Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
HELEN - Jimmy Harris, the gentleman proprietor of Unicoi Outfitters, didn’t have to extend his invitation but once: “Why don’t you come up for lunch and spend an afternoon on the Chattahoochee?”
We did have one business item on the agenda-planning a fly fishing outing with Phil Niekro, the Braves Hall of Fame pitcher, next week. A lady I am very close to asked in all seriousness, “Are you driving to Helen to have lunch and plan a fly fishing outing a week from now?” It didn’t take long to forge an acceptable answer, and I became filled with exuberance as I made my way up to Gainesville and Cleveland, leisurely following Georgia 75 to my destination.
Though Helen missed out on an opportunity to be a classic place to explore by allowing all too many places to sell nothing but trinkets and glittering junk (regrettably, it has also embraced tattoo parlors), it still has some places where I am anxious to hang out.
The best of Helen is what I call “South Helen,” which is where Unicoi Outfitters, Nora Mill Granary, Habersham Winery, and a couple of popular restaurants-Nacoochee Grill and Nacoochee Village Tavern-are worth frequenting. The latter is where Jimmy and I had lunch. You don’t take a seat at the Tavern if you are looking for a five-course meal. It is a place for pizza, sandwiches, and snacks. The helpings are large and filling.
Its signature dish is freshly popped popcorn. You hardly take your seat before a pretty waitress named Sally Pundt, who grew up in Marietta, places popcorn before you. When it is gone, you don’t have to ask for a refill-she replenishes your bowl before the last bite is taken.
I guess I like places like the Tavern because good folk seem to hang out there. People who have affection for the land, the hills, and the river. If you have been in close proximity of the Chattahoochee, which has its beginning just a ways up the mountain from here, and have the audacity to suggest that you have “been there and done that”. . . . Well, it’s not treason, but I’d say you ought to schedule a visit with a shrink, because something’s wrong with you.
While we were enjoying lunch, I saw a man who obviously is getting social security checks. He had on overalls, he was baldheaded, and he was drinking a beer. Right beside him was a sign which read, “Beer: so much more than just a breakfast drink.”
While I would be the last person to recommend beer for breakfast, I did find that amusing. You might conclude that mountain folk are different, and I would suggest you are right-but they are in a way that I have never found offensive. Just different.
What I appreciate most about the Tavern and its interesting atmosphere and short orders is the view. Out beyond the attractive patio stand brushy hardwoods that camouflage the wondrous and refreshing Chattahoochee.
Also, something to appreciate about this charming restaurant is the signage which decorates the walls. Over the wine rack at the Tavern is a sign that says, “No credit, now or ever,” and you have to believe that the proprietor, Paul Rampulla, is quite serious about that.
Another one proclaims, “We do not take reservations or call-ahead seating ever for anyone. We are first come, first seated, first served. All of our customers are equally important.”
The one I like best was a bumper sticker on a pickup truck parked out front of the Tavern: “Stamp out Global Whining.” What can we do to honor and assist the author of that prose?
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.