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Seafood buffets are still popular in Rivah country

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Hurley’s Hotel and Restaurant in Urbanna (above) had a seafood buffet in 1948 when this photo was taken. The lines of customers waiting to be seated at Hurley’s on Saturday nights for the buffet often went from what is today Virginia Street Cafe to where the restaurant once stood. Boyd and Virginia Hurley operated the establishment. Today, the The Residences at Oyster Harbor Condominiums is located at the old Hurley Restaurant site. (Courtesy of Ben Wilson)

by Larry Chowning

For seafood lovers, the 1970s and 80s bring back fond memories of waiting in long lines at restaurants such as Taylor’s in Deltaville for the Saturday night all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.

Seafood buffets are nothing new to the area as Hurley’s Hotel and Restaurant in Urbanna had an extremely popular Saturday night buffet in the 1940s and 50s. On Saturday night, lines of people stretched from the Five and Ten Cent Store building (today Virginia Street Cafe) down Virginia Street to Hurley’s Restaurant on Urbanna Creek, where The Residences at Oyster Harbor Condominiums is located today.

A classic tale by the late Dr. A.L. VanName Jr. speaks to the popularity of that buffet. It was spring of 1947 when croaker and other fish flooded the Rappahannock River. Haul seine fishermen were making a clear fortune off their catches and Hurley’s had plenty fried croaker, spot and trout on its buffet.

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Crab legs are a favorite serving at the Lowery’s Seafood Restaurant buffet in Tappahannock on Friday nights.

Friends arrived at the VanName house on a Saturday afternoon and Grace, Dr. VanName’s wife, encouraged them all to go to Hurley’s to get the seafood buffet. When they arrived, they had to park up in town and stand in line that was backed up to the top of Virginia Street.

They had not been in line long when a man ran up to Dr. VanName and said his wife was having a baby. The man lived just a little ways from there in town so Dr. Van Name jumped in his car and rushed to the home. The delivery took about 45 minutes. Afterwards, the good doctor washed up and went back to see where Grace and their friends were in line. They were still waiting, but a short distance from the restaurant’s front door.

Lowery’s buffet
On a recent Friday night, I dined at Lowery’s Seafood Restaurant in Tappahannock and had the $38 seafood buffet. The buffet consisted of crab legs, steamed shrimp and clams, broiled scallops, fried popcorn shrimp, sweet chili bacon-wrapped shrimp, fried oysters, fried clams, soft-shell crabs, breaded cod fish, clean hard crabs (steamed), bacon-wrapped scallops, macaroni and cheese, string-bean casserole, spoon bread, hush puppies, steamed squash, corn on the cob, potato salad, mashed potatoes, rice puddling and all types of desserts.

Oh yeah, there also were fried fog legs. It brought back some fond memories of gigging bullfrogs in Middlesex and King and Queen counties’ millponds and taking them home to my mother to be fried for supper. It was my highlight of any meal, and for me the highlight of the Lowery’s buffet.

Eddie Payne of Saluda was having the buffet and had heard about it from a radio advertisement. He and his son Brad came specifically for dungeness crabs. “I’ve always been a fan of dungeness crab,” said Eddie. “The crab is good but it (the buffet) is all good and don’t forget to try the frog legs.”

There is so much food it can be overwhelming, and the first time through the line I missed the frog legs. “Frog legs . . . you’ve got to be kidding me,” I told Eddie. “Where?”

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Lowery’s Seafood Restaurant in Tappahannock has nautical reminders throughout the building of where the seafood they serve is caught. The above deadrise Chesapeake Bay workboat model is rigged for dredging oysters—and fried oysters are part of the Lowery’s Friday night all-you-can=eat buffet.

“Read the labels over top of the food,” Eddie responded.

Each dish is well labeled to let the customer know what is available. The problem is that the first time around the food looks so good, who wants to look up at labels. The second time around you are wondering, “What did I miss the first time?” So you are more inclined to read the food labels the second time through.

When I went back for seconds, looking for frog legs, there were only a few left in the tray. I worked on that tray, leaving but a mouthfull for someone else. If you’ve ever heard that frog legs taste like chicken, I would say the taste is close—but frog legs are a bit better than chicken. I left Lowery’s filled to the brim with oysters, clams and scallops, all topped off with frog legs. 

Lowery’s is one of the oldest restaurants in the area and owner Robert Lowery said people love the buffet. He started it several years ago on Friday nights and it has been a hit. “The most popular seafood is the soft-shell crabs,” he said. “Some customers pile their plates high with just soft-shells.”

Other buffets
The Pilot House Restaurant in Topping has an evening seafood buffet for $21.95 on Fridays and Saturdays. The buffet consists of Alaskan crab legs, fried oysters, clam strips, steamed shrimp, fish, fried chicken, scallops, popcorn shrimp, hush puppies, salad bar, vegetables, and homemade dessert bar. The buffet starts at 5 p.m. and ends at 9 p.m on both nights.

The Pilot House also has a Saturday and Sunday morning breakfast buffet that includes salt herring at the top of the list of foods. The cost is $6.70.

Wilkerson’s Seafood Restaurant in Colonial Beach has a $29.95 seafood buffet on Saturdays starting at 5 p.m. and Sundays starting at noon. It features steamed spiced shrimp, fried shrimp, fried oysters, crab cakes, broiled flounder, fried cod, fried clam strips, steamed mussels, barbecued ribs, green beans, au gratin potatoes, homemade cobbler and salad bar.

There are many fine restaurants in Rivah country, but if volume and variety are what you are looking for, try one of the seafood buffets.

posted 06.29.2017

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