By Allison Law
Photos by Mark Stephenson
The trains no longer stop at the historic Auburn depot, but they continue to charge down the tracks outside the landmark, lending a charm of times gone by to the upscale restaurant that now occupies the beautifully restored space.
While The Depot is rooted in history, this gulf-coastal restaurant is pushing the boundaries of Alabama’s culinary scene, bringing globally inspired cuisine to the heart of the South with ingredients sourced locally and from both coasts.
Executive chef and co-owner Scott Simpson is a California native, but has extensive experience working abroad and studying under some of the world’s finest chefs. That international background – he’s worked as a chef in South America, the Caribbean and southeast Asia – is evident in the menu.
“My idea was to bring Gulf coastal cuisine with a worldly flair to Auburn,” Simpson says, taking a break after a busy lunch service. “The idea is to either bring international or exotic products and put a Gulf coastal flavor to it, or take local Gulf catch and seafood and try out other items available locally, and present it with a more international, ethnic, cultural preparation.”
As an example, he notes on the menu a fish that he has flown in overnight from Hawaii, which he serves with a kimchi fried rice and Korean pear glaze. But even with exotic preparations, Alabama diners will still find entrees that are familiar and non-intimidating: Carolina Mountain Rainbow Trout, Gulf Amberjack and Blackened Blue Crab Cakes, to name a few. And the rotating daily specials always feature at least six different oysters, sourced from the Gulf and both coasts.
A new life for an old landmark
Simpson came to Auburn in 2014 to become executive chef and culinary educator at The Hotel at Auburn University, and as a culinary instructor in the school’s hospitality program. Matt and Jana Poirier, who own The Hound in Auburn, wanted to expand and create another concept restaurant; they reached out to Simpson for ideas and to gauge his interest.
Simpson felt the area lacked a high-quality seafood-focused restaurant. The Poiriers found the depot location, which had fallen into disrepair over the years (the last passenger train pulled into the depot on Jan. 7, 1970.) They worked with the city to restore the landmark and make it suitable for a restaurant, while maintaining the integrity of the historic structure. The Depot restaurant opened in September 2015.
The result of the renovation is an inviting, spacious atmosphere – a classic look with industrial, 19th-century touches. Pieces of its past have been retained: The heartwood pine that was once the trail platform is repurposed into the chef’s table, bar and hostess stand. Original doors were restored. The black and white floor tiles harken to another era.
The Depot is one of several establishments that has helped boost the culinary scene in Auburn and Opelika. Simpson says professors and business people have been exposed to nice meals in other places, so the demand is there. And the area pulls diners from Columbus, Ga., and Montgomery, so there’s obviously a desire for more options and upscale dining.
Its clientele is not the younger college crowd that’s constantly on social media. “What gets the social media exposure is not really representative of what’s coming up in our community,” Simpson says.
The Depot started out with dinner service, but soon branched into lunches – designed to be fast and affordable, but still well-prepared – as well as brunch on weekends.
“For lunch, I tried to grab iconic dishes from all over the world,” Simpson says. “With lobster, what’s the most famous worldwide lobster dish I could do? I went with a Maine lobster roll. I tried to pick some great fish tacos from Mexico, and do them as authentic as possible.”
The same attention is put into the dishes that originated a little closer to home. The Gourmet Gumbo, for example – with Cajun andouille, Poblano rice, crawfish and Gulf shrimp – gets comments from diners who say it’s better than any gumbo they’ve had in New Orleans.
In addition to the regular menu, there are happy hour specials – like all-you-can-eat mussel night, or dollar oyster night – each one paired with cocktail specials. The seats are always full, Simpson says. The occasional wine dinners sell out with little promotion.
The seafood may be the star, but the meat and poultry entrees receive just as much praise. A diner told Simpson recently that The Depot’s New York strip was the best he’d ever had, and that he’d eaten at steakhouses all over the country.
“We want people to be blown away, to exceed their expectations,” Simpson says, “and make sure that eating here is a noteworthy, lingering memory.”
124 Mitcham Ave. Auburn, AL 36830
334-521-5177 Online: allaboardauburn.com
(reservations recommended but not required, and can be made through the website)
Hours: 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday;
5 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday & Saturday;
brunch from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday