Photos AND words that capture the magic of the newest market-based-on-popular-restaurant to hit RVA.
Photos by Frederick Turko of Fred + Elliott Photography.
Standing on the corner of Grace and 4th, outside of Rappahannock Restaurant, Ryan Croxton points to the exterior wall of the space next door with a proud half-smile on his face: “They mislabeled this as soapstone, but it’s really limestone,” he explains. “You can actually see bits of shell in the stone,” he says, pointing. “When we started working on this part of the building, we realized it was limestone, so we wanted to preserve it.”
The idea of restoring the past runs from the facade of their new store/bar, Rapp Sessions, all the way to the very back wall, the wall of the bathroom, which holds a framed photograph of the building in all its turn of the century glory. It’s all part of the feeling–a worn and warm, sturdy place, reminiscent of their grandfather Bill Croxton’s country store.
“Bill was what we always called a white collar farmer,” says Ryan’s cousin Travis, joining us inside. “He ran the store, which was also the post office, during the day, and he had boats that went out. He would go down and check on his boats and come back up and run the store.”
The brothers pay homage to their Grandpa Bill, aka W.A. Croxton, with a reproduction of the store’s original 1899 sign, hand-painted and distressed in a place of prominence in a corner over the shucking station, behind the bar. It’s the backdrop for another piece from the old country store: an old hanging scale, once used to weigh flour and other dry goods at W.A. Croxton’s.
Ryan and Travis wanted to capture as much of the feel of that old country store as possible. They installed the flooring before the other buildout was complete and finished it with wax, rather than varnish, to allow a little wear and tear before opening. Lowered ceilings create a more intimate space, and old-fashioned lights cast shadows on the exposed brick that had been hiding for years just below a plaster surface.
Just past the entrance to the right is a full-service espresso bar, pouring Counter Culture coffee and espresso for both downtown early birds (open at 7:00 am!) as well as guests dining at Rappahannock. Rows of shelving take up the first fifteen or so feet of the space on the left. This will be where the Croxton’s open up Rappahannock’s working pantry, bundled up in small, simple packaging for people to take home and play with in their own kitchens.
Think of the retail part of Rapp Sessions like being able to go to dry storage at Rappahannock and buy anything on the shelf in reasonable quantities. “It’s about two things,” explains Ryan: “giving people access to our pantry and creating an opportunity for small producers to get to retail.”
“What we’re able to do here is take stuff out of our kitchen, break it down, put it on the shelf and then either sell it or use it while it’s still at its peak.” He continues, “If you take something like Sub Rosa flour, which we’re going to be carrying here–we’re going to break it down into small packages so that people can get it. That stuff–it’ll peak in four or five days after being ground. You can’t have that kind of rotation in a small market, but since we’re plowing through that stuff everyday, we can keep it fresh on the shelf, and the minute it nears expiration, we can run it through the restaurant.”
The retail store will also allow the Croxtons to share the products that they love–items like Mad Hollow Soda, Gordy’s Pickles, and the grains and dried beans they use on their menus–without the burden of packaging and distribution. “We get our salt from West Virginia. They offer retail packaging, but the packaging itself is so expensive that it becomes more expensive to the consumer,” says Ryan. “We’re going to simply repackage things like that so that they can get to the customer more cheaply and bring even more exposure to the brand.” He adds, “We want to have the access to the stuff without having to pay for, frankly, logistics. Without access to big buying power, it’s hard to get good rates on things.”
Travis points out that this will apply to their fresh seafood selection as well. They’ll offer whole fish and fillets, as well as shellfish from the same sources they use in their own restaurants. “We’re small producers as well, so we’re in the same boat as them. I hope people are going to be shocked by the value they see.”
“Supermarkets mark fish up three or four times,” says Travis. “For us, this is about celebrating the food and the product. Hopefully that will spill over into people wanting to eat at the restaurant, but having Dylan’s experience with the food is different than just having the food, and we want to make that available to people.”
Rappahannock executive chef, Dylan Fultineer developed the menu for the bar at Rapp Sessions. “He’s such a redneck at heart,” says Travis laughing, “he’s had a great time with that menu.” Travis points over his shoulder at the restaurant next door. “Over there, the clams come with vermouth and all the accoutrements. Here, we’re talking about oysters on saltines with butter and hot sauce. This is kind of a more redneck place–some elegant things, some down and dirty things, plates between $3 and $10.”
Redneck or not, Rapp Sessions will expand our access to oysters, not just from Virginia, but from around the country. And, assuming the “Shellfish Caucus” is successful in DC, eventually Europe as well. They’ll position our home-grown guys against their favorites like Hama Hamas and Hog Island Sweetwaters, “to show how impressively our region stacks up.” They’ll also increase access to their shuckers and all the knowledge that lies curled in those quick and nimble fingers. “Over there,” says Ryan, pointing to Rappahannock, “that’s the best seat in the house. Here, we make it really close, to give people a lot more access to that education and conversation about oysters.”
Whereas Rappahannock focuses largely on local food and a more worldly drink menu, Ryan says Rapp Sessions will offer the inverse of the equation: the best food from around the country, with beer, wine, and spirits from our own backyard. Ryan explains, “If cool stuff is going on somewhere that’s supporting a sustainable industry or a good story, we want to support that. We open ourselves up with the food, but the drink will be largely from Virginia.”
Rapp Sessions will kick-off their ongoing spotlight on local booze with their first event on Tuesday, February 23rd, from 5:00 to 7:00 PM, when they’ll host Virginia Distillery Co. for a free event, pairing Virginia Highland Malt Whisky with oysters on the halfshell, Sardine escabeche on Saltines, and Benton’s Country Ham with house mustard.
For Ryan, Rapp Sessions can be a bar that really feels like a bar–open until 2:00 AM, without the last-call-death-knell of a kitchen breaking down or tables clearing out behind you. This will be the no-frills (or few-frills) side of what the Croxtons love about the seafood and the products they work with every day.
“We wanted to build a place that you just couldn’t hurt,” says Ryan. Travis adds, “You don’t want to be sitting at Rappahannock with butter dripping off of you. But I will be here with butter dripping off of me, eating a pound of steamed crab legs.”