Oysters and other scrumptious cuisine define the Northern Neck’s Rappahannock River.
When Captain John Smith first entered the Northern Neck of Virginia’s Rappahannock River, he was moved to write the area possessed “fish lying so thick with their heads above the water as for want of nets we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.”
That maritime bounty exists today, popularized by a slick marketing effort known as the Virginia Oyster Trail. The proprietor of Irvington’s Hope and Glory Inn, Dudley Patteson, is the “father” of the Virginia Oyster Trail, a carefully curated set of restaurants and seafood establishments where one can revel in all things oyster. “From a marketing standpoint, Maryland owns the blue crab,” says Patteson. “I wanted Virginia to own the oyster. It’s a sexier food with a rich history going back thousands of years. How many poems have been written about the crab? Come on. Oysters are where it’s at.”
And even if the January temperatures are not conducive to a mid-winter cruise up the “Rap,” there’s still plenty of opportunity to sample and enjoy the not-so-humble bivalve Crasspostrea virginca that has put Virginia on the map as the self-proclaimed oyster capital of the world.
The story that unfolds on these pages will give the adventurous ostreophile (oyster lover) a waterman’s tour of some of the Rappahannock’s most well-known and equally secretive oyster spots… with ship-right-to-your door links so you can enjoy the bounty of the Northern Neck right in the comfort of your nice and cozy home! Some of the establishments featured are open for dining during the pandemic and would welcome socially distanced and properly masked visitors if you are looking for a road trip this winter.
But no matter if you shuck and slurp on the banks of Locklies Creek or in your backyard around a socially distanced firepit, one thing’s for sure: once you’ve tasted Virginia oysters, you’ll know in a minute why they are acclaimed by some of the best chefs in the world for their delicate flavor, buttery mouth feel, and smooth finish.
Virginia Oyster Trail
Virginia boasts eight oyster regions that produce eight distinctive flavors.
Oysters from the Northern Neck of Virginia hail from one of two regions: The Upper Bay/West and the Middle Bay/West. Oysters from the Upper Bay are characterized by their light, creamy taste while those from the area further south are lightly salty with easily distinguished cream or butter and a pleasant slight minerality.
Rappahannock Oyster Company
One of the best ways to orient yourself to Virginia oyster culture is a stop at Rappahannock Oyster Company’s trendy Merroir tasting room, located in Topping just down Locklies Creek from the Rappahannock. The approach to the restaurant is straightforward. A set of floating docks makes cruise-up dining an experience well worth the voyage. Transient docks are adjacent to some portion of the company’s oyster farming operation. Be sure to look at the nursery tanks.
Started 20 years ago by Ryan and Travis Croxton, the Rappahannock Oyster Company pioneered the oyster farming aquaculture in Virginia. Today, the company operates restaurants in three states and in Washington, DC. It harvests and sells over 10 million oysters a year.
This reporter sampled some baked Rochambeau oysters, served with a slice of lemon and drawn butter. We also ordered a sampler plate of raw oysters: the delicate Rappahannocks with an understated saltiness; the Rochambeaus which are sweet and mildly briny with a clean, crisp finish; and the Olde Salts, with a bold sea-side brininess and a smooth, clean follow-through. If you can’t make it to Merroir, the Croxton boys will be more than happy to ship you some of their oysters by next day air. Just go to rroysters.com for details.
We caught up with Ryan Croxton and asked him about his plans for 2021. Here’s what he said: “There’s just so much we don’t know. Our strategy right now is to get through the winter, so it’s just too hard to say what summer will bring. But yes, the moment we can safely get back to tours and tastings, we’ll be all over it. Currently, our farm restaurant, Merroir, is in full operation, with a few dine-in tables inside and an ample amount of seats outside for take-out. We have 15 slips available for transients year-round. Merroir is open daily for lunch and dinner and only closed on Christmas and Thanksgiving. The oyster farm, located adjacent to Merroir, is open Monday through Friday, but we’re, unfortunately, not offering tours due to Covid.”
The Croxtons have pivoted to online ordering as a way to keep their business going. Rappahannock Oyster Co. co-owner Travis Croxton saw the writing on the wall early on: “It was like a snowball that turned into an avalanche,” he said.
The company already had a system for online orders and nationwide delivery. Before the pandemic, it generated about five percent of sales, with 95 percent from food service. Now, nearly all their oysters are sold to online customers, and Croxton is packing orders himself. “At 3 o’clock, I talk to the UPS driver, and at 6 o’clock the FedEx driver, and that’s about it,” he said.
Twenty-seven-year-old Rappahannock River Steward Anne Self has spent most of her life in, on or near the Rappahannock. “The river imparts its character to the people who live on it and to the oysters that thrive in its briny depths. The fact that so many younger oystermen are turning to oyster farming is a positive sign for the sustainability of the river. Each oyster filters 60 gallons of water each day. So, the more oysters, the cleaner the water; and the cleaner the water, the better oysters grow. It’s a perfect cycle of sustainability.”
One of Anne’s favorite producers is the husband and wife team Taryn Brice-Rowland and Aaron Rowland, proprietors of the three-year-old oyster company, Rogue. Located just off the Rappahannock, the Rowlands currently have a “million baby oysters in various stages of development,” Taryn tells PropTalk. The past couple of years have been tough for the fledgling oyster growers. “We got hit with a 100-year rain event when we first started out. The salinity of the water dropped to way less than five percent... and everything we had in the water died. That included those oysters that were ready for market as well as our seed oysters. This year, we thought we’d get a jump on it, but seed oysters were impossible to come by. We finally got the oysters in the water, and then the pandemic hit and threw another wrench into the works.”
Taryn tells PropTalk, however, that she and her husband are, “doing okay… and we are especially excited to be able to ship some of our product to oyster lovers up and down the Bay. Creamy, buttery, and mildly salty—these oysters are for the oyster connoisseur who wants to experience the different flavors of the Rappahannock. Rogue Oysters start with a natural dash of salt paired with a creamy, buttery sweetness. Be prepared for a taste of the Blue Ridge Mountains to come next before the flavor evolves into a clean, refreshing finish,” she says. Depending on the time of year, she and her husband welcome visitors. Their operation is accessible by creek just down from Greenvale Marina.
White Stone Oyster Company
Over in White Stone, The White Stone Oyster Company was founded by two 20-something oyster farmers who bonded over beers in a Washington, DC, restaurant while discussing their love of duck hunting. Both Tom Perry and Phil Valliant were “looking for the next big thing” at the time and after they got to know one another better, they teamed up to form a company that, prior to the pandemic, shipped more than 120-200,000 oysters a month to upscale restaurants all up and down the East Coast.
White Stone only markets one type of oyster: a distinctive one-and-a-half to two-inch long beauty whose pure white shell is almost perfectly formed and is largely bereft of an overhanging lip or bill, the absence of which results in a little deeper cup for the oyster to reside in.
White Stone’s Valliant gave this reporter a first-hand tour of the company’s leased ground on a cold and blustery day. White Stone grows its oysters in cages that sit a foot or two below the waterline. Valliant thinks the constant wave action produces a more consistent product with a deep cup.
I was lucky enough to get away with a 50-count bag of White Stone’s finest. I can vouch for their sweet taste and uniformity of shell.
The Best Oysters in Deltaville
Onna Grimm, owner/manager of Chesapeake Yacht Sales and Deltaville Yachting Center in Deltaville, adds her two-cents worth: “The best oyster bars in Deltaville are the Deltaville Tap and Raw Bar located at Deltaville Marina, J&W Seafood on Route 33, or Deltaville Oyster Company. Just give Don Abernathy at Deltaville a call and let him know you’re coming (804-357-1931).”
She also recommends The Table farm to table restaurant; the Galley Restaurant and Bar, and the Sunset Grill for “awesome oyster dishes and great seafood, too.”
In addition to Grimm’s marina located in Deltaville’s Broad Creek, other transient favorites in Deltaville include: Stingray Point Marina, Deltaville Marina, and Fishing Bay Marina. It was at Stingray Bay that Captain John Smith was stung by the barb of a cownose ray and, fearing his immediate demise, ordered a grave prepared for his use. He quickly recovered from the incident, and ordered the ray roasted for his dinner.
Located at the mouth of the Rappahannock River, Deltaville is the logical jumping off point for a sojourn on the Rap.
Another accessible overnight spot is just up the river in Irvington: The Tides Inn and Marina. Located at the head of Carter’s Creek, The Tides Inn is a 100-room inn with a world class raw bar and sumptuous waterside dining. Its floating dock marina can accommodate up to 24 vessels ranging from small weekend cruisers to 150-foot charters.
Recently, the area has seen an upswing in trendy dining spots. A Rogue Oyster Company favorite is White Stone Virginia’s Adrift Restaurant. Its classically trained chef serves up a plethora of oyster-focused dishes including oyster stew, oyster Bahn mi (a Vietnamese baguette stuffed with a heady oyster concoction) and a fried oyster dinner served with a tasty pimento-orzo macaroni side. And back in Irvington at the Dredge Restaurant, waterman turned chef Bryan Bird serves up a mean oyster taco in addition to Cajun, Caribbean, and Asian dishes that are heavily influenced by the waterman’s catch of the day. A word of caution: these restaurants are not “boat up” establishments; but the distances aren’t so great that the enterprising powerboater couldn’t figure out a way to get there given the delicious meal that would await.
And, if you’re up for a little more Rapin’ on the River, head upstream to the Corrotoman River and make your way to Yankee Point Marina.
There you’ll find a 100-slip marina run by Ken Knull and his wife Karen. Yankee Point offers transients all the amenities they might want including dockside dining and a swimming pool with plenty of room to hang out.
Knull recommends poking around the Corrotman if you’re in the mood to anchor out. “The holding is good all around here,” he says. “And there’s plenty of places you can get off by yourself if that’s your thing."
As I write this, my wife and I are getting ready to prepare our 275th meal at home due to Covid restrictions. We generally splurge one night a week and eat light the other nights. This week, our treat will be a trio of Rappahannock Oyster Company oysters packed and shipped by company founder Travis Croxton himself. We ordered the three bags of oysters two days ago and they will arrive tomorrow. Some will be eaten raw. Others will be grilled over an open fire accented with a variety of simple garnishes. Our biggest question will be what wine to serve.
Let the slurping begin.
By Craig Ligibel
Northern Neck Oyster Trail
Rappahannock Oyster Co. - Topping, VA
Olde Salts - Briny, smooth finish
Rap. River - Mild salty
Rochambeau - Sweet
$25/25 + ship
Tours available - Call ahead
White Stone Oyster Co. - White Stone, VA
Selects - Mushroom notes, miso finish
$100/50 + Free ship
Rogue Oysters - Lancaster, VA
2-3 inches, buttery, and light salt
$35/25 + ship
Tours available - Call ahead
Little Wicomico Oyster Co. - Heathville, VA
Various - Sweet and salty, deep cup
$37.50/25 + ship
Tours available - Call ahead
Chapel Creek Oyster Co. - Cobbs Creek, VA
Mineral taste, light finish
Tours available - Call ahead
Ward Oyster Co. - Mobjack Bay
Lone Point - Buttery and sweet
$69/2 doz., Free ship
Vogt Oyster Co. - Hayes, VA
Big Island - Salty, sweet, and buttery
$9/doz. + ship
York River Oysters - York River, VA
Tours available - Call ahead