By Marjorie Rice
Wine and food pairing can be daunting for many diners, especially when the table includes challenges like gumbo, shrimp and grits, enchiladas or fried chicken, along with more standard items.
Scott Stephens, managing partner at Southern Rail at 300 W. Camelback Road, can help. Certified sommeliers Stephens and his wife Katherine (“Katie”) have put together an extensive wine list with a focus on Arizona vintages, and he and Southern Rail’s well-trained restaurant staff members are ready to suggest pairings.
They encourage diners to experiment with half-price bottles of the state’s wines on Sunday and Monday nights.
There’s another fun reason to visit Southern Rail Sunday nights, starting Feb. 21 through the end of April, when the Jazz & Jambalaya series returns. A jazz trio – sometimes joined in impromptu sessions by musicians who drop in – entertains on the patio, jambalaya leads the menu and the wine and sazeracs flow. Arizona wines are half-price for a bottle the whole night. Make reservations because it fills up fast.
Southern Rail also will offer a prix fixe Valentine’s Day dinner with suggested wine pairings for each course. Call for reservations and information.
When conditions allow, Stephens also plans to reinstate the wine and food pairing events that had been a staple at the restaurant.
While the wine list offers more than 100 selections – more than 20 of them from Arizona — Southern Rail’s menu is abbreviated because of availability and sourcing issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, several favorites – gumbo ya ya, killer deviled eggs and fried okra, shrimp and creamy grits and brioche rolls – remain. And save room for bread pudding and Bourbon sauce.
Fried chicken is one of the can’t-miss dishes at Southern Rail.
“In 2019 the ‘Today Show’ named us one of the top restaurants in the nation for fried chicken,” Stephens said.
The secret? Sorry, Stephens won’t say, except to reveal it’s in the brine, a secret shared with him by a favorite New Orleans restaurant.
Stephens can’t wait till the pandemic fades and some of his own favorites – fried green tomatoes and beignets top the list – can return.
Prior to opening Southern Rail, Stephens and his wife partnered with friends Justin and Michelle Beckett to open Beckett’s Table in 2010. They followed with Southern Rail in 2014, transforming the former Beef Eaters on Camelback Road and Third Avenue into The Newton complex. It includes Southern Rail and Changing Hands bookstore and First Draft Book Bar. It originally included a garden shop, which closed last fall.
The Stephens and Becketts are co-owners of The Newton property with Changing Hands and property developers Venue Projects, LLC. The project gave new life to the Beef Eaters, a Phoenix dining landmark for 40-plus years. It’s called The Newton as an homage to original owner, Jay Newton.
“Beef Eaters closed and was vacant for six or seven years until our group came around and saw the beautiful bones that existed under the dilapidation,” Stephens said. “We decided to see what we could unveil, doing justice to the building and to Jay’s vision and creating a very inviting space.”
And inviting it is, from the bare timbers, exposed concrete, original Beef Eater chandeliers, long communal table near the sparkling open bar, comfy booths and two patios. Tables and bar seating are spaced out for COVID-19 pandemic recommended social distancing, but it’s still a warm and welcoming space.
Stephens’ latest project is a new book, “AZ Uncorked, The Arizona Wine Guide,” for which he wrote the introduction. The mammoth coffee table book – 544 pages – is a three-year project by photographer and designer Jenelle Bonifield. Illustrated with Bonifield’s stunning photos of wineries, vineyards, landscapes and winemakers, the book is a collection of stories from contributing writers about the state’s burgeoning wine industry, its history and the people behind it. The book costs $111 and may be ordered online at arizonawine guide.com/order-book/ and purchased at Beckett’s Table and Southern Rail.
“Whether you’re a wine lover or really into Arizona wine or just somebody who loves Arizona, this is a remarkable reference,” Stephens said. “And the photos are show-stoppers.”
One last point Stephens hopes customers will take to heart:
“We’re local, we’re family owned, we’re here for you,” he said. “We want you to feel comfortable, to feel safe, to feel like you belong and you’re part of the family.”
Southern Rail is open from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. For more information, call 602-200-0085 or visit southernrailaz.com.