Profile: The River and Rail’s Aaron Deal
South Roanoke’s The River and Rail restaurant has become both a neighborhood favorite and a foodie destination since its opening in June 2012. And Chef Aaron Deal is one of the reasons why.
Located in the former Lipes Pharmacy building on Crystal Spring Avenue, the restaurant is a prime example of the farm-to-table movement. “I like being able to stand up, raise my hand and say pay attention to what’s going on here,” he says.
Deal says he and the restaurant have become “food representatives for Roanoke.” In addition to hosting Roanokers on their special occasions and just for a night out, he has twice taken the story to a larger stage. Most recently, he was one of six Virginia chefs cooking at the James Beard Foundation’s Beard House for an event called Virginia Heritage Eats. The foundation holds these events in Beard’s former home. The ground floor is now a commercial kitchen, with dining space filling the rest of the house. They bring in chefs from around the country to cook and to experience Beard’s vision of celebrating and nurturing America’s culinary diversity, Deal explained.
He was asked to be a part of it by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, along with five other chefs from around the Commonwealth. (The other chefs were Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria; Ian Boden of The Shack in Staunton; Rodney Einhorn of Terrapin in Virginia Beach; Travis Milton of Shovel and Pick in Bristol, and Todd Thrasher of PX in Alexandria.)The meal was paired with Virginia wines. The event was a sell-out that had the chefs preparing 80 meals. Deal made a lamb course for the entrée and an apple cake for dessert.
In May 2014, he was a contestant on the Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games. He said they approached him about it and he said to himself: “why not?” He competed on a special grilling episode against three other chefs. He ended up winning – and taking home the top prize of $20,000.
Deal is a North Carolina native, and ended up in Roanoke by way of Charleston, SC, Chicago and Boston. He arrived for the design phase of River and Rail on November 2011. The building required extensive renovations as it changed from drug store to restaurant. It still bears the iconic Lipes sign. The restaurant opened in June 2012, not long before the Derecho hit and knocked out power to the neighborhood for several days.
Since then, the restaurant has enjoyed strong support from the community. “People support good food, consistency, service and value,” he said. A menu that changes according to available food presents a challenge. “The tomatoes are gone. What do we do now?” he says, adding that it keeps him – and his staff – on his game. The concept also has help increase awareness of the local food scene.
Deal admits he works hard and is “dedicated to my goals,” but he also takes the time to enjoy the region. “I love Roanoke,” he said. “It’s very manageable and beautiful. For me, it is rewarding to see the impact we’re making.”
When he’s not working, he enjoys the outdoors, exploring the history of the area, Roanoke City’s downtown. He said he’s made a lot of friends here and likes that relationships here “contain lots of value.
What’s next for Deal and River and Rail? He’s planning several special events, such as wine dinners. He and the owners also are looking to open second restaurant, with a different concept, somewhere in town. But, don’t worry: River and Rail is staying in South Roanoke. “Stay tuned,” he says with a smile.