Originally from North Carolina, Aaron Deal, the executive chef for the River and Rail Restaurant, which recently opened its doors, has plenty of family ties to Virginia. “I have a family in Richmond,” he explains, “and my father and his family were raised in Danville – so the South and the food that is served in this area have always been very close to my heart. Its what I was raised on, its what I enjoyed as a child.” Lee and Karri Atwood teamed up with friends Whit and Lauren Ellerman to open the eatery, hiring Deal, who was a semi-finalist for the James Beard contest.
In addition to the Southern influence in his dining tastes, Deal was classically trained on French food. The River and Rail Restaurant, a 70-seat facility located in South Roanoke (2201 Crystal Spring Avenue, in the former Lipes Pharmacy space), serves both kinds of food to the public. Current business hours are 5-11pm for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday. (see riverandrailrestaurant.com for updates and to make reservations, or call 400-6830).
Deal describes River and Rail’s menu as “Southern and French comfort food.” The restaurant is “designed to be warm and welcoming and that is going to resonate throughout the dining room. We will have outside seating available. The menu itself is designed to be friendly—[for] vegetarians and people who have gluten allergies. We’re able to accommodate anyone and everyone who comes in and dines with us.”
The River and Rail is designed to accommodate diners who have just completed a run or walk, or are arriving from elsewhere for a date night or special dinner. “We can really accommodate any of that,” says Deal, “and I think that’s really one of the main focuses that we’ve tried to maintain, not only with that, but with our price point being very reasonable.” Entrées won’t cost over $28 and $30, and smaller plates and appetizers can be shared throughout the table. “It’s really meant to be a true dining experience,” says Deal who adds that he wants the facility to be not only for special occasions but one for people who want a burger and who’ve gotten off work as well.
“I really want this to be a restaurant that local Virginians can get very passionate about and that they believe in. That is my goal because I think that’s where it’s going to sustain us, and that’s what’s important to us.”
The River and Rail will feature staples of beef, chicken, pork, etc. Deal gets excited about the prospect of serving deviled eggs “and wonderfully cured and produced country ham. All sorts of different grains [as well]. There’s local mills, there’s local produce. We will be offering a lot of vegetarian dishes, a lot of vegetable dishes. You’re looking at fresh pastas that we’ll be making in-house, all sorts of things like you might find in a rustic or bistro type atmosphere.”
The designation “River and Rail” is meant to be a homage to Roanoke City, since the Roanoke River and the railroad industry played such an important part in the area’s development. “When you think of The River and Rail,” says Deal, “you think of Roanoke and we want to be a Roanoke, Virginia, restaurant. That’s the goal.”
Professionally, Deal has reached the point where he has found what he sees as, “The best expression of the food that I want to cook and the food that makes me happy. And that is why I’m here at The River and Rail. I like the area, I like being back home, and I’m excited about the opportunity.”