When standing before The Cigar Factory on East Bay Street, you’re struck by both the resiliency of the circa-1880 building (it has survived the 1886 earthquake, Hurricane Hugo, and regular tidal flooding) and its impressive revival over the past few years. The beautifully restored brick walls no longer house cigar manufacturing, but rather office spaces, retail shops, and restaurants, now including Rappahannock Oyster Bar, an eatery serving bivalves that have been through a renaissance of their own.
Right about the time the bricks were laid for the Charleston Manufacturing Company (now The Cigar Factory), James A. Croxton—great-grandfather to cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton, owners of Rappahannock Oyster Company—purchased a two-acre oyster lease on Virginia’s Rappahannock River. The waters were fruitful until hurricanes, dredging, and diseases depleted the reserves in the late 20th century. As the harvest grounds lay forgotten, James’s heirs sought different jobs, until they discovered that their inherited river lease would expire in 2001. The Croxton cousins took it over, planted new oyster seeds in the spring, and suddenly, oysters became their world.
PHOTO: (left) Head chef Kevin Kelly, a Georgia native, navigates both surf and turf cuisines with skill. (right) The “Factory Platter” (a nod to the building’s historical roots) gives diners a sample of the sea; a chilled array of shrimp, mussels, crudo, clams, and Rappahannock’s namesake oysters is accompanied by mignonette sauces and crispy baguette points.
Thanks to the Croxton family’s attention to detail, a sense of “purpose ahead of profit,” and a bit of luck, an industry all but abandoned on the Chesapeake Bay was revived. From their home base in Topping, Virginia, the family soon launched an eatery as well as an oyster dive shack in Topping; two restaurants in Richmond; and raw bars in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Charleston.
Though it opened just this spring in The Cigar Factory, Rappahannock has an old soul. The building’s industrial past echoes in the brick walls and concrete dining room floor, which holds spacious booths and distressed wooden tables. The copper bar hums with energy, the sounds of diners mingling with the din of ice showers spilling from the ceiling to top oysters and clams at the counter.
PHOTO: (left) A savory bowl of lamb sausage and clams. (right) At the polished copper bar, diners can order cocktails and small plates such as cured steelhead trout with pistachio crème fraîche and pickled carrots.
The kitchen is helmed by Kevin Kelly, who formerly worked at Rappahannock D.C. He culls an international pantry for his menus, crafting plates both “smaller” and “larger” that are buoyed by the sea.
Our server’s starter suggestion, steelhead trout, is lightly cured by the faint acid of citrus, then laid across a pistachio flavored crème fraîche (allow yourself to swipe every bit of the spread from the plate—it’s delicious), and surrounded by pickled carrots, fennel fronds, and translucent dots of salmon roe.
Color, texture, and dimension bring artistry and awareness, not to mention flavor, to Kelly’s compositions. Lumps of backfin crabmeat are packed into crab cake; Diver scallops are tossed with maitake mushrooms “seasoned” with smoke and roasted lemon vinaigrette; and savory fermented black garlic adds an umami twist to shrimp and grits.
Humor also winks on the menus. “East Bay” seasoning flavors local shrimp as a sly nod to Baltimore’s revered Old Bay blend. A charred octopus dish is crested with a clever foam of oyster liquor, but is also splashed with nutty romesco sauce, a hearty tomato-based spread beloved by Catalonian fishermen, and paired with neat squares of potato pavé—a riff on chef Thomas Keller’s stacked scallop potato side—playing on ingredient and intent.
While most of the offerings salute the sea, some “turf” options exist, and they’re executed with skill. In fact, the cooking hardly falters—only the occasional dish finished with too little sauce misses the mark. One land item not to be passed up is the “Lambs & Clams,” a hearty bowl of ground North African lamb merguez sausage, clams, and aromatic sofrito, all topped with aioli in a tomato broth that begs to be sponged up by a toasted baguette.
To see the real stars of the show, however, you must belly up to the bar and navigate your culinary odyssey with the pristine oysters. The Rappahannock River-sourced varieties are sweet with an underlying salinity, akin to training wheels for those new to slurping raw oysters. Work your way through the mild and crisp Rochambeaus and finish with the signature Olde Salts, brined with a wallop of the ocean’s salty lash.
Daring diners can choose from a primal bounty of raw seafood, including a ceviche of snapper, flounder, and sheepshead; tuna tartare; crudo; or, for large groups, a selection of seafood platters overflowing with chilled shellfish and bivalves ready to be dressed in mignonette sauces. Pair the fish with a house cocktail such as “Jessie’s Girl,” a mix of vodka, lemon, crème de pamplemousse liqueur, and honey. Whatever your taste, let the knowledgeable bartenders and servers be your guides.
Like the historical building that houses it, Rappahannock is open to every interpretation: offering brunch, lunch, and dinner; a raw bar; and a fish and wine market. And even amid a sea of seafood eateries, it stands out, dishing up kitchen competence with confidence.
The Draw: Pristine seafood prepared with equal measure élan and informed technique
The Drawback: Noise levels; not enough finishing sauces
Don’t Miss: Namesake oysters and crab cake