Clucker’s Meal-in-a-Box menu for chicken sandwiches or wraps, packed up with peanut slaw, homemade potato chips, and cookies. If you have a large group, there are a range of sandwich trays. “Clucker’s Meal-in-a-Box enables us to provide restaurant-quality food to our customers at Ravinia,” explains owner Deb Merdinger. “We make it easy for them by delivering directly to the park from our Highwood location.”
Bonci, the Roman pizza shop with locations on the Near West Side and Wicker Park, serves their lusciously thick slices with a seemingly endless array of ingredients and flavor combinations. If you’ve bought pizza in Italy, you know it’s frequently served at room temperature, and that’s the way it’s served at Bonci. Because of the huge range of toppings — fish and meat as well as arugula and other vegetable options — you can pretty much eat just pizza and get a full meal, with carbs, meat, and veg, no flatware required. “Bonci is the perfect picnic pizza,” says Rick Tasman, President, Bonci, USA. “It travels really well and stays super crunchy for the ride, and there’s so much variety to choose from that everyone will find something they will truly enjoy.” Note: Bonci accepts credit cards only, no cash.
Foodstuffs offers an immense selection from locations in Evanston, Glenview, Glencoe, and Lake Forest. On the regular menu, there are sandwiches and wraps, melts and paninis with meat, cheese, vegetables, and fish. Or, create your own from the many proteins and condiments in their deli case. They’ll put together a delectable lunch or dinner of a sandwich, chips, and cookies, plus add on a salad for a little something extra. Some locations, like the one in Glencoe, even offer wine, making Foodstuffs a one-stop-shop for all your picnic necessities.
“Eat in or take out” is the mantra at Brown Bag, and they make it especially easy for you to do both. Lighter food, like fish and salads, are what many crave on a hot summer day (or night). Take out fresh fish, perfectly accompanied with a “power box” of ancient grains, vegetables, or a combo of both. Everything, along with flatware and napkins, are provided in (guess what?) … a brown paper bag.
Publican Quality Meats is known as the premier source for meat and charcuterie, as well as bread prepared by Greg Wade at Publican Quality Bread. Earlier this year, Wade took home a James Beard award for Best Baker, so you know the sandwiches will be made with not only some of the best meat, but also some of the best bread you’ll find anywhere in the Midwest. We love the innovative options, like the BBQ lamb with kohlrabi slaw and Worcestershire mayonnaise, and the Broccoli Crew (get it?!) with charred broccoli, Calabrian chili aioli, and gouda on naan. PQM does a brisk take-out business, making it easy to snag a ready-made or custom sandwich on the fly, and then head to the park with the flatware and napkins you need to have a smashing picnic.
Cheese, bread, wine … is there really anything more you need for a picnic? From locations in the Loop, the French Market and Lakeview, Pastoral provides Chicagoans with specially prepared picnic baskets packed with what just might be the best local selection of cheese, beautiful bread, and other artisan goods around. Greg O’Neill, co-owner at Pastoral, says they like to offer “an element of choice and customization, reasonably priced, with a visually compelling presentation.”
David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bank and dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.