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Legendary food writer James Beard thought that a picnic should be “a feast for the senses and the emotions as well as for the palate.”
Even if your aim in eating outdoors isn’t quite as lofty — perhaps it’s simply grabbing quick post-work baguette and cheese — a picnic is the perfect way to welcome the warmer temperatures creeping into the Washington area.
Capitol Hill is a picnicker’s dream: From hidden spots on the Capitol grounds to gourmet takeout, the ingredients for a picnic are close by. And whether you’re planning an elaborate outing or a grab-and-go meal, a little bit of preparation can make any Hill picnic a memorable one.
Getting the Goods
• Hill’s Kitchen, 713 D St. SE
For those who want to go pro in picnicking — and we’re sure Beard would approve — a visit to kitchenware store Hill’s Kitchen is in order. There, owner Leah Daniels offers a selection of goods to upgrade your next outdoor meal.
A sturdy, aluminum-framed folding bag (Reisenthel, $40) corrals all the essentials and matches your seersucker in a variety of prints and colors.
Plastic utensils from the deli will seem so pedestrian after you get your hands on the latest in to-go cutlery. There’s an ingenious washable plastic “knork,” a combination knife-fork that Daniels describes as a fork with a “slightly aggressive edge.” The 99-cent find eliminates the need for balancing two utensils, as does a bamboo spork for $2.25.
And it might seem like hyperbole to call SteadySticks ($10.95 for two) the biggest innovation in outdoor dining since the tent, but their ingeniousness makes a serious case for the title. A metal spike with a loop at the top to hold a stemmed glass will end tragic wine spills that can dampen even the merriest outdoor repast.
• Schneider’s of Capitol Hill,
300 Massachusetts Ave. NE
Drinking in public is, of course, frowned upon in certain circles (like among the guys in blue suits with badges and handcuffs). Still, an adult beverage is often the perfect accompaniment to a picnic — in fact, it might even be the only thing on the menu. Schneider’s has a large selection of already-chilled wines and beers, as well as a handy selection of bottle openers and plastic cups, for those who insist on niceties beyond a brown paper bag.
• Bowers Fancy Dairy Products,
225 Seventh St. SE
Cheese makes for the ideal picnic food, and this purveyor of all things milky inside Eastern Market has the best selection on the Hill. Always a reliable stop for imported fromages, Bowers also has an impressive selection of locally sourced goods, including from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Va. And here’s an insider secret: Bowers offers an unadverstised pâté made by the chefs at neighboring French restaurant Montmartre. Grab a baguette from a nearby stand, and dinner is served.
• P&C Market, 1023 East Capitol St. SE
Think of P&C, a hole-in-the-wall corner store with a gourmet secret, as a picnicker’s one-stop shop. Its location, directly across the street from Lincoln Park, ground zero for Hill outdoor living, helps, too.
Sure, you could grab any deli sandwiches for your en plein air feast, but P&C’s artisanal affairs — smoky prosciutto, brie and mustard, maybe, or a combo of cured beef, mascarpone cheese, harissa and onion marmalade — add instant class to your outdoor meal. Even potato chips and sodas are taken seriously. Cult-favorite snacks from Louisiana-based Zapp’s (Cajun Crawtators, anyone?) and Canadian import Covered Bridge make a perfectly portable side dish.
But for even more upscale accoutrements, there are hunks of cheese ($5 to $13 for a decent picnic-sized wedge), as well as hummus, olives and tapenade in to-go containers.
There’s a small but well-curated wine and beer selection, and the staff even keeps a corkscrew on hand for picnicking emergencies.
Because when it comes to picnicking, the last thing you want to be is unprepared.
Finding a Spot
• Capitol Grounds
The area surrounding the Capitol abounds with picnicking options, though the trick is to find a spot where your view isn’t a sea of tourists’ fanny packs. Upper Senate Park, the Rayburn Courtyard, Bartholdi Park and the area near the Summerhouse (the funny brick building set into the side of the West Lawn) are good options.
• Lincoln Park, East Capitol and 13th Streets
In President Abraham Lincoln’s time, this spot was used as a dump. Now it’s much nicer, with park benches and trees offering shady picnicking areas. Just watch where you sit: It seems that every dog on Capitol Hill takes its afternoon stroll there, too.
• Garfield Park, Third and G Streets Southeast
This square is close to House office buildings and offers space for adults to play as well as kids. There’s a bocce field as well as tennis, volleyball and basketball courts — and a few tables and grills for when you want to indulge in activities that are a little more leisurely.
• Stanton Park, Maryland and
Massachusetts Avenues Northeast
Smaller than Lincoln or Garfield parks, this Senate-side green patch still has plenty of spots to spread a blanket.