Between its mandarin duck celebrities and relatively trash-less fields, Central Park is the closest thing Manhattan has to a vast, natural expanse. If you’re on your way there, we’re guessing it’s to enjoy the open space or simply to observe Swan Boat drama unfold between tourists. But let’s get one thing straight: you are not going to Central Park to purchase amazing food - even if you love hot dogs as much as we do.
So whenever you’re planning your next picnic or birthday party, stop by one of these park-adjacent restaurants to pick up something great to eat and drink.
IF YOU'RE COMING FROM THE EAST SIDE
Eating pastrami on rye from Pastrami Queen in Central Park is as quintessentially New York as hailing a cab on 5th Avenue or believing you’re more interesting than people from the Midwest. This Jewish deli in the East 70s has been open since 1956, and it’s where you should go to get excellent (but not overwhelmingly giant) sandwiches with snappy dill pickles on the side. Also, if you don’t want pastrami, the deli turkey here is extra cold, thinly-sliced, and delicious.
After being closed down for a while in 2020, this quiet Morrocan restaurant on Lexington Avenue is back open serving food you’ll be able to share with a date by the northeast end of the park. They make creamy roasted eggplant salad, as well as tender chicken kebab that comes with rice and a lemony side salad, and whole wheat pita that radiates so much heat it would embarrass your apartment radiator.
Suppose you have your heart set on finding some excellent beer to drink in Sheep Meadow (not Wh#te Cl#w), East Harlem Bottling Co sells to-go beer in 16-ounce, 32-ounce, and 64-ounce varieties. We’d suggest supplementing your growlers of German-style radlers and blood orange American IPAs with bar snacks, sandwiches, and soft pretzels. You can place an order ahead of time through their website, and pick it up from 11:30am-10pm every day.
This Italian restaurant serves spritzes and seasonal specials like crab soup and asparagus, as well as their typical menu of sandwiches, gelato, and espresso. Get a panini to go with prosciutto or shrimp. They come wrapped tightly in tin foil, so they’ll stay warm and toasty until you find your perfect plot of grass.
IF YOU'RE COMING FROM THE NORTH SIDE
All of Teranga’s customizable market bowls make for ideal takeout options if you don’t want to share a spread with someone else. But if you’re with a group, order a bunch of their West African bowl components in bulk, like spicy roasted plantains or sweet potato and black-eyed pea stew. The whole menu, including drinks like hibiscus juice and mezcal margaritas, is available directly through their website from 12-8pm Thursday through Sunday.
As much as we enjoy dumping a bunch of Trader Joe’s snacks in the middle of a picnic blanket and telling our friends to have at it, showing up to the park with Melba’s Southern food is more exciting for all parties involved. Get some crispy fried chicken, plates of Buffalo wings, catfish strips, and candied yams. Also napkins. You’ll need those.
This Harlem spot specializes in rice bowls, which will be easy to carry considering you may need to cover a few of Central Park’s 843 acres to find a suitable place to sit. Each one, with grains ranging from jollof basmati rice to China black pineapple fried rice, is filling and costs around $15. We always like to add toppings like shrimp and scallops or BBQ brisket. Place your order on their website, or by calling 917-639-3919.
Children’s birthday parties have been user-testing the park-pizza method for decades. If you’re looking to follow suit (and don’t mind walking a couple avenues) head to Mama’s Too. This tiny slice shop on Broadway and 105th Street makes some of our favorite pizza in the city. The main attraction here is the square slice covered in thick little pieces of pepperoni, the edges of which reach toward the sky as if thanking the pizza gods for making them so delicious. It’s crunchy on the bottom and crispy around edges, with a sweet and garlicky sauce under what would seem like an excessive amount of melted mozzarella, if melted mozzarella weren’t such an objectively desirable food.
Before you successfully make it through the top half of the park without tripping on any dog leashes or accidentally running through a prenatal yoga class, collect some perfectly-fried fish tacos from Cantina Harlem. It’s a block from the park entrance on Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard, and it’s a great place pick up some nachos and margaritas.
IF YOU'RE COMING FROM THE WEST SIDE
We once got a margarita pitcher to go from Playa Betty’s on the Upper West Side and then walked with a friend around the Jackie O’ Reservoir until all the tequila was gone. We’d highly recommend the experience, despite the many runners annoyed with our presence. But if you want to expand your picnic provisions beyond margaritas, Playa Betty’s also sells platters of chips, guacamole, and tacos (and lots of kids menu dishes). Everything on their menu is available for takeout through their website from 1-9pm daily, including brunch specials from 1-3:30pm.
Hummus is as much of a picnic staple as forgetting to bring speakers, but it’s seldom the star attraction. North Miznon’s hummus, though, will exceed all picnic hummus expectations. Order it with a couple of pita sandwiches through their website between 5-9pm on weekdays and starting at 10:30am on weekends.
Zucker's Bagels & Smoked Fish
The days of bagel brunch inside are behind us. In addition to single bagels and sandwiches, Zucker’s is offering a bunch of different large format bagel packages, like a bagel brunch for six that includes various types of cream cheese and smoked fish. This Upper West Side institution a block from the park is open daily until 3pm.
The key thing to keep in mind about this Upper West Side diner is that they roast their turkeys in-house. So while the menu is huge, ranging from omelettes to meatloaf, don’t lose sight of the fantastic turkey club. Pick it up any day between 7am-11pm.
Barney Greengrass is to the Upper West Side what Russ & Daughters is to the LES. It serves legendary smoked fish, it’s been around for more than a century, and it’s either very over or underrated depending on who you ask. Decide for yourself after ordering sable or pastrami salmon on a bagel or bialy (we’re pro Barney Greengrass, obviously).
IF YOU'RE COMING FROM THE SOUTH SIDE
The taramasalata at this Greek spot with a location due south of the park should come with two little yellow strips of mouth caution tape for after you eat it (it’s delightfully fishy, and we think about it all the time). Aside from the fish dip, rely on their Greek wraps, salads, and other mezzes for a quick picnic plan that will impress a group.
Looking for a solo breakfast on a bench somewhere? Breads Bakery’s Lincoln Center location is less than a block from the park, which means your iced coffee will still be freezing cold, and your freshly made croissants and babka will still be warm by the time you find a sunny place to sit with exactly zero people nearby.
Marinara has locations on Amsterdam and Lexington Avenues, as well as in Midtown East. So whether you’re heading to the park from the south, east, or west, your choice for great pizza is the same. Their pies are available by the slice and by the pizza, and whatever else you order, we recommend getting at least one slice of the doughy Sicilian topped with oil-filled spicy pepperoni.
This Cuban restaurant on 8th Avenue starts serving food at noon every day. So if you’re coming from the Hell’s Kitchen area, stop by for a Cubano or rice and beans with a side of maduros. Also, you should make mental note to come back to Guantanamera during the evenings when they have a live band and a kind man selling hand-rolled cigars.