The Run Down

We've got a relaxing picnic planned inside a garden, that in the words of Alfred Caldwell, was "planned as a sanctuary of the native landscape, a place sequestered from Megalopolis, the jungle of profound ugliness; a cool, refreshing, clear place of trees and stones and running water . . . a hidden garden of the people of Megalopolis." We scoped out a hidden spot inside this hidden garden and have you bringing Cuban sandwiches to complete our picnic setup.

1. Picnic provisions @ Cafecito

1. Picnic spots @ Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool

1. Cafecito

For today’s picnic, we’re looking to raise the bar a bit. Put away that egg salad sandwich, back away from the Miracle Whip, and head to Cafecito, a Cuban sandwich and coffee place that’s just a few blocks from our picnic rendezvous point.

If you’ve worked in the Loop sometime in the past decade, then there’s a good chance you’ve had a cubano at this lunch spot powerhouse.

Started originally by Phil Ghantous as a way to support his acting career — you can spot him in a few episodes of Chicago Fire and Empire — this place has since branched out to a couple of locations across Chicago, including underneath this apartment building right off Clark St., one of the major commercial arteries in Lincoln Park. 

Their menu revolves around their pressed sandwiches, which have won all sorts of praise from food critics.

They’ve got over 25 different versions, with traditional styles like their cubano and chimichurri steak sandwiches, and other concoctions like their Elveez sandwich, which is basically a fancy PB&J. It’s sweet plantains, guava jam, peanut butter pressed down and smashed together.

Here’s their chimichurri steak sandwich that we brought to the picnic.

Here are a few other notes on the menu that might be helpful as you plan your picnic.

– If drinks are in the cards, they have an expansive menu of to-go cocktails. For a jolt of caffeine, their colada is four shots of Cuban espresso mixed with caramelized sugar. It’s meant to be shared between two people and taken as a shot.

– While it didn’t not work for our picnic, for future reference, we made a mental note of their extensive breakfast/brunch selection of pancakes, Cuban-inspired breakfast platters and sandwiches.

The plan is to take the food to-go, but here are a few pictures of their indoor and patio seating for reference. It’s a casual vibe with a mix of people having a more traditional lunch and others with laptops out getting a little work done.

Their covered patio stood out because it seemed like a great spot for all sorts of occasions. Have a first date? Coffee at Cafecito’s patio. Family in town looking for a casual lunch spot near the zoo? Cafecito’s patio. Friends looking to do a boozy Sunday brunch? Believe it or not, Cafecito’s patio.

2. Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool

Once you’ve got your Cuban food haul from Cafecito, you’ll walk just a few blocks straight towards the lake until you reach the entrance of the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool.

Walk through the gates and the humdrum sounds of the city begin to fade as you make your way deeper through this 3 acre natural area.

Since 1889, some version of this pond has been here. It’s gone through cycles of disarray and rebirth, but massive investments over the past few decades have brought it back to its rightful status.

Before you settle in on a picnic spot, take a lap on this stone path that circles pond.

It’s a quick walk and there are small pathways that branch out from the main trail leading to various quiet natural spaces.

These stratified rock ledges are found throughout the garden and are a distinct design element found in prairie-style landscape architecture.

They are meant to evoke images of exposed beds limestone rock that line Midwestern rivers. Once you notice them here, you’ll find similar styles all throughout the Chicago park ecosystem.  Here’s one of the many prime picnic spots in the garden. This pavilion extends out towards the pond and is meant to feel like a “like a tree, rooted in the rock ledge.”Here’s an idea for a picnic setup in the pavilion. Can it get anymore romantic than this? Oh yes it can, keep scrolling. 

Near the entrance are a collection of rock ledges that you can climb. At the top are small pools of water that cascade down. You can set up on the rocks next to the water and have what feels like your own private hidden spot inside this hidden garden.