48 Wild Hours in Richmond with The Rappahannock Boys
Ryan and Travis Croxton may not have been "born on 3rd base," as they like to say – but over the last decade, the owners of Rappahannock Oyster Company have already made multiple laps around the baseball diamond. In addition to running one of the most respected and renowned oyster farms in the U.S., the cousins also founded four thriving restaurants, with three more in the works for DC, LA, and Charleston.
But perhaps what's most remarkable about these two country-boys-turned-prosperous oyster-preneurs is how much fun they're still able to have. When I traveled to Richmond, Virginia, to experience their city with them, eleven of the twelve stops we made involved moderate-to-heavy drinking – and I wasn't complaining.
Below is a play-by-play of my time with these business-minded, hard-living, high-spirited family men, during which I was able to gain deeper insight to their success, their interests, and of course, all that Richmond has to offer.
10:00 AM – Lamplighter Coffee
The Croxtons pick me up at Lamplighter Coffee, where I've grabbed some fantastic local joe for the 65 mile drive to their oyster farm in Topping, VA. Along the way I learn that the Croxtons' great grandfather, James Croxton, founded Rappahannock Oyster Co. in 1899, when the Chesapeake Bay was producing around 20 million bushels of oysters a year. By 2001, Virginia oyster harvests had fallen to just 23,000 a year due to disease, parasites, and overfishing, but Ryan and Travis – James's great-grandsons – couldn't let the company go, and renewed the company's lease even without a business plan.
Rappahannock Oyster Co. now sustainably breeds and farms about 40,000 bushels of oysters per year in the what they call the "Napa Valley of oysters." Best of all: their aquaculture efforts are actually encouraging algae growth and reviving wildlife in a bay that could no longer support wild harvesting. I'm looking forward to tasting the fruits of their labor. (That sounds creepier than I'd intended.)
12:20 PM – Merroir
After a quick tour of the Rappahannock farm, we sit down at Merroir, the Croxtons' bustling bayside restaurant. We start with a plate of raw oysters – the same used to brew the Flying Dog Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout I'm sipping. Over Angels on Horseback and an oyster stuffing house specialty called Stuffin Muffin, we chat about the restaurant’s since opening in 2011, back when it still awkwardly offered food and bait to customers. (Care for some dried worms with that crab cake?)
6:45 PM – Rappahannock Restaurant
After heading back to Richmond for a short 90-minute break, I meet the Rappahannock guys at their downtown restaurant. The Devil's Backbone Tropical Thunder Kristalweizen I order ain't half bad, but then Bar Manager Paul Kirk hands me a Hedgeman's Reviver, a cocktail made with Cointreau and Øster Vit, an aquavit steeped in oyster shells by Travis's wife, Kristi, at James River Distillery and I nearly lose it.
Neat, the Øster Vit – clean and delicious, with a hint of caraway and a touch of salty minerality—goes incredibly well with my plate of Oysters and Pearls (raw oysters and fish roe with vodka watermelon granita). Between shoveled mouthfuls of Hamachi crudo, Monkfish with bacon and sweet potato hash, seafood paella, and pork chop, I praise Chef Dylan Fultineer as a genius.
10:45PM – GWARbar
After dinner, I fulfilled a longtime dream when Travis introduces me to Mike Derks (aka "Balsac the Jaws of Death"), longstanding rhythm guitarist for Gwar. We meet at his blood-spattered Gwar-themed bar, the appropriately named GWARBar, and I do my best to hide the fact that I've peed my pants a little.
While I'm sipping on an Oderus Ale an ironically clean and refreshing Gwar-themed pale ale brewed by Cigar City, bar manager Dusty George stops by to plop down two maple bourbon whiskey shots and two glasses of apple cider. When the rest of the table refuses the boilermaker, I reluctantly drop the shot in the cider and down the concoction. I immediately regret this decision.
11:00 AM – Rapp Session
Following an evening of self-abuse and a lamentable nightcap, I'm undoubtedly struggling this morning. Fortunately, Rapp Session, Rappahannock's casual eatery and grocery, serves Counter Culture Coffee, and the world suddenly seems a bit more manageable.
11:30 AM – Sub Rosa Bakery
We drive over to Sub Rosa, a popular Richmond bakery, to share three croissants: one plain; one pear, almond, and cheese; and one chocolate. Though unassuming, the plain pastry is simply the best I've ever had outside of France. As I'm sucking up the crumbs of each like a carb-hungry Hoover, Ryan reminds me that we have a big lunch ahead of us, and I shamefully back away from the table.
As the guys exit the shop, I pull a George Costanza and fish one more bite out of the trash.
12:00 PM – Peter Chang's
I've heard a lot about Peter Chang, Richmond's famed – yet elusive – Szechuan chef. Even the entrance to his eponymous restaurant in Scott's Addition is difficult to track down (were it not for the insistence of Google Maps, we'd have had no idea that the unassuming building nestled amongst offices was even a restaurant).
Inside, the plastic, spiral-bound menus look like they were imported from a crappy diner. The food, on the other hand, blows me away. When we begin munching on our order of fried, dried eggplant – like spicy Chinese french fries – my lips go numb and my throat ignites in flames. The heat is a bit too intense, but the dish is full of flavor.
We try shredded tofu skin—like a slaw made of noodles—and bamboo fish with crispy skin and crunchy cilantro. It's all tasty, but so spicy that I wonder, for a moment, if the Croxtons might be trying to kill me.
2:00 PM – James River Distillery
With a belly full of food and fire, I'm unfit for a spirit tasting—but I demand a stop at James River Distillery to learn more about their delicious Øster Vit.
Kristi Croxton had enlisted the help of Head Distiller Dwight Chew to produce the spirit, quadruple-distilled with dill, fennel, and orange peel to round out the caraway and oyster shell flavors. Chew also manufactures Common Wealth Gin – skillfully made with hops, cantaloupe, and lime peel – and Arctic Snow, a fantastic potato vodka distilled in collaboration with Gwar (disappointingly clear, rather than dyed blood-red).
3:00 PM – Stone Brewing
While Travis peels away to run an errand, Ryan and I get a tour of Stone Brewing's new enormous Richmond facility from Peter Wiens, Director of Brewing Operations. After nosing around the immaculate east coast outpost of the expanding independent San Diego brewery, we head down to the taproom to sip tasters of Delicious IPA, Xocoveza mocha stout, and a big boy called W00tstout (13 percent ABV!). As we drink, we talk about the similarities between the beer and oyster industries: consumers are finding their way back to such artisanal stuff in their purest forms; it's a great time to rediscover both products.
4:45 PM – The Answer
Ryan takes me to The Answer, another legendary local business in an unassuming location. Owner An Bui opened the spot two years ago after gaining critical acclaim for the incredible beer list he'd cultivated over the course of two decades at his family's strip mall Vietnamese restaurant, Mekong. Now, next door, he and former homebrewer Brandon Tolbert crank out their own world-class beers served only on draught.
As soon as Travis arrives, An begins to put sample after sample of fresh beer in front of us. "Berliner Weiss with cranberry and mango – very fruity!" An exclaims excitedly. "Grand Larceny—our west coast IPA, a flagship beer!" Without allowing us to catch our breath or ask a single question, he's dropping dozens of snifters on us. Among them: Hard in the Paint, a single-hopped Double IPA; Mouth Hug, a 100 percent Citra-hopped brew; and King Kahuna, a coconut-hazelnut-Kona coffee-stout. An's enthusiasm for beer is infectious, and I'm literally laughing out loud at the bounty of beer before us. I ask him how much beer The Answer produces in a year, and he replies, quite matter-of-factly, "We never count."
7:00 PM – Strangeways Brewing
Chef Dylan joins us at the funky, colorful taproom of Strangeways Brewing. We sit outside with tasters of quirky beers such as Wood Booger (a Belgian-Style Brown), Uberlin (a Berliner Weisse), and a hoppy red ale called GWAR Blood (yes, the band has mafia-like reach in Richmond, apparently).
8:00 PM – Rooftop at Quirk Hotel
The four of us head back to my hotel to sip cocktails atop the Quirk's beautiful rooftop bar, and for a moment, I almost feel like I'm in southern California. Then the breeze kicks up, and with a shiver I am jolted back to reality. We're definitely still in Richmond.
9:00 PM – Maple & Pine
Downstairs, Chef David Dunlap is serving up delicious dinners for Quirk's in-house restaurant, Maple & Pine. The four of us peruse the seasonal menu and order apps for the table, including roasted bone marrow, smoked amber jack, and chicken liver mousse, along with a wonderful bottle of 2012 RdV Friends and Family, a Bordeaux-style Virginia wine.
And then, in walks Jason Tesauro, National Brand Director for Barboursville Vineyards, an O.G. of the Virginia wine scene. He comes bearing a bottle of 2012 Octagon, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, and I am blown away by this elegant, rich, complex stuff that I'd put up against French Bordeaux any day.
As we sip and eat, we all simultaneously discover and discuss how well all of the delicious, mineral-y juice goes with the gaminess and rich fat of the chicken liver. I can't help but think about the ease with which the Croxtons weave in and out of low and high culture, cursing like sailors between slurps of oysters on a working farm one day, and politely dining on pan-roasted cobia atop a white-tablecloth the next. And I realize that in many ways, they are the walking incarnations of Richmond, Virginia: a complex, richly layered city – cultured and refined, yet hard-working and accessible – to which I can't wait to return.