A Slice of New England Oyster Culture Comes to the Richmond Waterfront

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Overhead view of a seafood spread: raw oysters on the half shell over ice, shrimp cocktail, and fish crudo.
An extravagant spread of oysters, shrimp cocktail and fish crudo at Richmond's Rocky Island Oyster Co.  (Rocky Island Oyster Co.)

The only kind of restaurant Danny Pirello ever wanted to open was some kind of oyster shack or crab shack—the kind of laid-back spot his childhood in Scituate, Massachusetts, had imprinted onto his DNA. So that was Pirello’s first thought, years ago, when he saw the Craneway Pavilion, the sprawling, 45,000-square-foot, former Ford assembly plant on the Richmond waterfront: Wouldn’t this be the perfect site for an oyster bar?

Pirello finally brought that dream to fruition this past October when he quietly opened Rocky Island Oyster Co. at that very location, at the site of the old auto plant’s boiler room. He’s fashioned the place to be exactly the kind of oyster bar he missed from his days back East: a casual, family-friendly spot where a group of seafood enthusiasts might take down a few dozen oysters on the half shell, a couple of lobster rolls and a big, gorgeous, caper-studded plate of crudo. It doesn’t hurt that the outdoor tables overlook one of the most spectacular views of the bay.

Several people enjoy the waterfront view at Richmond's Craneway Pavilion.
One of Rocky Island's chief virtues is its million dollar view of the bay. (Rocky Island Oyster Co.)

“We’re not trying to do anything too fancy,” Pirello says. “It’s casual and it’s for the community. It’s for the Bay Area people to come and kick their feet up.”

Rocky Island Oyster Co. sits inside the space previously occupied by Assemble, a restaurant that shut down near the start of the pandemic when the entire Craneway Pavilion was set to be converted into an overflow hospital. That plan never came to fruition, and when the facility came under new management last year, Pirello and his business partners, Michael Petrilli and Calvin Young, decided to reconceptualize the restaurant space as a Ferry Building–style food hall—a fitting plan given the recent launch of the Richmond Ferry Terminal right outside the Craneway.

The newly conceived Assemble Marketplace is now home to three mini-restaurants and a full-fledged cocktail bar. In addition Rocky Island, there’s a barbecue spot called Tommy’s and a new iteration of Assemble run by the folks behind Brezo, which, before its original Point Richmond location closed during the pandemic, served one of the region’s best California-Mexican brunches. The restaurants share a handful of indoor tables and a little outdoor patio that faces the water. In the evenings, when that outdoor area is lit up with twinkling string lights—and everyone’s digging into a tray of plump oysters with a cold beer in hand—it’s about as quaint a scene as you can find in the East Bay.

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According to Pirello, the particular vibe that Rocky Island is shooting for is drawn straight from his own New England childhood. In one of Pirello’s earliest memories, he’s sitting on the beach outside his grandparents’ house in Scituate eating a giant stuffed clam. He’d spend weekends digging up clams on that same beach. His family would drive down the coast to Duxbury for fresh oysters just plucked from the water, or up to Cape Cod for lobster rolls at some little clam shack.

A lobster roll and a side of potato chips, served on top of red checkered paper.
The lobster roll is served in the East Coast style, with a top-cut bun. (Rocky Island Oyster Co.)

“When you sit down at that clam shack, it just feels like vacation, you know?” Pirello says. “And I noticed that that didn’t really exist in the same way in the Bay Area.”

Pirello worked for years as a bartender in Berkeley, and he’d always felt that the East Bay, in particular, was in desperate need of a destination oyster bar—its own answer to North Bay staples like Hog Island Oyster Co. and the Marshall Store, or to Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco. But he also wanted to put a particular New England spin on the menu, right down to the types of oysters that he offers, which are almost exclusively New England oysters that he ships in overnight from Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Massachusetts.

Counterintuitively, Pirello says, these East Coast oysters come in much fresher—literally just a day out of the water—than anything he’s able to source on the West Coast. More importantly, he believes the New England oysters are a special treat for Bay Area oyster lovers who haven’t had them before.

“I love a Kusshi. I love a Kumamoto or a Miyagi,” Pirello says of the popular West Coast oyster varieties. “But eating them is a whole different experience. It’s not that super-crisp, briny oyster that I’m used to.”

In another gesture toward New England, Rocky Island also always has a lobster roll on the menu and, often, a Dungeness crab roll served in the same style: cold, dressed in mayo and served on a proper top-cut bun.

But the restaurant also highlights the things Pirello loves most about the West Coast’s own unique oyster culture. It serves an Italian fish crudo, topped with capers and pickled red onions, that’s a direct homage to the version made famous by San Francisco’s Swan Oyster Depot. In a nod to a popular menu item at the Marshall Store, it pairs garlicky grilled oysters with garlic bread. Eventually, Pirello hopes to offer a full slate of East Coast and West Coast oysters so that customers can conduct their own side-by-side taste test.

And while Rocky Island is the kind of place where it’s easy to drop a couple hundred dollars on a big, celebratory seafood spread, Pirello says it was important to him for the place to still retain a community-oriented vibe, which he sees as one of the hallmarks of the West Coast’s multicultural oyster scene—a scene where, for instance, big groups of Filipinos and Mexican Americans routinely spend the day picnicking out on Tomales Bay with their families.

The inside of the Craneway Pavilion's massive, warehouse-y space lined with long oak tables for a special dinner.
For Valentine's Day, the restaurant spread out over the entire length of the Craneway Pavilion. (Rocky Island Oyster Co.)

So far, Pirello says, Rocky Island has a lot of that same kind of feel. “Everybody comes to the oyster bar,” he says. “It’s frequently not the Silicon Valley crowd that I’m used to at restaurants in San Francisco. It’s everyone else.” It’s people in Richmond who tell Pirello they’re so moved that he’s put an oyster bar right in their hometown.

That laid-back community spirit doesn’t mean the restaurant isn’t intent on providing a special experience, however. Pirello says his long-term goal is to open an adjacent diner that’s going to offer an "elevated," sit-down extension of the Rocky Island experience. (By that point, he also hopes to convert the business into a co-op or collectively owned restaurant of some sort.) And already, Pirello is trying to think of ways to creatively utilize Rocky Island’s prime piece of waterfront real estate.

For instance, last week on Valentine’s Day, the restaurant set up long oak tables throughout the length of the Craneway Pavilion—a makeshift dining room the size of two football fields. Pirello himself spent the night skateboarding up and down the Craneway, pouring champagne for diners who were there to enjoy their oyster dinner and the sparkling view of the bay.

“Oysters are such a deeply nostalgic food for people,” Pirello says. And he hopes Rocky Island will be a place where people can tap into those childhood memories. “Come with your family, come with your friends,” he says. “Take up as much space as you want. Stay all day.”

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Rocky Island Oyster Co. is open at Assemble Marketplace (1414 Harbour Way S, Richmond) Fridays 3–7pm, Saturdays 4–8pm, Sundays 12–5pm and Mondays 4–8pm.