September #VaSpiritsMonth Tastemakers: Melissa Smith of Rappahannock Oyster Bar (Union Market), Washington DC

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by: Amy Ciarametaro

Melissa Smith is the enthusiastic Bar Manager for what the Wall Street Journal affectionately calls “One of the Best Oyster Bars in the Country,” Rappahannock Oyster Bar inside Union Market in Washington, D.C. Melissa wasn’t always a cocktail queen and oyster aficionada. She went to school and received her Masters in History & Museum Studies. Lucky for us, she decided the 9-to-5 gig wasn’t for her, thus forever changing the course of how consumers indulge and imbibe inside of one of D.C.’s seafood staples.

Every time I’m visiting the nation’s capital, going to Rappahannock Oyster Bar feels second nature to me. Need to do a business meeting? “Oh let’s gather at Rappahannock Oyster Bar, there’s free parking (FREE PARKING!!!) – and we can spread out in their additional seating across from the raw bar and order a few rounds of Stingrays / Olde Salts / and Rappahannocks for the group.” Or, “Oh we need to celebrate – why don’t we stop on by Rappahannock Oyster Bar and enjoy a couple of bivalves and Commonwealth Gin oyster shooters? You’re in? I thought so!”

Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market, Washington DC
Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market, Washington DC

It never ceases to amaze me how the folks at Rappahannock Oyster Bar can produce such extensive, lovely products with such a small space to work within. The kitchen has only four burners and a small grill, flattop and oven, but the crew produces some of the best food in the city for up to 400 seatings a day. The bar always has at least 5-6 house cocktails, not to mention 25 other classic and non-alcoholic cocktails.

Melissa and I talked about how local products are an integral part of their focus.#VaSpirits consistently inspire new ideas, and since they are made locally we know that they’ll work well with all of our other local ingredients,” she explains. All of the oysters are grown in the Chesapeake Bay watershed; which is the nation’s largest and most productive estuary. And the vast majority of their produce and other featured menu items come from the region as well. Melissa adds, “I can’t overstate enough how much we value our local purveyors and producers.”

Melissa Smith, Bar Manager for Rappahannock Oyster Bar
Melissa Smith, Bar Manager for Rappahannock Oyster Bar

Let’s talk more about how you guys are taking farm-to-table out of the kitchen and into the bar, Melissa. “Since we are an oyster bar, our oyster shooters are a point of pride, and we – of course – only use the ones from our Virginia farm. Not to mention, we make all of our syrups and infusions in house using local ingredients.”

One of the spirits they carry is Øster Vit, which is an Aquavit produced by James River Distillery. Øster Vit is uniquely paired with Rappahannock River Oysters because the distillate is steeped in Rappahannock River Oyster shells along with several other botanicals before its final distillation, making it the perfect cocktail component to accompany fresh oysters. It’s absolutely fabulous with Bloody Marys too!

Melissa waves the Virginia flag high in the District; and this is just one of the many reasons we’ve named her a September #VaSpiritsMonth Tastemaker! Stop on by Rappahannock Oyster Bar before the end of the month and ask Melissa for her special September Virginia Spirits Month cocktail, the Chesapeake Negroni! Or, try your hand at prepping this fun and easy cocktail at home with the below recipe.

Rappahannock Oyster Bar's September #VaSpiritsMonth Drink Special: The Chesapeake Negroni
Rappahannock Oyster Bar’s September #VaSpiritsMonth Drink Special: The Chesapeake Negroni

The Chesapeake Negroni, featuring James River Distillery’s Ostervit
1 oz. Øster Vit
1 oz. Suze
1 oz. Capitoline White Cordial

Stir and stain over ice. Garnish with an orange peel.


*Rapid Fire with Melissa Smith of Rappahannock Oyster Bar*

#VaSpirits: Where were you born?

Melissa: I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, and lived in the Piedmont Triad until I finished graduate school. My whole family still lives there.

#VaSpirits: Give us a glimpse of your daily routine!

Melissa: Actually, my husband I just bought a house, so we’re in the process of switching up our daily routine from D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood to Riggs Park. Since we’re both industry folk, nightcaps usually happen at our house.

#VaSpirits: When you’re not behind the bar at Rappahannock Oyster Bar, what do you enjoy doing?

Melissa: We LOVE the Nats, and, really, all D.C. sports teams. We also both love golf. Our pug, Lou, has total control of our house, which we invited and can’t change now. He’s already taken over the yard at our new house.

#VaSpirits: When you’re not drinking #VaSpirits, what do you enjoy drinking and why?

Melissa: Whiskey. From anywhere. Full stop.

#VaSpirits: To wrap things up, give us your best PG-rated joke!

Melissa: What did the fish say when it hit the wall?
                  Dam.

(Just a little seafood humor for you….)


For more information on the Rappahannock Oyster Bar, visit their website or follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Photo credit: Jay Paul