On a recent Friday evening in Oak Cliff, people gathered on the Turner House lawn for a screening of Casablanca. As the sun tucked itself behind the trees, blankets were spread, wine bottles popped, picnic baskets inventoried. Charcuterie boards rose up like tiny meat mountains and when the breeze shifted, you could almost catch a faint whiff of French brie. One man, a role model for us all, unpacked an impressive antique coffee service for his companion, proving that humans will go to incredible lengths to dine al fresco — or maybe to impress a date. The movie may have been the main attraction that night, but picnic fare became the real star of the show.
The picnic has once again become a beloved American event, whether in the form of snacks in a public park or an elaborate, expensive farm-to-table dinner under the stars. The history of the picnic depicts it as a luxury originally afforded to only the most affluent of society's elite. "Medieval hunting feasts, Renaissance-era country banquets and Victorian garden parties lay the foundation for today's leisurely repast," writes Lynne Olver, a food history librarian who runs foodtimeline.org. "Picnics, as we Americans know them today, date to the middle of the 19th century. Although the 'grand picnic' is generally considered a European concept, culinary evidence confirms people from other parts of the world engage in similar practices."
Dining together outside appears to be a universal indulgence. And lucky for us, we live in North Texas, where the weather is picnic-friendly for much of the year — but particularly right now, when the world is verdant and breezy as the seasons turn.
With the goal to create a sense of place in our picnic fare, we set out to build the ultimate Dallas picnic basket — a spread featuring goods from locally owned businesses that specialize in food that's meant to be shared. These markets, restaurants and bakeries sell delicious bites that call for a little pomp and circumstance, for savoring in a moment shared with loved ones. When it comes to food, there can be no higher calling than that.
1. CiboDivino Marketplace
1868 Sylvan Ave.
Sylvan Thirty's CiboDivino is where Napa meets Sicily. The one-year-old market is its own breezy food oasis where you can snag Italian pastries, gourmet condiments, pre-made veggie side dishes and Neapolitan-style pizza. There's even an entire charcuterie section perfect for stocking your picnic basket. To sweeten the deal, CiboDivino has a fantastic selection of wines organized by region and varietal — and you can easily find an above average bottle of Rose or Sauv Blanc for $12-$20.
Perfect for a picnic: An order of caponata ($14.99/lb.), a Sicilian eggplant dish made with celery, herbs and capers.
2. Corner Market
3426 Greenville Ave.
Situated in a sunny space inside the 100-year-old Belmont Pharmacy building, Corner Market is an old-school neighborhood market that grows some of its ingredients in a garden on the roof — what owners call the "Corner Market ecosystem." They also own a neighborhood chicken coop that supplies Corner Market's eggs, making this some seriously feel-good fare.
Known for their sandwiches, Corner Market's deli menu includes shrimp rolls, chicken salad and pimento cheese sandwiches, but when it comes to picnic snacks, we fell in love with their case of prepared items: citrus and mint salad, house-made hummus and healthy takes on classic salads. As an added bonus, this spot also sells adorable flower arrangements, which can easily turn an afternoon picnic into a Nicholas Sparks-level romantic rendezvous.
Perfect for a picnic: The key to a great picnic spread is balancing flavors and textures, so you'll want something sweet and crisp that doesn't reach dessert levels of sugar — which is where fruit salads come in. Corner Market's Texas Waldorf salad ($8.99/lb.) is a fun take on a classic salad with crisp apples, Texas pecans and juicy grapes tossed in a creamy poppy seed dressing.
3. Empire Baking
5450 West Lovers Lane
It's almost impossible to eat out in Dallas without finding a piece of Empire Baking Company's goods on your plate. Why? Because this European-style bakery is, simply put, the best. And since Empire uses "no fillers, conditioners, dough enhancers, preservatives, artificial flavors or colors," according to their website, this is one carb you can feel good about. Empire is also adamant about using King Arthur flour and Plugra butter, which has a bit more butterfat than other American butters.
Perfect for a picnic: Keep it classic with a baguette, which you can find at Empire's Inwood Village retail store or at markets like Scardello's, where we picked up a beautifully fresh loaf for $2.95.
3403 Oak Lawn Ave.; 5600 W. Lovers Lane; 1200 W. State Highway 114, Grapevine; 5967 W. Parker Road, Plano
This Italian market and gourmet take-out spot has several DFW locations, but we recommend hitting the flagship store on Oak Lawn. Inside, you'll find a veritable food wonderland: cured meats, cheeses, fresh-baked bread, stuffed olives and build-your-own salads and sandwiches. In theory, this could be your one-stop picnic shop, since there are full "chef-crafted meals," a decent wine selection and house-made desserts. If you're out West, take note: A Fort Worth Eatzi's is in the works for early 2017.
Perfect for a picnic: No omnivore's picnic spread is complete without cured meats, which Eatzi's does well. Their selection is ripe for exploration: salami, salumi, soppressata, hot coppa — it's a charcuterie-lovers' paradise.
5. Scardello Artisan Cheese
3511 Oak Lawn Ave. and 920 S. Harwood St.
This cut-to-order cheese shop sells more handcrafted cheese than you can throw a baguette at, and the cheesemongers are over-the-top helpful. If you're cheese-illiterate, Scardello can feel overwhelming — but this is one place where it's hard to go wrong putting your fate in an employee's hands. Whether you're looking for something hard and nutty or soft and funky, staff will let you taste a few applicable cheeses before you buy. To go on a cheese adventure, order the Ploughman's Plate and let the staff go nuts — after asking about your personal preferences, he or she will select three cheeses that will come on a board with Empire bread and a dash of honey. It's not the cheapest lunch in Dallas, but you're guaranteed to learn something — and feel very Parisian in the process.
Perfect for a picnic: Hard cheeses may be a bit easier to manage on-the-go, but nothing beats a beautifully creamy brie — especially since it's meant to be enjoyed at room temperature. The Brie Fermier ($7.50 for 1/4 lb.) is a creamy French cheese that's mild enough for newbies but still has a noticeable funk. Spread on Empire's baguette, it becomes the ultimate picnic indulgence.
6. Dude, Sweet Chocolate
408 W. 8th St.; 1925 Greenville Ave.; 1016 E. 15th St., Plano; 2925 Crockett St., Fort Worth
Beloved Dallas chocolatier Dude, Sweet Chocolate started over beers at Lee Harvey's, where chef Katherine Clapner and Redding May decided to create artisan chocolates to send as holiday gifts for May's clients at Merrill Lynch. Eight years later, the Dude, Sweet empire has four stores (Bishop Arts, Lower Greenville, Plano and Fort Worth) and a reputation for thinking well outside the chocolate box.
These chocolate shops are filled with gourmet finger foods like yerba matte truffles, candied chocolate-covered nuts, handmade marshmallows and extra virgin olive oil infused with cocoa nibs, cinnamon and vanilla.
Perfect for a picnic: Dude, Sweet has created what may very well be the world's greatest picnic food: a chocolate "salami" that, despite its name and appearance, is 100 percent vegetarian. Whole Medjool dates and dried figs are combined with roasted walnuts, California marzipan, Indian dried lemon and South American dark chocolate to create a rich but not-too-sweet faux salami that deserves a permanent place on any Dallas charcuterie board.
7. Jimmy's Food Store
4901 Bryan St.
This 50-year-old Dallas institution started as a ma and pa grocery and morphed over the years into an Italian specialty shop that makes some of North Texas' most beloved sandwiches. This true-blue family business is a feast for the senses. Muscled Italian guys take orders at the meat counter, yelling out pick-ups as workers scurry in the background slicing meats and cheeses and bread. Even if you don't sip a glass of wine while you shop (which you can do here), the smell alone will leave you feeling intoxicated. This, too, could be a one-stop picnic shop — just load up on hearty sandwiches, wine, charcuterie goods and even locally produced cookies from Wackym's Kitchen.
Perfect for a picnic: Not every picnic has to have a complicated spread — and nothing says simple like a sandwich. Try a 12-inch Italian Stallion ($8.99) sliced into one-inch bites to facilitate sharing. The ingredient list for this hallowed Dallas sandwich reads like an Italian grandma's grocery list: mortadella, capicola, sopressata, pepperoni, provolone, porketta, mozzarella and prosciutto. A little bit of this sandwich goes a long way — and it's hearty enough to stay in tact until you reach your picnic blanket.
8. Unrefined Bakery
3426 Greenville Ave.; 6055 Sherry Lane; 718 N. Buckner Blvd.; 3411 Preston Road, Frisco
If one of your picnic-mates suffers from food allergies, Unrefined Bakery is a must. This gluten-free, soy-free, organic bakery uses unrefined sugars and flours and can easily accommodate custom orders. Whether your goodies need to be nut-free, soy-free, grain-free or dairy-free, Unrefined can make it happen — and their cookies, cupcakes and freezer case filled with muffins and pizza dough all taste delicious even without offending ingredients. As an added bonus, the Greenville Avenue location is conveniently adjacent to Corner Market.
Perfect for a picnic: A gluten-free, soy-free take on almond biscotti. At $18 a bag, it isn't cheap, but for biscotti lovers who are gluten-intolerant, these crunchy treats are worth it.
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Dallas Farmers Market
920 S. Harwood
Another spot where it's easy to stock up on local picnic-friendly goods: The Market at Dallas Farmers Market, where you'll find vendors like Scardello, Rex's Seafood, Chelles Macarons and Stocks and Bondy, which specializes in soups, sauces and stocks made from natural, sustainable ingredients. For locally sourced crudites, pop out to The Shed to pick up fresh veggies from local farmers.