Mike Benson, principal owner of Café Saint-Ex and sister eats-outlet Bar Pilar, is just a few weeks away from opening his latest restaurant—-three vintage railroad cars, plus a depot, that will be transformed into an establishment called Southern Rail. You say you haven’t heard a word about it? Well, for good reason: It’s in Carrboro, N.C., just outside Chapel Hill, where Benson was born and still has a home.
Talking via phone from the Southern Rail construction site as he waited on $75,000 worth of steel, Benson said the 5,000-square-foot project rests between two operating Norfolk Southern railroad lines. Just as I was starting to ask him how the hell people reach the place—-I was imagining slick, dangerous, perfectly timed rolls between moving rail-car wheels, like Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express—-Benson clarified: “One of the live tracks goes part of the way down, and then there’s a parking lot.”
Southern Rail will be the Triangle’s answer to Café Saint-Ex, Benson says, serving up a similar menu of seasonal American favorites. The depot will become a coffee house, while the two turn-of-the-century Pullman cars and the caboose are being gutted and renovated into a kitchen, prep area, dish room, and a dining room. There will also be a platform between the cars and, according to the Carrboro Commons [PDF], a “steel awning over the three railcars, which would make it appear as if the railcars are in a vintage train station.”
And before you start snickering about Benson’s fascination with transportation—-Saint-Ex has an aviation theme, and Bar Pilar a nautical one—-the owner would like you to know he’s fully aware that he’s a target for stupid jokes. “People have been asking me, ‘What would your next theme be?” says Benson. “Hmmm, maybe a space ship?”