Dust off your favorite basket, pick up some gourmet goodies and enjoy lunch outdoors while soaking in the scenery at some of Laguna’s most beautiful parks and beaches.
By Molly Forster
It’s summer: The temperature is hovering in the mid-70s and the summer crowds have yet to fully arrive—it’s the perfect time for a picnic. Luckily, in Laguna Beach, there’s an array of beautiful spots to spread a blanket for an alfresco meal. From sandy coves to hills with stunning views in every direction, you’re sure to find a destination that suits your liking. And with all of the delicious grab-and-go food in Laguna, the perfect picnic doesn’t have to require too much planning. Here, restaurateurs and outdoor experts share their tips for creating a gorgeous, gourmet picnic for any occasion. So pick up some sandwiches, charcuterie, gourmet pizza or other tempting fare, as well as some wine and head out to one of Laguna’s amazing spots to enjoy a slow, leisurely lunch in the sun.
No picnic is complete without a fresh-baked sourdough baguette that crackles just right as you break off a piece. For a gorgeous, Parisian-style picnic, Laurent Vrignaud, owner of Moulin, recommends a fresh sandwich as the cafe has something for everyone: meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. From ham and fromage, to chicken pesto and a delicious roasted veggie—you really can’t go wrong. Or, take the nontraditional route and choose a pastry for lunch, Vrignaud suggests. “A chocolate croissant can make a beautiful light lunch; they aren’t just for breakfast,” he says.
Another great spot for sandwiches is Zinc Cafe & Market, which features options like a toasted caprese, egg salad, grilled cheese or the Zinc Reubenesque, made with sauerkraut, roasted beets, Gruyere cheese and special Zinc Sauce. Plus, each sandwich comes with a light salad, so you won’t be missing your greens. Don’t forget to grab a fresh-squeezed juice and a selection of cookies on the way out.
And if you’re in the mood for something super refreshing and healthy, stop by The Stand Natural Foods for an avocado sandwich that doesn’t skimp on the namesake ingredient, along with a large, fruit salad and a fresh lemonade or an ice-cold watermelon juice.
Something to Sip On
Some would argue that a nice glass of wine should be the focal point of a California picnic, and McClain Cellars co-owner Jason McClain is clearly of that camp. At this cellar, you’re not limited to the typically small selection of chilled wines because “we keep all of our wines at-temperature,” McClain says, adding that the tasting room even sells wine growlers to keep your wine cold for up to 24 hours.
McClain’s go-to picnic wine is the label’s very own 2017 Laguna Sunrise from Santa Ynez Valley, which is a muscat wine with a touch of sweetness. “It’s more of a summer or springtime wine, because it’s great when the weather’s warm,” McClain says. He also recommends the 2017 Cloud Nine chardonnay for those seeking a drier wine and the 2017 White Sails riesling, which is “crisp and amazing” when chilled to 42 degrees.
But if white wine isn’t calling your name, head to Laguna Canyon Winery and pick up a bottle of the brand’s 2015 Los Carneros sangiovese (Chianti style) made in Laguna with grapes from Sonoma. “It would go with so many different picnic foods. … It’s got a little bit of maraschino [and] a little bit of rhubarb [flavor]. It’s light- to medium-bodied, so I think that’s what would pair really well for a picnic,” says co-owner Marlowe Huber.
The Whole Spread
If you’re looking to fill your picnic blanket with a collage of food to share, family style, and you’re headed to Treasure Island Park for your picnic, a convenient choice for all of your snacks is The Loft at Montage Laguna Beach resort. The Loft’s bar menu includes excellent options for assembling a picnic. Manager Matthew de Quillien suggests “a nicely chilled bottle of Cotes de Provence rose accompanied by a selection of cheese and cured meats.” Here, you can create your own cheese platter from the rotating artisanal cheeses, selecting either three, five or eight options, accompanied by mouthwatering jams, crackers and salty marcona almonds.
And if you’re on your way to Bluebird Park with the family, make sure to stop by Sapphire Laguna, where chef Azmin Ghahreman recommends dishes that are easy to eat and share, like the lunch menu’s Thai chicken lettuce wraps, which mix green mango-papaya salad, sweet chile, lime and peanut sauce, or the delicious goat cheese or salmon dip from the intermezzo menu. “A variety of small plates and options allow for a fun meal,” Ghahreman adds. Next door to the restaurant, Sapphire Pantry is also stocked with lots of to-go victuals from sandwiches like prosciutto and cheese to a BLT or caprese, as well as salads ranging from Southwest to Asian, Greek and Cobb. Meanwhile, the spicy buttermilk fried chicken sandwich with apple-honey coleslaw offers a unique and easier-to-eat twist on a picnic staple, fried chicken. For a large picnic gathering, such as a family reunion, platters may be ordered 48 hours in advance; choose from dips like toasted cumin hummus or spinach artichoke, kebabs, turkey chili empanadas or an assortment of tea sandwiches such as curry chicken, roasted New York-strip steak with tomato and caramelized onion mayonnaise, smoked turkey with arugula pesto, or salmon with lemon-caper creme.
For an Italian meal, zpizza has something for everyone with its gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan pizza options. And the antipasto pizza salad is perfect for placing in the center of a red-checkered picnic blanket. It starts with a crispy cauliflower crust and is topped with a chilled salad of romaine, pepperoncini, ham, salami, heirloom tomatoes, red onion, olives and basil. Throw in some crowd-pleasing cheesy garlic bread and chicken wings, and you’re ready to go.
For a breakfast picnic at the beach, Zpizza’s south Laguna location also boasts a delectable breakfast menu with avocado and smoked salmon toasts; bowls with roasted veggies, organic, local eggs and natural bacon without nitrates; and creamy overnight oats, made with almond milk and served cold, topped with chia seeds, a raspberry drizzle and fresh berries. Environmentally friendly to-go packaging makes it easy to take across the street to the beach.
Once a picnic basket is packed and ready to go, choosing where to take it is another dilemma. Laguna boasts more than 30 beaches and coves along the city’s 7 miles of coastline, plus parks with stunning panoramas. “The ideal venue exists based on who’s along for the ride,” says Ashley Johnson, president and CEO of Visit Laguna Beach. Her favorites include Heisler Park, Top of the World and Treasure Island Park.
North of Main Beach, Heisler Park is about a half-mile stretch of seaside bluffs offering picnic tables, benches, barbecues and staircases leading to the beach scattered throughout. Enjoy local art as you walk along the paved pathway to find the perfect table or grassy knoll on which to lay your blanket. After lunch, you can head down to the beach to get your feet wet and check out the tide pools.
For a picnic spot with a higher vantage point and sweeping views, drive up to Alta Laguna Park. Known to locals as Top of the World, Alta Laguna—sitting a few blocks away from the top of Park Avenue—has vistas that will take your breath away. It’s perfect for a clear, sunny day when you can see all the way to Santa Catalina Island as well as surrounding hills. Work up an appetite on one of the many nearby hiking trails—access to Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park is just steps away—or find a nice shady table near the playground to sit back and enjoy. There’s free parking all-year-round at this gem of a park and dogs on leash are allowed, too.
And, in south Laguna, Treasure Island Park rests in front of Montage Laguna Beach surrounded by gorgeous succulents and ocean views. This park is Johnson’s go-to for a romantic outing. “I’ll typically bring a fun Turkish towel and sit right on the grassy areas in the park to enjoy a picnic and then take a romantic stroll down to the beach to enjoy the sunset,” she says.
When bringing the whole family, Bluebird Park is the place to go. The kids will love it, as it is home to a two-story rocket ship play structure, a small toddler play area and “a larger-than-life mosaic turtle that [they] can interact with,” Johnson says. And the adults can sit back on one of the tree-shaded picnic tables. This is another spot with free parking, but leave your dog at home for this one, as canines aren’t allowed here.
And, lastly, Johnson shares a hidden gem with a view: Crescent Bay Point Park. “There’s a large grassy knoll that’s perfect to enjoy some goodies, while taking in an incredible Southern California sunset,” she says. One of the best parts is that this spot isn’t typically packed with tourists like other beaches may be. And, located on a high bluff, this park offers a panoramic view of the ocean to enjoy with your meal.