One of the biggest attractions for all who live, work, or just generally enjoy the Upper West Side is the number of quality parks that we have access to. Whether you want to get lost in the vastness of Central Park, park yourself along the Hudson in Riverside, climb the hills of Morningside Heights, or merely enjoy a little spot of shade in one of the smaller green spaces, like the lovely Septuagesimo Uno, there are plenty of spaces to enjoy some cleaner air and perhaps a nibble.
There are many ways to go about putting together your picnic basket, and it can seem overwhelming. So, I wanted to help you pack the perfect meal for your outdoor enjoyment. Food, drink, and a side of history (like my UWS food tours!).
Appetizers: Fairway Market
2131 Broadway (at 74th Street)
Some people say it’s “like no other”, and those people are specifically in the marketing department for Fairway, which is now a local mini-empire despite recent setbacks by their too-quick expansions. With 13 locations expanding well beyond the 5 boroughs, a lot of New Yorkers now make Fairway their choice for the bulk of their grocery needs.
But, the Upper West Side was the first to enjoy what began as a fruit and vegetable stand in 1933. The original Upper West Side Fairway was opened in 1954 by the Glickberg family. Howie Glickberg began to expand the operations when he took over in the 70s, and today the brand is known for everything from their coffee to their olive oil.
And while I find it hard to leave the store without stocking up on my favorite olive bar items (which make for a great picnic nibbles), what I truly recommend is checking out the cheese section where there’s always a bounty of quality fromage for any budget. Pair your cheese with a fresh baguette that can often be found in the baskets as you head to checkout and you’ve got your starters taken care of with little to no fuss.
Palate Cleanser or Side Salads: Citarella
2135 Broadway (at 75th Street)
Another mini-empire, much like that of Fairway, the original location of this beloved 8-store seafood destination had meager roots in a small space just down the block from Fairway, with nearly a century’s worth of deep roots. In 1912, the original shop opened, and today, under the guidance of Joe Gurrera, it’s known as the premium market for anything that your kitchen desires.
Of course, what makes this market unique is that Joe has taken his passion for all things from the ocean and amplified it for the benefit of his customers. That means there is not one single thing that this market is known for. OK—as a kid what I knew Citarella for was the funny window displays that would change on a regular basis, thanks to the non-traditional artwork of Fernando Lara. But, when it comes to edible fish, Joe makes sure that his customers get only the best and freshest fish available every day.
So, my recommendation for you is to see whatever speaks to you and feel free to ask the counter-servers for their thoughts. This is a great place for side salads—like a caprese tower, or something a little special like the shrimp and asparagus salad that I picked up one day I was there. But, if you’re feeling extra fancy you can always pick up some raw shellfish to serve on the half-shell (just be sure you ask them to help you open the bi-valves unless you generally carry an oyster knife with you). You may want to see if you they can spare some of their crushed ice for your cooler as well.
2245 Broadway (at 80th Street)
Unlike the other two markets listed already, Zabar’s has only one home. The appetizing counter that opened in the Daitch Market in 1934 has now grown to a two-story shop with an adjacent café to take up nearly half the block along Broadway from 80th to 81st Streets. Still under the guidance of the Zabar family, this market has moved well beyond smoked fish and is often the favorite for homesick New Yorkers (especially those from the UWS) when it comes to stocking up on goods to take a little taste of New York with you.
Now, if you really want to be lazy about the whole picnic affair, you can easily order one of their many gift baskets (they even have one that’s called The Central Park Basket) and call it a day. But, if you’ve already started planning your taste of the Upper West Side markets, as I’ve laid it out for you, then I highly suggest you make Zabar’s your stop for bagels, cream cheese and smoked fish. And while you’re ordering enough fish for your party—check out whatever they’re sampling at the counter. When I was there I got to enjoy a smoked oyster from Maine that was divine.
Note on the bagels: a lot of people will feel tempted to stop into the café and pick up bagels there. This is a mistake. The bagels are fresher from inside the store and if you’re making your own picnic platter with smoked fish anyway, then you might as well do the bagel cutting yourself. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Italian Sandwiches and Salads: Milano Market
2892 Broadway (between 112th & 113th Streets)
While this market has been around about as long as I have, I didn’t know about it until my move uptown, and I feel as though I was robbed of this great little Italian gem until that point! OK, I had Giacamo’s growing up, but that really is tiny by comparison, with a much smaller selection. This is a place to come and get all your meat lovers taken care of as they’re the kings of sandwich-making in this neighborhood. Hoagies for days!
And if your crowd is good with the fishy goodies that you’ve already acquired from Citarella and Zabar’s, then you can pick up a selection of some flavorful Italian side salads. Because it’s not like you want to construct a whole salad for your picnic—but you should get some greens—or just more meat and cheese (I’m looking at you antipasto). Whatever you desire, I’m sure the guys behind these counters will be happy to accommodate you! I really like the antipasto and the tortellini pesto.
Alcohol: Acker Merrall & Condit
160 W 72nd St (between Amsterdam & Columbus)
If you want the perfect picnic, then you must have the perfect drinks! Look no further than this ancient-in-history-but-not-in-feel liquor store.
Acker Merrall is not just the oldest liquor shop on the UWS or even the city, but in the country. That’s right! What started as a package store in 1820, is now an old neighborhood favorite for every kind of wine appreciator; from the occasional casual sipper to the certified connoisseur.
Whether you want something simple, like a Ramona Grapefruit Wine Spritz in a can for you to dress in a koozie as technically public consumption of alcohol is still illegal in these parts, or perhaps a fine Cloudy Bay Sauv Blanc to pair with your Citarella salad, or some prosecco to go with the salmon, the staff here is happy to help and often to serve as they have frequent tastings available at the small counter in the back (I happened to sample a lovely Irish Whiskey from a small woman-owned distillery called 2 Gingers). Give them your budget, preferences and pairings and they’ll happily steer you in the right direction.
Side note: If you prefer beer over wine or liquor, then you can stop into the Beer Shop NYC on Amsterdam to pick up a growler of a brew that suits you.
Sweets: Mondel Chocolates
2913 Broadway (at 114th Street)
What picnic is complete without something sweet?! There are many options for those who like a little sugar at the end of their meal, but if you’re a chocolate lover like me, then you should really treat yourself to a stop inside of the oldest chocolate shop in the hood. Mondel has been open since 1943, and has served everyone imaginable, including the late, great Katherine Hepburn!
It’s a narrow shop with the candy hiding itself until you enter through their doors. They have standard confections and some great homemade treats that you can’t find anywhere else. If you’re unsure what to pick up you can consult the woman behind the counter, or you can just go for Hepburn’s standing order: “pecan turtles, molasses chips, butter crunch, dark orange peel, champagne truffles and dark almond bark.” I, personally, like the chocolate covered ginger as the perfect finale to the perfect picnic!
I would suggest you find your spot somewhere other than those closest to Strawberry Fields—whether that means tracking down some water-side green in Riverside Park, mounting a slope in Morgningside, or finding some shade under a weeping willow in upper Central Park. Make sure you bring a blanket, utensils, and a thermos to camouflage any adult beverages you may be enjoying.
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