I’ve eaten at some pretty unique dining establishments: a mountain hut reachable only via skis or snowshoes in Colorado, a platform suspended by a crane 150 feet above the Las Vegas Strip, even inside a cave in the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan.
In all these instances—however isolated or remote—I shared the experience with others. But when I pulled into a tiny gravel lot near a swath of woods in Roswell, Georgia last fall, it was to savor a new kind of dining experience. One where I wouldn’t see or encounter another person.
A few weeks earlier, I’d sat poised at my laptop, waiting for the clock to strike noon. At precisely 12pm, I sent a message requesting to dine at Ett, a one-of-a-kind “restaurant” located in a woodsy Atlanta suburb and operated by Chef Jessamine Starr. Only six reservations are available each month, all only for one person, so I knew my chances were slim. Hopefuls request the coveted seats by emailing or texting Starr within a five-hour window on one day each month. Ett was still relatively unknown at that time, when Starr typically received a few dozen requests. Now, hundreds come through.
What’s so special about Ett? For starters, it’s outside. Not like “sit on a deck” outside, but outside, as in, your table is situated on the bank of a babbling brook and you are cocooned in nature, alone on Starr’s family-owned land, where she sets the scene before your arrival and stays unseen. Most importantly, Ett seats just one guest each service, typically on a Sunday. Not one table—one person, and Starr is very strict about this rule. When I told friends that I scored a spot to eat by myself in the woods, most didn’t get it. They did not understand why anyone would want to eat alone, never mind drive five hours each way from home in Greensboro, North Carolina, to do it.
Unbeknownst to my friends and family, I was plotting my biggest adventure yet—living and writing full-time in my minivan. The trip to Ett would be my test run. For weeks, I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning watching van life videos on YouTube, reading product reviews and ordering gear for my new outdoor-oriented lifestyle. Seeing the reactions to my post about Ett, I was surprised at how fearful and unadventurous initial reactions were. You’re going alone? Sounds dangerous. Take pepper spray. Seeing these notes, I didn’t dare share details about my van life plan—I simply didn’t need any negative energy clouding my judgment. Even though I’d only camped once in my entire life, I was confident and excited about my new life and silently refused to let anyone dash my (well-researched) dreams.
In addition to nabbing a reservation, guests are required to do a little work to get to Ett. You don’t just drive up—you hike in. I texted Starr to signal my arrival and found the Ett “entrance,” a small foot path leading into thick trees. Inconspicuous arrows on towering pines invited me further in, a little secret between me and the forest.
I took my time, purposefully engaging all my senses. At first, I could hear the buzz of traffic from a nearby road, but as I walked deeper into the woods, it faded away, replaced by the sounds of birds chirping, leaves rustling and woodland creatures scurrying about their daily business. As I walked along the narrow path, I thanked Mother Nature for this time and the bounty she continually offers. I prayed and asked my spirit guides for assistance and protection during my upcoming travels. I lingered to run my fingers along the gnarly bark of a wise old oak, willing myself to remember this feeling.
Halfway through the third-of-a-mile walk in, I discovered a “walking snack”—a handful of perfectly ripe muscadine grapes and a mason jar of homemade fig soda—set thoughtfully atop a tree stump by Starr. I popped a squat on a log and savored the snacks slowly, reveling in the crisp, tart flavors.
After walking on a bit farther, I heard the sounds of flowing water and glimpsed my destination: a fairy-tale table for one beside a little creek. Under whimsical glass cloches was a colorful three-course meal made up of the mostly vegan and seasonal local produce Starr’s dishes are known for. It was perfect.
I ate slowly and intentionally, inhaling the table’s bouquet of hand-picked wildflowers from time to time, letting the wine roll across my tongue, and inputting every delicious bite into my “taste memory” so I could relive the experience later.
There are no prices at Ett—the website reads, “Payment is whatever you want to pay, can afford, or want to trade.” You’ll never see Chef Starr, who, before the pandemic, operated her busy Good Food Truck, which was often booked months in advance for weddings and parties. During your hike in, she sets the table like a magical food nymph and is long gone by the time you arrive. Inspired by quarantine, Starr created Ett so guests could embrace solitude and she could further express herself through culinary artistry. Guests are invited to linger until dusk, which I did.
“Nature brings me great solace,” Starr says. “And during the unrest of 2020, I felt that leaning into the solitude and simplicity the pandemic brought, especially at the beginning, could help define and deepen one’s roots. No matter the worldly or personal situation, a breath of fresh air and a moment of silence is helpful.”
Two weeks after my Ett experience, my big adventure began. Rain, mud, wind, freezing temperatures, and snow constantly test my newfound survival skills. After a short sojourn with family in western North Carolina, I set out for rural Tennessee, guided by my list of affordable Hipcamps. After a wonderful three-day experience at Morning Star Homestead in the Appalachians, I spent a week at Chantilly Farm in Floyd, Virginia, one of my all-time favorite places. The first few days of my trip involved a steep learning curve—especially because I chose to start van-lifing in winter, which I knew would be a physical and mental challenge. But I caught on to camping quickly (so did my dog) and hit my stride in Floyd.
I’ve been a digital nomad for many years and am used to being alone, but never like this, living in a vehicle and waking up with Mother Nature at my doorstep. It’s rarely easy. A significant portion of my day is spent gathering wood, building and tending to fires, cooking on a camp stove, finding good cell service, and keeping my electronics charged (I can’t work without them). It’s lonely sometimes and I miss having a big, soft bed where I can curl up under heavy quilts with my dog. Yet, I would not trade this time for anything. Every night I look at the moon and see how it moves and changes in the sky. When I sit around a campfire, I think about my ancestors and how they did this too, and I feel connected to them in a new way. I’m proud of myself for figuring things out and sticking with it—even when it’s frustrating and uncomfortable. I no longer feel like a visitor to the spectacular ecosystems I visit but instead feel like I get to be a part of them.
This is also what I felt beside that little creek outside Roswell, Georgia, where I had one of the best meals of my life. More importantly than the food, my time at Ett reminds me how important and fulfilling it is to just be, especially now that I’ve spent time living outdoors. I appreciate creature comforts all the more, but there is no comparison to the life lessons and opportunities for reflection and self-reliance that Mother Nature so abundantly provides, whether it’s for a single afternoon alone in the woods or on a great, life-changing adventure to see the country by road.
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