In early 2020, about a month before everything shut down, I spent a few days in Palm Springs, California, doing research for a story I was writing. Jet-lagged, I found myself wide awake one morning at four. Rather than force myself back to sleep, I got dressed, plodded to my rental car, and headed to Villa Bakery, a Mexican cafe in nearby Cathedral City. I got in line behind local truck drivers to order breakfast, then drove around in search of a spot to eat it. I ended up in a bank parking lot just as the day was getting light. I took in the beauty of the moment from the solitude of the driver’s seat: the sky’s pink glow as the sun rose over the mountains and backlit the palm trees, the warm comfort of scrambled eggs and spicy chorizo in my burrito. I should do this more often, I thought to myself.
As it turned out, I’d get the chance soon enough. Before last March, I was used to running around town, dining in new restaurants as they opened or filing stories from coffee shops. Suddenly, that all stopped. But as the pandemic took hold and the walls of my house started to close in on me, I developed a new habit. About once a week, I’d kiss my toddler and husband goodbye and escape to the one place I could dine out alone: my car.
It started with breakfast. At the beginning of the lockdown, I’d slip out of my subdivision and drive down Mt. Vernon Road, the main drag of Dunwoody, miraculously free of congestion when everyone was truly staying home. Craving nostalgia more than anything—and food-writer credentials notwithstanding—I’d go to Einstein Bros. and order a cheddar-jalapeño bagel, toasted, with veggie cream cheese and sliced tomato; it’s what I grew up with. Then, I’d zip over to the Dunwoody Nature Center parking lot and listen to the Office Ladies podcast.
In between bites of bagel, I’d take in the scenery through the car windows and enjoy being nature-adjacent, which is as close to nature as I typically like to get. Most of all, I enjoyed being momentarily untethered from the Wiggles and felt at peace sitting by myself. Sometimes, I was one of many in a row of vehicles filled with people doing, I imagined, the same thing. I labeled these outings Me Dates and made them a weekly occurrence.
A bagel in the Dunwoody Nature Center parking lot doesn’t provide the same thrills as a break-of-day burrito in Palm Springs, but at the beginning of the pandemic, it was all I had. After a while, I remembered I was in a car—my portable dining room could go anywhere. One time, it was Garnet Gal’s in Buckhead, where I delighted in the kale and cheddar biscuit. Another time, it was El Huarache Veloz in Marietta. The view differed little—just another restaurant exterior. But I was alone, air conditioning blasting, with a delicious burrito and ice-cold agua fresca de jamaica, so I didn’t care. I was just happy to be dining someplace other than my couch.
Even though I’ve cautiously waded back into restaurant dining, I plan on keeping somewhat regular Me Dates; restaurants are great, but they don’t provide the solitude that an automobile offers. Our cars aren’t just a means of transportation—they’re also private (albeit transparent) rooms, they’re concert halls, they’re offices. The pandemic confirmed that; it expanded what the car can mean, especially for a new mom who gets so little time to listen to something other than Raffi. And it reminded me that sometimes, when it feels like the world is closing in, is a bagel, a podcast, and a glove compartment stuffed with plenty of napkins.
This article appears in our June 2021 issue.