Do you enjoy a nice outdoor luncheon at the bottom of Death Valley? Do you live for the occasional alfresco nosh in the heart of the Kalahari? Do you and your significant other crave a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and each other on the equator of the planet Mercury in July?
If so, then the Phoenix area would seem to you a paradisiacal setting for outdoor dining. But for the rest of us, the Valley of the Sun is, you should pardon me, no picnic.
Still, "cooler" weather is on the way. Before long--say, maybe around Christmastime--this purgatorio will give way to tourist-friendly temperatures, and a picnic lunch will be feasible again.
So, what makes for a great picnic spot? The ability to support human life would be a plus. If less than half of the party falls victim to heat prostration, if mass consumption of salt tablets is optional rather than required, if hardly anyone is showing signs of early-stage melanoma after the first hour, the day will be more fun for everyone. So, shade is a prerequisite for your picnic spot. This can be tough enough in the Valley.
Next, look for a site with a manageable number of hostile life forms. Woodpiles and cool, damp crevices are inviting, I know, but they sometimes harbor rattlesnakes and Gila monsters. Coyotes and javelinas are relatively inoffensive, and mountain lions rarely show themselves. But if you are lunching in the vicinity of any HAZMAT-heavy industry or utility--say, the Sumitomo Sitix plant in north Phoenix or the Palo Verde nuclear power plant--remember that chemical or radiation leaks can result in giant mutant insects, and nothing spoils a picnic faster.
Finally, comfort and beauty are important. As convenient and numerous as they are, industrial parks, vacant lots and the undersides of highway overpasses sort of miss the point. A good rule of thumb: Don't pick a spot that the Mob might consider for disposing of a body.
Here is a personally approved list of outdoor eating sites around the Valley. They've been selected for different tastes and levels of stamina and time commitment, on the basis of just three criteria: Each is public, out of doors and allows you to bring your own food, although in some places goodies are available for sale, as well. So, start packing your basket; baseballs, bats and watermelons are optional.
The Flatiron--Hearty hikers looking for the extreme end of remoteness and natural beauty should try this formation in the Superstition Mountains, reachable through the Lost Dutchman State Park north of Apache Junction. Bring fried chicken, creme brulee, whatever, as guilty feelings over even the most decadent foods are absolved by the hike in--you'll have to carry your lunch in a backpack on a several-mile trudge up a crazy-quilt creekbed that is, for part of its length, nearly vertical, in order to reach this natural amphitheater shaped like a clothes-iron. There are no picnic amenities, but a great view: From one direction, you can see the entire Valley; turn around and you can see the Superstition wilderness, Four Peaks and the Salt River Canyon.
South Mountain--For the slightly less robust, the elevation just south of town may be accessed by car or bike. The twisting road--it's the very one along which Wile E. Coyote chased the Roadrunner--offers several picnic areas with ramadas and barbecues. The summit commands a superb view of downtown Phoenix, if a rather sobering one: The grayish blanket of smog which most of us spend our days breathing is spectacularly in evidence. It can take its toll on a picnicker's appetite. Drive straight down Central Avenue until you reach the entrance.
Papago Buttes--The "Hole in the Rock" tops this beautiful, reddish hill. At its foot, on the west, is a pleasant picnic area. It's good for post-zoo chowing with the family. From McDowell Road, turn south on Galvin Parkway to the zoo turnoff; before you get to the zoo, take a left and follow the road to Hole in the Rock.
The Heard Museum (22 East Monte Vista)--For the more urban-minded picnicker, the Heard's backyard provides a cheery spot. Though you can pack along your own food, the area is serviced, weekdays, by a vendor who serves a first-rate bag lunch--a generous sandwich, a piece of fruit and a beverage.
Patriots Square Park (First Street and Jefferson)--This public square is haunted by homeless people, for whom, in a way, every day is a picnic.
But if you can resist guilt over your bounty--or, better yet, bring extra to share--it's a good lunch spot. Between noon and 1, Monday through Friday from October through April, live music is performed free of charge. For four weeks starting October 9, the Thursday musical offering will be Brit-themed--bagpipers and the Orpheus Welsh Male Choir--in connection with the UK/AZ festival. Nothing like a little bagpipe music for the postlunch siesta.
Mesa Amphitheatre (Center and University)--The Amphitheatre's "Concerts Under the Stars" series, which runs Thursday evenings at 7:30 beginning October 16, is free, and picnicking is encouraged. It's the dinner alternative to Patriots Square Park lunch music.
Rovey Park (just north of Bethany Home on 47th Avenue)--Tucked into an utterly nondescript residential area of southeastern Glendale, this postage stamp of shadeless grass with two picnic tables, two park benches and a couple of recently planted trees gets my vote for the weirdest public recreation facility in the Valley. Though it's a tract of lawn just barely big enough to contain a single-family suburban home, and though the view it commands in all directions is of just such homes, except for the side wall of a Circle K, there's still a large, official-looking City of Glendale sign at the entrance which dutifully forbids swimming, wading, boating, rafting, archery, model airplane and rocketry use, firearms and slingshots. Permits, it says, are required for beer or firearms. Horseback riding's prohibited, too, except in designated areas, and there are no designated areas. Okay, so I don't really recommend Rovey Park, but it's weird enough to deserve mention. How proud Mr. or Ms. Rovey must be.
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North Mountain Park--My own personal favorite picnic site in the Valley is the ramada farthest north from the Seventh Street entrance to this park, at the foot of the hiking trail. The scenery is splendid, but the real attraction is the company: Scores of impossibly cute Harris Antelope Squirrels have become acclimated enough to humans that they will accept food proffered by hand, and more or less demand it when it isn't proffered.
Their favorites, in my experience, are Chee-tos (crunchy variety), but I have seen them enthusiastically accept peanuts and popcorn as well. Other marvelous desert fauna shows itself at times; I've seen roadrunners and even a chuckwalla. But these grayish-brown, chipmunk-striped rodents are the most engaging--they squabble and tussle like vaudevillians, and their habit of flattening their bellies against any shady spot is beguiling.
Wherever you choose to eat outside, remember that no busperson is getting paid to clean up the wreckage of your meal. The picnicker's code is to leave the spot like you found it. By the way, if there are any appalled biologists out there who did their graduate thesis on the long-term toxic effects of Chee-tos on Harris Antelope Squirrels--well, break it to me gently.
Regular Cafe reviewer Howard Seftel is dieting this week.