Food & Drink

These Restaurants Are Bringing Diners Out Into the Wilds of Nature

Dinner with a view.

outdoor dining
Photo: Marilyn Nieves; Illustration: Grace Han/Thrillist

Imagine going for a walk in the woods only to come across a creekside table topped with a spread of food, each dish in a whimsical bell jar. No, you’re not in Alice in Wonderland, you’re in the Roswell woods outside of Atlanta where chef Jessamine Starr’s new single-diner restaurant, Ett, is located. Guests walk about a third of a mile from where they park to get to the table.

“I have people text me when they’re on their way here, so I can get all my timing just right,” Starr says. “It’s just exciting for me to give people this. We’re so lucky to live in such a beautiful place. I’m so excited to provide something or my guests that is so unique and different.”

Born out of Starr’s desire to cook and serve people safely during the pandemic, Ett is one of many concepts around the country that gives people what they really want: a unique dining experience outside and away from people. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Starr ran the popular Atlanta-based Good Food Truck and mainly catered private events. She put the brakes on that in mid-March when Atlanta went on lockdown. Two months later, she was inspired by a Swedish couple who created Table For One, a single-diner restaurant in a meadow four hours west of Stockholm. Food is delivered in a picnic basket via wire and the diner sends the basket back. Starr loved the idea so much, she dragged a small desk out of her house and placed it by the creek at the edge of her property and named her concept Ett, which means one in Swedish.

Single-diner concepts like Ett and Table For One are truly unique, but even restaurants are getting creative with outdoor dining beyond their patios and parking lots. Farm & Table is a restaurant serving regionally inspired food on a 12-acre farm in Albuquerque. In addition to their dining room and patio seating, they’re offering private picnics on the farm. A party of two can book a small table in the greenhouse while a larger party can reserve a table on their deck replete with twinkly bistro lights. Guests order takeout from the restaurant, and the restaurant packs it up in a picnic basket which minimizes contact (and adds to the charm).

On the swankier side, Quince in San Francisco, with its three Michelin stars, has temporarily “relocated” the restaurant to their farms in Bolinas and Marin County. There, diners can book a dining experience set in intimate open-air pagodas in the pastoral locale. The multi-course lunch starts at $350 per person, which is a splurge, but, judging by the sold out dates, a worthy one for people tired of being cooped up at home.

Four Seasons Baltimore
Four Seasons Baltimore

It’s not all about dining in the woods or on a farm, either. The Four Seasons Baltimore kicks off its Dinner Under the Stars series in mid-September. Located on the rooftop, with the city’s harbor and skyline in the background, parties of two to four people can enjoy a meal al fresco. It’s not as isolated as, say, a table for one in the woods, but there are no more than 20 people at a time spread out across the terrace, so it’s pretty close.

The focus for all of these concepts is seasonality and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For Ett, that experience consists of a five-course vegetarian meal, a glass of wine, and almost always a handpicked bouquet of wildflowers that can be taken home. There may also be a piece of mushroom toast with chanterelles and oyster mushrooms which Starr foraged herself.

“It’s always really local things,” Starr says. “Each week I get produce from farmers, and we have a little garden. In the morning, I go on a run on our road and pick the wildflower bouquet that's for the table.”

People longing to safely escape their confines may be tempted to pay almost anything to do so, but Starr takes a pay-what-you-can approach (most people pay around $50) and also accepts trades. “The trades are so exciting to me. I never know what I'm going to get,” she laughs. “There’s been a huge variety of things with buckets of compost to two live chickens, and someone brought homemade cookies and granola and spiced nuts.”

Dining in isolation may seem strange at a time when we’re already so alone. But these outside experiences are actually something people have been craving after months of confinement. And it’s not just about the food -- it’s also about connecting with nature.

“You can get your food and then you can just lay on the rock and the creek and stare at the leaves for two hours and that’s alright,” Starr says. “I know everybody's on the COVID-coaster of emotion. But, you don’t have to be anxious here. You can say, ‘Well, I'm going to take this time to watch an ant and roll around for 30 minutes.’ And you might actually like it.”

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Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based journalist writing about food, travel, and a variety of other topics. Her work appears in The Washington PostBon Appetit, and CNN Travel.