Oysters have been an abundant source of food since the first settlers landed in Virginia. Bivalves grown in and around the Chesapeake Bay offer a myriad of flavor profiles. Indeed, similar to wine’s terroir, the minerality of the water in which the filter-feeders are grown and climate features like rain affect the way they taste, a phenomenon called “merroir.” Because the bay is an estuary, where inland freshwater streams meet the open ocean, the oysters that grow in these ever-changing waters develop a fascinating array of characteristics, from salty to sweet. But you don’t have to travel far for the pleasure of eating these shellfish. Local oysters are at their best in winter, and area restaurants are making the most of this sustainable resource.
Where to Eat Oysters in D.C.
Eat the Rich: Oysterman Travis Croxton and restaurateur/mixologist Derek Brown combine their passions at this hip Shaw bar and bistro. Rappahannock oysters are a buck each during early evening and late-night happy hours, Tues. to Sun., with samplers offering Virginia specimens that range from briny to mild. Other mollusk specialties include shooters and a po-boy sandwich.
The Monocle: At this Capitol Hill spot, diners savor a round of raw bivalves, while scoping out political heavy hitters. Look for farm-raised Sewansecotts from Hog Island Bay and wild Chesapeake specimens, and ask what crisp, sparkling Virginia wine is being poured. In the evening, the mollusks are roasted with a curried Chardonnay sauce.
Old Ebbitt Grill: The skilled shuckers at this storied downtown saloon’s extensive raw bar are a treat to behold. Some five to seven East and West Coast oysters are featured regularly, with a half-price happy hour daily from 3 to 6 pm and 11 pm to 1 am. The bustling eatery also grills the mollusks with ham, garlic-chipotle butter and Romano cheese, and bakes them in a Rockefeller style.
The Prime Rib: Oysters on the half shell are a popular starter at this swanky supper club, where the romantic atmosphere seems to enhance the dining experience. A rich Rockefeller preparation offers another sumptuous treat. That dish has been on the menu for 50 years—a sure sign of a winner.
Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market: The Union Market outpost of this leading grower offers some of the freshest specimens around. Perched at the countertop in the food hall, diners compare the characteristics of oysters harvested in different Virginia waters on the sampler platter, then dig into the bacon-rich chowder for another dimension of flavor.
Tadich Grill: They’re all about oysters at the buzzy D.C. branch of this San Francisco seafood icon. And since it offers a raw bar plate that includes both an East Coast and a West Coast choice, it’s possible to make interesting flavor comparisons. (The Pacific Coast choice is likely to be a Kumamoto, known for its sweetness; Virginia’s White Stone has what the restaurant considers the “perfect” salinity.) For those who prefer their seafood cooked, the grill is famous for its deep-fried oyster omelet, the Hangtown Fry. Another specialty is an oyster casserole with a Creole sauce.
Oyster Restaurants in Northern Virginia
America Eats Tavern: Jose Andre’s lively bar and chic farmhouse dining room pays tribute to America’s culinary heritage. Here, there are plenty of opportunities to try an array of Chesapeake oysters raw with house-made condiments, as well as cooked versions like stews or sliders. Inspired by the iconic PB&J combo, the peanut-crusted oysters feature blueberry-onion jam and ham “air.”
Bastille: French chef Christophe Poteaux favors Virginia’s Northern Neck oysters at his handsome Old Town brasserie. They’re “sweet and buttery, with very little brininess,” he explains. Served raw, these delicacies arrive at the table in the Gallic manner—with a mignonette, a house-made cocktail sauce and fresh grated horseradish. Poteaux also offers the shellfish fried and baked in a classic Rockefeller preparation.
The Wharf: Chesapeake oysters, as well as those grown in Canadian waters, are featured at this historic Old Town fixture. One can always find an interesting sampler selection from the raw bar. And often, a prime variety is showcased at a special price. At lunchtime, the restaurant’s New Orleans style “peacemaker” fried oyster loaf provides yet another way to enjoy this multipurpose seafood. Look for baked oysters, served with bacon and flavorful seasonings, at dinner.
The Virginia Oyster Trail
The Virginia Oyster Trail offers a closer look at the harvesting region by connecting visitors with businesses tied to the shell- fish. In Northern Neck, acclaimed Merroir (784 Locklies Creek Rd., Topping, Va., 804.758.2871) showcases its parent Rappahannock Oyster Co.’s delicacies, serving them raw or cooked on an outdoor grill. Nearby, don’t miss the company’s dockside facility, where fourth-generation farmers tend the crops. The historic Tides Inn (480 King Carter Dr., Irvington, Va., 804.438.5000) acts as the launching pad for a watermen’s tour aboard a vintage, all-wooden Chesapeake Bay “dead rise” boat. Down the road, the Dog and Oyster Vineyard (170 White Fences Dr., Irvington, Va., 804.438.9463) offers Sriracha-spiked oyster tacos and local wines.