Picnics, frankly, are often no picnic at all. Never mind the ants. It's the cooking and packing and toting everything back home for cleanup that we can't stand.
This is why God made restaurants. And Chicago has plenty that will put together the perfect picnic for you--although you may have to BYOB (Bring Your Own Basket). Here are three of our favorites from the fast-food, ethnic and gourmet categories--perfect for evenings at Grant Park or Ravinia.
BJ's Market & Bakery: The makings of a soulful dejeuner sur l'herbe are always available at this South Side fast-food emporium, but the arrival of summer means prime time for fried green tomatoes. Even when the weather is hot, you should tuck these spicy cornmeal-crusted beauties into your picnic basket; by the time you arrive at your pastoral destination, they'll be cool and rested and ready to eat (try them dipped in the honey mustard sauce). Otherwise, our idea of the ultimate BJ's picnic includes a large order of the super-tender rib tips and the half smoked rotisserie chicken; they're easier to wrangle than the famously delicious smothered turkey leg. But whatever entree you select, do not pass up the cornbread muffins, potato salad and coleslaw (each entree comes with two large sides). The peach cobbler and banana pudding are worth the mess they might make in your picnic basket. ($26 for two)
1492 Tapas Bar: Why didn't we think of this sooner? Cold Spanish tapas make the perfect food for grazing in the grass. You don't have to worry about it getting cold (and it's often better at room temperature) and it's fancy yet super-simple. At this Gold Coast spot, we found an ideal assortment: an order of jamon Serrano (Spanish cured ham), tortillas de patatas (potato omelet), pimientos (roasted red peppers), platos de queso (a Spanish cheese assortment) and aceitunas (marinated olives). The big wedges of mellow potato-and-egg omelet are a perfect foil for the chewy, pungent cured ham, and with some bread, it's more than enough for two people, especially if you add a green salad. Remember, the idea here is nibbling; if you're a big eater, just add the rollos de pollo rellenos (chicken roll stuffed with goat cheese, red pepper and spinach). ($31 for two; $45 with the salad and chicken roll)
Fox & Obel: Give this gourmet grocery 48 hours notice and, like magic, you can have any of a range of picnics (including French country, Tuscan and Asian), each for one person. We tried the All American, and it was just right: three lovely rare slices of herb-crusted roast beef (plus small tubs of horseradish cream and onion marmalade); a salad of dressed mozzarella balls with grape tomatoes and basil chiffonade; a nice, scalliony red-skin potato salad; simple fresh fruit salad; and a great, big, chewy chocolate chip cookie. It's not cheap (prices range from $13.97-$17.99), but it's not like every day is a picnic. The menu is available at www.fox-obel.com under "Catering." ($36 for two)
Emily Nunn is a Tribune Staff Reporter
SPECIAL SECTION: DINING GUIDE
COOL, COOL SUMMER: REFRESHING IDEAS FOR SAVORING THE SEASON