I was walking around a park near downtown last week with a friend in from Texas. We strolled on gritty paths through scrubby chaparral, past fragrant sage and dog shit and a seriously underwhelming man-made waterfall.
My friend grew up in L.A., as did I, but now she lives in Austin. We talked about Texas, about California, about barbecue and ramen and breakfast tacos and the underappreciated beauty of hill country, and then we rounded a corner. We came into a large grassy clearing, the heart of park-ness, and surveyed the scene.
There were about a dozen people in the park, most of them jogging or walking dogs. There were a few kids sitting on a bench, and a couple of families kicking soccer balls back and forth. But there were no blankets laid out, no baskets and no coolers — no one was picnicking. I remarked on the fact, noted that I couldn’t remember the last time I or anyone I knew had legitimately picnicked, to which I got a succinct reply — “Oh, we picnic all the time in Austin. Like, every weekend.” Of course, picnicking is a thing in San Francisco, in New York, in summertime Chicago, but Austin? Is picnicking a thing everywhere but L.A.?
Perhaps it’s because everyone knows someone who has a yard, a deck or a porch. Maybe it’s because of the beaches. Or perhaps it’s because we’re preoccupied with power hiking, with conquering nature and turning our abs into miniature mountain ranges. It seems that the parks and natural spaces of Los Angeles are underutilized as picnic destinations. Sure, there are kids’ birthday parties in Griffith Park and families grilling near Dodger Stadium in Elysian Park, but Los Angeles doesn’t really have a picnic culture, and we sorely lack popular outdoor meet-up spots like, say, Dolores Park — there’s no common patch of shade, no grassy hill that fills up like the pit at a concert venue on warm afternoons, nowhere you can reliably go and expect to bump into people you know, to join them on a blanket, to eat a sandwich and sip covertly on cans of cheap beer or box wine or sneak a nibble of that very sketchy foil-wrapped brownie she just bought from the old guy with the flowers tucked behind his ears.
It would be too easy to invoke the stereotypes, to blame the sprawl, to curse our car culture and concrete creep. But it’s too great a shame to allow our good weather and our dwindling supply of potable water and sittable grass to go to waste. L.A. has its fair share of damn fine parks, plenty of beautiful spaces crying out desperately for a blanket under a tree, a long afternoon that melts into a cool evening, sunglasses and shoes scattered around the grass, great food and a Frisbee close at hand.
It’s time to take advantage of the beauty of our city, to return to the simple joy of a lazy afternoon outside. To that end, here are a few suggestions — pairings, too, if you will — of parks with nearby restaurants, to gently ease us into the picnic swing.
Temescal Gateway and Maison Giraud
A trip to the Pacific Palisades feels like an escape — it's a cute, beachy town, sophisticated but quaint, like the grown-up parts of Santa Barbara, and it is also home to the incredible French bakery Maison Giraud.
Walk to the back of Maison Giraud to pick from its selection of outstanding pastries, from buttery croissants and rich, buttery pain au chocolat to sweet and buttery (are you sensing a theme?) oatmeal raisin cookies. The baguettes have a perfect crust and light, springy crumb, excellent on their own but even better with some of Alain Giraud’s fruit preserves.
Then head a little ways down Sunset to Temescal Gateway Park, a web of trails dotted with tucked-away picnic tables and hidden patches of sun-dappled grass. The air smells like chaparral and eucalyptus and salt, a distinctly Californian combination. The shallow creek burbles just enough to create a quiet soundtrack as women in turquoise yoga pants stride confidently past, and those buttery pastries melt in your mouth.
Vista Hermosa and The Park’s Finest
Unless you’ve recently searched for a place to take engagement photos, you may not have heard of Vista Hermosa Park. But the little emerald refuge hidden behind Bob Baker Marionette Theatre is one of the most beautiful public places anywhere near downtown, and it features an unparalleled view of the L.A. skyline.
There are plenty of good restaurants right nearby, but for our money The Park’s Finest is the best local option for picnic fare. Its fun, messy Filipino barbecue tastes just right in the plentiful shade and pairs perfectly with the smells of cut grass and sage. If you come in the afternoon, there will be students from nearby Belmont milling around, making out on the grass and sneaking not-so-subtle tokes behind skinny trees, but you’ll be so absorbed by coconut beef, bibingka cornbread and tender ribs that you’ll hardly notice.
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Farnsworth Park and Roma Market
For a certain type of not-so-unruly youth, Farnsworth Park is known as the premier destination for the illegal underground sport of after-hours iceblocking — large hunks of ice purchased with loose change from a vending machine behind Webster’s Pharmacy and then hauled up Lake in the trunk of someone’s mom’s borrowed car, pushed with rapidly chilling hands to the top of the park and then ridden back down the slope in tandem like an Olympic luge, exhilarating and cold and about the best meet-cute any local teen could dream up.
By day, though, Farnsworth is more than just a slope-in-waiting; it’s also an outstanding park in its own right. Its position at the top of Lake Street affords beautiful views of the shockingly close San Gabriel Mountains. The grass, for now, is in good shape, and there is ample shade under several giant trees. And it doesn’t hurt that Roma Market is just a couple short miles down the street.
On your way to the park, pay a visit to Rosario at the deli counter, snag a sandwich — there is only one, a purist’s dream of fine Italian cold cuts, cheese and a splash of olive oil on a fresh roll — then head on up the hill. Time it well and you may catch a late-evening concert or a summer baseball game framed in glowing twilight against the foothills, the crunch of the bread and the ping of the bat ringing in your ears, and if you stick around until dark you might be able to bum a chilly ride down the hill from some rambunctious teens.