By Meghan Holmes
Photography by Marianne Todd
New Albany, a community of around 9,000 people in north Mississippi, has long been appreciated for its quaint downtown situated alongside the Tallahatchie river and the entrance to the Tanglefoot Trail. The trail preserves a former rail corridor constructed in the latter part of the 19th century that connected New Albany to nearby towns like Ecru, Pontotoc, Algoma and Houston. Like many Mississippi towns, the development of railways served as an economic driver, bringing rich men to the region like Paul Rainey, who built a bottling works company, a furniture store and a clothing factory in New Albany in the early 1900s.
An eccentric multimillionaire, Rainey lived on a 16,000-acre estate with a trophy building for his taxidermied African big game, horse barn and swimming pool (among other out buildings). Every building had electricity at a time when virtually no one in Mississippi was afforded the luxury. Rainey was known for his extravagant parties and eventually built a hotel and ice house in downtown New Albany for rich guests to relax in luxury before or after travel to his estate.
A new restaurant downtown, The Rainey, pays homage to that history and brings elevated Southern and coastal cuisine and cocktails to New Albany’s burgeoning dining scene. “This all started when Tom Shands bought an old building ten years ago,” says Gayle Rutledge. “My husband, Bill, and Tom are great friends, and they talked about opening up a restaurant for years. Finally, they got together with two other partners, Adam Martin and Chuck Cooper, and decided they were going to do it two or three years ago.”
The Rainey sits across the street from the location of Paul Rainey’s hotel, now a city parking lot built after a fire in the 1970s severely damaged the building. The 100-year-old space, formerly Catt’s drug store, but long vacant, changed dramatically following a significant renovation process. “We put in new plaster walls, new rooms … we were cutting through concrete,” says Gayle. “My son, Bob Mercer, is a landscape architect who helped us draw out the restaurant, and I have a degree in interior design.” Tom Shands, a woodworker (as well as a doctor of internal medicine), constructed a 23-foot-long pine bar that now serves as one of the interior focal points, along with antique bar elements Gayle and Bill acquired in New Orleans.
As renovation neared completion, owners recruited Chef Stephens Flagg to helm the kitchen and David Wilson, former bar manager at Boure in Oxford, to develop the restaurant’s cocktail program along with Chelsea Davis. Davis also serves as the restaurant’s general manager and Wilson is director of operations.
Flagg grew up in Clarksdale, and started his culinary career at The Crystal Grill in Greenwood, eventually being promoted to executive chef at Alluvian Hotel’s restaurant Giardina’s after completing culinary school at Mississippi Delta Community College. “Stephens is a wonderful cook, and we’re so happy to have him,” says Gayle. “He’s cooked at events for the James Beard Foundation and the Southern Foodways Alliance and has a reputation for really understanding Southern cuisine and its history.”
Flagg’s menu includes a number of approachable regional dishes including catfish with four cheese grits, seafood gumbo and broiled shrimp, as well as interesting and flavorful outliers uncommon in Mississippi restaurants. “We want to have something for everyone,” says David Wilson, “and that means comfortable and familiar flavors but also new things that people may not have tried. We have burgers and macaroni and cheese, and these dishes have low price points, but then we also have citrus quail and an eight-ounce bacon-wrapped filet with sauteed greens and a sweet potato hash, topped with a catfish and crawfish creole cream sauce, and that’s $43.”
The quail is house-smoked and served with a mango salsa. Other menu highlights include a double-cut bone-in pork chop with a pepper jelly glaze and horseradish mash, bronzed Delta catfish with a lemon cream sauce and golden asparagus with sauteed crabmeat and Béarnaise. Desserts include house made pies and cobblers and are also available in liquid form as a specialty cocktail, like the Loaded Cheesecake – rum, amaretto cream, vanilla bean syrup and muddled fruit.
“We want to build up New Albany’s cocktail scene,” says Wilson. “Not a bar scene, but something very nice. We want people to stay out later and have a couple of drinks as part of their night out. We have some of the nicest scotches and bourbons available and meticulously craft our cocktails. Right now we are focusing on classic cocktails. I don’t know if I can go into any other place in New Albany and get a correct old fashioned or martini. I also have to credit Chelsea Davis, who is working with me to create our craft cocktail menu that we will be introducing in the coming months."
Since their May opening, The Rainey has seen consistently busy weekends with locals as well as people driving from nearby Oxford and Tupelo who are interested in checking out the growing number of restaurants and opportunities for entertainment in New Albany’s downtown. “We want people to come out later, and stay out later, and really enjoy their evening. Figuring out how to make that happen has been a fun and interesting process,” Wilson says.
“We are in the midst of change,” says New Albany’s director of tourism, Sean Johnson, “We have always had a great downtown, but for years it’s like the streets would roll up when the sun went down, and now that’s changing with our new restaurants and our downtown concert series. The Rainey is also pioneering the brunch effort downtown, which I’ve heard nothing but good things about.”
Johnson sees what he calls a cluster effect – the proximity of restaurants and shops to one another means that they work together to draw in customers. “On the weekends there are as many people downtown at night as during the day, which is exciting to see, because it’s a big economic engine. Downtown is becoming a destination where people want to relax and spend an evening out,” he says.