In downtown New Albany, two Mississippi natives are serving modern cuisine and cocktails with a borrowed name from the past.
The Restaurant Rainey is named for Paul J. Rainey, local legend and storied big game hunter. Rainey was the heir to his family’s coal and Coca-Cola fortune, and a Gatsby-esque playboy, extravagant parties and all. His favorite place to throw parties was the Tippah Lodge, his estate near Cotton Plant. When traveling to his Tippah county home, he would travel by train from Memphis to New Albany. Once there, he would have to stay one night before catching the train the next day to his home 10 miles away.
Dissatisfied with the lodging options, Rainey had a hotel built in New Albany that was comparable to those he found in big cities. The grand hotel burned, but rumor is that Rainey had Italian marble imported for the floors and a chef brought in from out of the country.
The Rainey Hotel was rebuilt after Rainey’s death, but no longer stands. It is now a parking lot, not far from the Rainey restaurant.
Like Rainey, the owners of the new restaurant plan to bring a bit of grandeur from their travels home.
David Wilson, co-owner, director of operations and mixologist, had every intention of opening his first business in Oxford until he had a thought that changed his direction.
“I’m from here, so it hit me after a while — why would I want to take growth to places that are already successful? Why wouldn’t I want to progress the place that I’m from? We want to make this a destination, so people don’t have to go someplace else,” said Wilson. “Instead of taking our money elsewhere, we decided to recycle it here.”
Chef Stevens Flagg, of Giardina’s Restaurant fame, offers new takes on Southern classics, like mango pork chops with horseradish mashed potatoes. More upscale dishes will be on the dinner menu soon, like bison pockets, a bacon-wrapped fillet with sauteed catfish and quail. On Sunday, The Rainey serves brunch staples.
“We call it Southern Fusion,” said Wilson. “We think there’s a lot of history and heritage there. We are trying to create a new generation of Southern cuisine.”
Handmade cocktails are made to complement each dish. Behind the bar, you will find fresh fruits and herbs, homemade bitters and liquors infused in-house. Wilson employs molecular gastronomy and long-lost techniques to create craft beverages for any taste. The drinks are as much about the experience as the alcohol; even non-alcoholic options are available.
“We want everything to be very intimate. When you come to this bar and order something off the craft beverage list, it might take a little longer than a traditional cocktail, because we are constructing it from the ground up,” said Wilson. “It might take 10 minutes to get to you, but when you get it, you will be astounded.”
The atmosphere is moody, with dark tones and accents of wood and leather. It’s no-frills Southern rustic. A chandelier of deer antlers hangs in the center of the room, a nod to the restaurant’s namesake.
The Restaurant Rainey is a team venture. Wilson and Flagg handle the day-to-day operations, with support from four other partners — Adam Martin, Chuck Cooper, Bill Rutledge and Tom Shands. Their vision is to create something New Albany can be proud of, something residents will be talking about for decades, like Paul Rainey himself. And The Rainey is only the beginning. According to Wilson, there are plans in the works to bring more new businesses in to make their home the destination they believe it can be — one the people deserve.
“This is bigger than The Rainey. We’re trying to progress this town in a way that’s not just about cuisine,” Wilson said. “This is about the town and the people. We want to bring some great things.”
The Rainey is open for dinner every night except Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. The bar opens at 4 p.m. On Sunday, brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the bar opening at 1 p.m.
Story by Carmen Cristo // Photos by Lauren Wood