Explore the Chesapeake Region's Charming Oyster Culture

Dive into the Virginia Oyster Trail’s charming maritime culture over a plate of oysters on the half shell.

Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Rappahannock Oyster Co. began in the town of Topping in 1899 and is now run by the fourth generation. Photo: Gabriela Herman

Virginia Settlers arriving in the New World penned letters marveling about oysters the size of dinner plates to friends and family back home across the pond, but colonists were hardly the first to sing their praises. "In Roman times, a day's worth of work equaled one oyster," says Dudley Patteson, owner of Hope and Glory Inn in Irvington, who was instrumental in creating the official Virginia Oyster Trail. "They were so valuable that Roman soldiers had to guard them."

Patteson isn't one to keep a good thing to himself. He partnered with Virginia tourism agencies and enlisted help from area restaurants, oyster producers, and historians—all to connect travelers with the best experiences in the state.

"We wanted to make Virginia synonymous with oysters the way Maine is with lobsters," he says. Mission accomplished. Now known as the Oyster Capital of the East Coast, Virginia produces more than 40 million of these bivalves annually. Thanks to the oyster trail and water-conservation efforts, the commonwealth has seen a surge in visitors looking for this distinctive taste of the Chesapeake region.

Ryan and Travus Croxton
Cousins Ryan (left) and Travis Croxton are co-owners of Rappahannock Oyster Co. Gabriela Herman

One needn't search any farther than Lancaster and Middlesex Counties, where a trio of small, rural towns—Urbanna, Irvington, and Kilmarnock—sits deep in the heart of oyster country and less than two hours away from Richmond. Although Chesapeake watermen (with weathered faces and tough hands from years of fishing, crabbing, and oystering) have eked out a living here for generations, the area is more blue-blooded than blue-collar in certain places. Irvington, the state's swankiest coastal town, was once the playground of visiting Presidents. This area has been called "Mayberry Meets Manhattan" and still hosts dignitaries, many of whom came for a weekend and never left. A few miles inland, Kilmarnock, a seasoned retirement community, has superb shopping with stores dedicated to the lifestyle of the Northern Neck (the northernmost peninsula of Virginia on the western shore of the Chesapeake).

Like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, the town of Urbanna leaves guests spellbound by its seaside charm. Glossy white sailboats glide across the Rappahannock River, or "rivah" as locals say. The boats unload travelers who are hungry for both Urbanna's mystique and its oysters. "People want food sourced from the waters that they see when coming into the state," Patteson says. "They don't want something from Long Island."

Chatham Vineyards
Visit family-owned Chatham Vineyards. Gabriela Herman

Nothing tastes more like its origins than a Virginia oyster. Eight different regions let patrons sample locally sourced catches from surrounding streams, tributaries, and rivers—not just the bay. The flavor profile changes depending on where you are. For example, low-bay Eastern Shore oysters thrive closer to the Atlantic and taste saltier. Those from the Tidewater region maintain a sweet profile, while the Tangier Island ones are the smallest in the Chesapeake and have a creamy finish.

Chefs across the state offer tastings with Virginia wine pairings for an intoxicating experience. Several oyster farms share water space with local wineries, so the combinations come naturally. Bordeaux, France, is the only region in the world besides Virginia where this organic partnership occurs. To honor the practice, Patteson and his wife, Peggy, treat patrons to such pairings at the Dog and Oyster Micro-Vineyard and Oyster Bar, located in front of their Hope and Glory Inn.

Wineries offer pairings that are unique to the area. Gabriela Herman

Guests sample local wines, select a favorite bottle to imbibe, and then choose an oyster from one of the regions to pair. They also get to decide how they'd like them prepared: raw, roasted, or smoked. Ethiopian-born and French-trained chef Meseret Crockett wows with her raw-oyster creations, one of which is served chilled with lime juice and mint. It's like sorbet and goes down smooth.

In November, these simple but masterfully executed recipes bring revelers to the Urbanna Oyster Festival, the biggest bivalve bash in Virginia and one of the largest in the world. Urbanna takes center stage to host the event that's been known to attract a whopping 55,000 people. It all kicks off with the crowning of a teenage Oyster Festival Queen and a first-grade Little Miss Spat (a "spat" is a young oyster) on Friday. Every vehicle with a siren streaks by during the Fireman's Parade. Live music and a town dance encourage visitors to work up a big appetite for Saturday's gluttony. Plenty of wine tastings and food booths grip attendees by the taste buds. Can't-miss items include the oyster stew from Aylett Country Day School. According to area transplant Martha Rodenburg, "Anything from the Christchurch School booth is a must."

Taste eight regional flavors on the Virginia Oyster Trail. Gabriela Herman

Shucker extraordinaire and Urbanna town treasure Deborah Pratt is a celebrity at festivals and oyster roasts across the state. Like her parents, Pratt formerly made a living toiling in oyster houses before she hit it big with shucking. "I've been running behind oysters for 35 years," she admits. Named second in the world of shuckers, she remains one of the few women to compete in Ireland at the international level. A cancer survivor who is on oxygen, Pratt is determined to maintain both her strength and her title. "I take the tank with me," she says proudly. "I'll shuck no matter what! If my eyes are open and my hands are willing, I will be onstage."

"I almost beat her, almost!" jokes Capt. Will Smiley about an encounter with Pratt. Smiley's Chesapeake Gold oyster tour is a bucket list experience for bivalve lovers. The two-and-a-half-hour jaunt leaves from the historic Tides Inn Marina in Irvington. His tour sweeps past stately waterfront homes owned by CEOs and politicians who seek solace in the area's unspoiled beauty. But nothing upstages Smiley's show. "I once got a phone call saying they wanted to name me captain of the Urbanna Oyster Festival," he muses. "Later, a friend told me, 'Well, that means you'll be dead soon because most of Urbanna's captains are like 95."

Tides Inn gardens
Spacious rooms at the historic Tides Inn provide sweeping views of the nearby waterscape or the property’s gardens. Gabriela Herman

With Old Spice swagger and everyman charm, Smiley shows off oyster beds constructed from recycled shells, pulls up seafood cages to give guests a closer look, and shares a quick shucking lesson. Back on land, he jams to Bob Marley while guests watch him fill the grill with bounty from the tour. Adding to the dockside drama, the captain grabs a handful of river grime and purposely muddies the water of a fish tank lined with oysters. "By the time we finish eating, this tank will be clean again," he promises. Guests sit mesmerized, mouths gaping and eyes as big as boulders, when a male oyster unhinges his crooked shell and tiny bubbles fizz out in a straight line. Slowly, it creaks itself shut again. The painstaking process repeats until the mud is magically erased. Though not clean enough to drink, it can sustain sea life and plants.

"At one time, there were so many oysters that the entire bay got filtered in just three days," says Smiley. Hence the reason for building habitats around The Tides Inn: They help keep the water clean and the ecosystem balanced. Smiley's efforts comprise a $4 million restoration project that includes a separate oyster farm for the inn and its restaurants.

Oyster production isn't always a commercial enterprise, though. Homeowners can buy a bag of 500 spat for $35 at the seasonal Irvington Farmers Market. Local company Capt. Tom's Oyster Floats sells spat and a kit designed specifically for people who want to raise these mollusks on their private pond, creek, or river.

Capt. Chris Ludford on the water
Book a tour with Capt. Chris Ludford of Pleasure House Oysters. Gabriela Herman

"What I'm doing is not farming but oyster gardening," says owner Darryl Krolicki. "My clients aren't trying to compete with commercial businesses. They just want to eat them and help keep the waters clean." Doug Cash from Topping bought his spat and float from Capt. Tom's. Cash grew up in the area and visited The Tides Inn as a child. He still dines there once a month but also looks forward to feasting on his own bounty. "We live on the Rappahannock, and I'm growing 2,300 oysters off my dock," he says. "Having your own is a really big thing here."

And learning to eat them properly is a rite of passage. Lifelong connoisseurs devour the delicacy raw, laced only with smoke gifted from the grill. Novices wield oyster knives like toddlers grasping forks for the first time. That is, until they find their rhythm and can slurp them down like Smiley (whose personal recipe includes lemon juice, red onions in balsamic vinegar, and cocktail sauce). "If you don't like oysters, it's probably because you haven't had them the right way," he says. Thanks to the generosity of Virginians, now you can.

Don't miss these unforgettable coastal Virginia highlights.

Fishermen on the water
Spot local fishermen on the water. Gabriela Herman


The Tides Inn, Irvington

The grande dame, which opened in 1947, inspires with waterfront rooms, fire pits for making s'mores, and activities galore.

Hope and Glory Inn, Irvington

This former boarding school turned inn offers guests the choice between booking a room in the main house or reserving a private cottage.

Hope and Glory Inn
Stay at Hope and Glory Inn. Gabriela Herman


Chesapeake Restaurant & Terrace at The Tides Inn, Irvington

When the weather permits, dine alfresco on rich she-crab soup and local seafood.

Merroir, Topping

Owned by Rappahannock Oyster Co., this tasting room serves dishes that incorporate famed Rappahannock oysters and Olde Salts, a brand from Chincoteague. On chilly days, diners stop in for bowls of oyster chowder. The Stuffin Muffin, a blend of savory dressing and bacon that's drenched in an oyster cream sauce, is a seafood lover's dream.

Dog and Oyster Micro-Vineyard and Oyster Bar, Irvington

Be sure to make a lunch date for this spot that's known for its delectable and creative tastings.

Oyster plate
Sample Dog and Oyster Micro-Vineyard and Oyster Bar’s raw offerings. Gabriela Herman


Kellum Farms Produce & Seafood, Irvington

The tiny fish market carries a Northern Neck favorite, Ole Cap'n Tom's 354 seafood seasoning—only the authentic stuff will do.

The Rivah, Kilmarnock

Here you can pick up oyster-shell accessories, Lilly Pulitzer resort wear, Northern Neck T-shirts, and Simply Southern apparel.

Oyster Plate Lady at Kilmarnock Antique Gallery, Kilmarnock

The largest oyster-plate seller in the country, this shop carries collectibles that will make you swoon. "Make the first plate you buy cost between $325 and $400, and let it serve as the anchor of your display," says owner Steve Bonner. "Don't get one with chips or cracks in it. There's no plate so rare that you can't find one that's pristine if you try."

Northern Neck Popcorn Bag, Kilmarnock

Try snacks before you buy. The Rivah Mix, a blend of popcorns flavored with beer and Old Bay seasoning, is a local favorite.

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