Shown at their new restaurant site, the Rappahannock River Oysters team includes (back row, from left) Tyler Huband, McKenzie Cusick, Kevin McEligot, Dylan Fultineer, Travis Croxton and Patrick Oliver; and (seated, from left) Ryan Croxton and Anthony Marchetti. Photo by Isaac Harrell
The first time I met Ryan and Travis Croxton of Rappahannock River Oysters, I was in a small, rocking boat, watching then-Gov. Mark R. Warner eat a raw oyster straight from the mud of the Chesapeake Bay while he was stumping for his Senate campaign in 2008.
Even as a dedicated oyster lover myself, I was pretty impressed — and horrified. I know the oysters I eat are the same ones with just the addition of a quick rinse. But an oyster dripping sandy mud and brackish water? That man really wanted to get elected.
Ryan and his cousin Travis already had put their oysters on the map three years earlier when they won Food & Wine magazine's Tastemaker Award in 2005. Their oysters could be found on restaurant tables in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas. More important, their company inspired watermen to look at the Chesapeake Bay in a different way. At the time, although concerted efforts had been made to clean up the bay, the blue crab population had been decimated by overfishing and inhospitable conditions, watermen were going out of business and a way of life was disappearing.
Oysters are nature's water filters. As water flows through them, oysters clean out the algae, pollutants and debris. The Croxtons' business put oysters back in the bay, and by contracting with other watermen to do the same, they demonstrated that you could not only earn your living from the water again, but also help to bring the bay back to something approximating its natural state. In 2002, the Croxtons took over the oyster beds that they inherited from their grandfather and decided to revive the family business — a business that began in 1899 but had lain dormant for the previous decade. It was slow going at first; they had to find a way through other people's yards to get to their oysters, and they started a long odyssey of knocking on restaurants' kitchen doors to sell them across the country. In a lot of ways, they were their own best marketing tool: two young, baby-faced Southern boys with a bag of outstanding oysters that they'd shuck and offer to the kitchen staff. It was a compelling, old-fashioned approach that brought in orders, and one that they still employ today.
It was when they decided to open an oyster-tasting room in the Northern Neck last year that things started to expand exponentially. "People kept asking to try our oysters," says Ryan. "We wanted to provide a place ... like a winery." Travis adds that they envisioned a place where "you could enjoy an Olde Salt and a Stingray with a glass of wine — a taste of what we offer." After they opened Merroir, their modest tasting room, they realized that they could add a grill and serve a few more dishes. "It got away from us — in a good way," Travis says. "We Forrest Gump our way to a lot of stuff," says Ryan. They soon had a full-fledged restaurant on their hands, overrun with customers.
During the winter, they started thinking about opening another restaurant, this time in Richmond. Their old friend Jason Alley of Comfort and Pasture had been urging them to do just that, and while they were mulling the idea, they heard from another friend.
"We thought we'd love to do something more polished, with a true kitchen," Ryan says. "Out of the blue, a friend of ours, a chef we've known for years, [Dylan Fultineer], called and said that he wanted to move back to the East Coast." It seemed like a sign. Fultineer had worked at Blackbird under Paul Kahan in Chicago (where he met the Croxtons), and at The Hungry Cat in Hollywood, and he opened another Hungry Cat in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"I grew up in Pennsylvania," Fultineer says, "and [I] spent a lot of time in the Chesapeake Bay area, vacationing on Chincoteague, oystering and fishing with my grandfather." He was ready to leave California and start something new. "We had an ongoing banter going on that someday we'd open up a kick-ass restaurant together."
Plans are under way to open that restaurant, named simply Rappahannock, at the end of September on the corner of Grace and Fourth Streets, down the block from Alley's Pasture. That is, right after they open another restaurant in Washington. "Why open one restaurant when you can open two at the same time?" Travis says, with a smile.
The new venture isn't going to be a Merroir II. The focus will be a large, central oyster bar. "We want it to have a communal feel and start conversations," says Ryan. "We want people to engage with the shuckers [who will be in the middle] and each other." They want it to be a place where local vendors will be celebrated, and customers will get to know where their food comes from and how it's been prepared.
Most important, however, "it's Dylan's statement, his restaurant," Ryan says. Seafood is Fultineer's specialty. "Dylan made the best fish I've had in my life — I still can remember it," says Travis. "[And] I can buy seafood right off of the boat," Ryan says. "No one can get it fresher." Fultineer returns the admiration. "They totally believe in what they do," he says of the Croxtons. "I wanted something I believe in, too, to stay passionate. I got really excited when I arrived."
Together, the three are planning to create something that might be dangerously good.