Rappahannock: Downtown’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Over a decade ago, two cousins inherited an oyster operation without any experience. They now run nationally-renowned oyster farms and a new seafood restaurant downtown.

Rappahannock exterior
  • Who: Oyster farmers and cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton, Head Chef Dylan Fultineer
  • What: A seafood restaurant using locally-sourced ingredients
  • When: Opened December 2012
  • Where: 320 E. Grace Street
  • Why: To bring quality Chesapeake seafood downtown
  • Dishes: Cured Scottish salmon with beets, soft boiled quail egg, creme fraiche, and Grinnell caviar ($12); Tuna crudo with preserved lemon, castelvetrano olives, radish, and calabrian chilies ($10); Grilled Virginia scallops with braised oxtail, roasted cauliflower, and curry ($22).

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If Rappahannock was a Beatles album, it would be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That’s how Ryan Croxton, who co-owns the restaurant with his cousin, Travis, described it last week while sitting at its 30-seat bar.

What does he mean? Well, the popularity of Merroir–their restaurant located on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Topping, VA–is such that it makes some wish that Rappahannock was a Merroir facsimile.

It’s not unlike a successful album, say Help!: fans loved it so much, that they wanted subsequent albums to be the same. But Ryan says Rappahannock, one of several restaurants the cousins have opened, is their “most thought out expression.”

“This is our Sgt. Pepper’s,” he said.

While Rappahannock opened last December, its genesis dates to 1899, when James Arthur Croxton, Jr. leased five acres of the Rappahannock River bottom. His son, William Arthur Croxton (Travis and Ryan’s grandfather), took over the operation in 1961. Travis said his grandfather discouraged the family from oystering.

“‘Don’t get into the business because there are too many lows and not enough highs,’” Travis recalled. Nevertheless, when Travis and Ryan’s grandfather died in 2001, the cousins took over the business with neither boats nor experience.

“We didn’t know anything,” Travis said.

But they learned over the years. Their goal was simple: restore the Chesapeake’s oyster population and its reputation. They’ve done that by creating Rappahannock River Oysters.

Rappahannock oysters

The first oyster they produced had a sweet, buttery taste to it–a delectable rarity among oysters. They followed with the Olde Salt variety and then the sweet and mildly briny Sting Ray.

They secured their first customer in the highly-rated Le Bernardin restaurant, located in New York City. In time, their oysters would be served in restaurants nationwide and as far away as Honolulu. In 2005, the Croxtons were given a Tastemaker Award by Food & Wine.

In 2011, the cousins partnered with head chef Peter Woods and opened Merroir1 to pair their oysters with craft beer and wine. What started with a handful of guests over an entire weekend became what it is today: an oyster mecca that attracts aficionados from across the mid-Atlantic.

“It just kind of snowballed,” Travis said.

A year later, the cousins collaborated with chef Dylan Fultineer and opened Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Washington, D.C. Just months after it opened, it was praised in The Wall Street Journal.2

While preparing the D.C. restaurant, the Croxtons took over the downtown space previously inhabited by Louisiana Flair, as well as an adjacent salon, and renovated it into the 99-seat Rappahannock.

“This was not at all what we imagined,” Ryan said, glancing around the restaurant. But the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the fledgling Grace Street Corridor–an area each Croxton remembers from childhood visits with Santa at Thalhimer’s and Miller Rhodes–was too good to pass up.

But while they’ve built their previous businesses around their oysters, the tasty mollusks don’t take center stage at Rappahannock. “It is not the focal point of this place,” Ryan said. “Chef Dylan [Fultineer] and seafood is.”

Small plates include tuna crudo with preserved lemon, castelvetrano olives, radish, and chilies ($10), along with local fluke ceviche with Thai chili, coriander, pomegranate, and cilantro ($10).

The menu also features larger plates like Olde Salt clams & house-made pancetta ($16), grilled Virginia scallops with braised oxtail ($22), and whole grilled fish with green rice and charmoula (market price).

“This is Dylan’s canvas,” Ryan said. “He wows us constantly.”

Rappahannock dish 3

Beers on tap include local Center of the Universe‘s Ray Ray’s Pale Ale, and the Rappahannock River Oysters-inspired Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout by Flying Dog Brewery (Frederick, MD).

While a few have needed time to warm up to the fact that Rappahannock is more than an oyster bar, owners say the response has been great.

“We couldn’t be anything more than awe-inspired,” Ryan said. “It’s definitely been a humbling experience.”

Despite the success of not one, but two recent restaurants, the cousins have no plans to open additional restaurants anytime soon. Instead, they’ll focus their efforts this year on building and expanding their oyster farms. And just as they inherited their business from family, the cousins hope to pass it along to theirs.

“We don’t want to create anything that our kids won’t run,” Ryan said. “This is a family business. It always has been.”

Rappahannock is located at 320 E. Grace Street.

Related

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Footnotes

  1. Inspired by the French word, terroir, which refers to flavors that a region gives to its native products. Merroir is a play on the marine qualities imparted to oysters by the Rappahannock River. 
  2. The cousins have also appearred on the PBS series Chef’s A ‘Field in an episode titled “Olde Salts. Young Guns.” 

photos courtesy of Rappahannock

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

7 comments on Rappahannock: Downtown’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

  1. Phil Spencer on said:

    Fvorite album of all time – Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall
    Favorite Beatles Album – Rubber Soul

  2. Carter Chandler on said:

    If their restaurants are Beatles albums then their oysters are Led Zeppelin I, II, III, IV, etc. All distinctly different yet the same at their core.

  3. Michele on said:

    My adult journeys back through the “Long and Winding Roads” of the Northern Neck ; back to the places of my youth to savour and revisit all the best things associated with this region; always leading back to the bounty of the hard-working waterman. A rich mans bounty of oysters, crabs, and fish, pulled from the beautiful rivers and bays. No matter how long I’ve ever stayed away, I can always count on returning to the same sweet treasures and a land very much unchanged. So the Lennon/McCartney song, “Long and Winding Road” sums up this experience for me very sweetly:
    “The long and winding road that leads to your door
    Will never disappear
    I’ve seen that road before and it always leads me here
    Leads me to your door
    The wild and windy night that the rain washed away
    Why leave me standing here, let me know the way
    And still they lead me back to the long and winding road
    You left me standing here a long, long time ago
    Don’t leave me waiting here, lead me to you door .”

  4. Judy Allen on said:

    Favorite album of all time – The Last Waltz
    Favorite Beatles album – Sgt. Pepper!

  5. Skip McPherson on said:

    Carole King – Tapestry

  6. Mat Taylor on said:

    Try Rappahannock or you are missing out!

    Favorite albums:
    For Ryan he would tell you it is London Calling, but it’s probably more like Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.
    For Travis he would like to think it is Leave Home, but deep down, it more like Shout at the Devil.
    For Me it is Tim by the Replacements which both of these guys helped me get into.

  7. Karin Andrews on said:

    We are so proud of our fellow Essex County natives – Travis and Ryan! They are an inspiration to us all that if you are passionate about something – follow your heart – the customers will come!

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