In the good old days, when one left the Northern Neck crossing the Rappahannock River, Tappahannock offered prospective diners the opportunity to enjoy a spectacular culinary treat. Situated on the west side of the conjoined Routes 360 and 17, stood the Marlyn Café in a small cinderblock building with its name in a red neon light.
The establishment opened on July 4, 1949, and the owner, Marlyn Fletcher, was a chef par excellence. The restaurant was built by her parents, and inherited by her, but she received far more than a building and a piece of real estate. She and all of her customers were the beneficiaries of her family’s recipes, all of which she happily shared with her diners.
The building itself, given its size, was conducive to “friendly” dining, where patrons became acquainted with each other. The tables were typical of the age with linoleum surfaces, and the booths were handmade by Marlyn’s father.
Marlyn did all of the cooking and food preparation herself, and frequently served the meals as well. The ambience often required patience on the part of the diners, but everyone was focused on the sumptuous meal about to be served, and the time passed pleasantly.
As a chef, Marlyn had a special flair for seafood, and I am sure her other entrees were equally tasty, but I never could pass over her oyster and crab offerings. I always had the thought in the back of my mind that if I ordered something else, I should be driving home regretting not having gotten the crab cakes or the fried oysters.
As a starter, soup was a must, and the choices were oyster stew or clam chowder. Marlyn did not use milk in her oyster stew, which she thought limited the unique taste of the oysters. The result was sublime. Her New England clam chowder was equally memorable. Here, she not only used milk and cream, but added real pieces of bacon as a supplemental flavoring.
For entrees, Marlyn’s crab cakes, fried oysters or seafood platter were the clear winners. She would add small pieces of curly parsley to the crab cakes and prided herself on their containing no filler material. The seafood platter was amazing when one realized that a tiny restaurant could offer such a variety.
Everything Marlyn served was fresh. I do not think she knew what frozen food was. She bought all of her food locally, from the seafood to the vegetables, some of which she grew in her yard between the restaurant and her home behind it. Sysco made no money from the Marlyn Café.
My parents had started taking me to Marlyn’s in my youth, and I always thought of going there as a special treat. A few days after my father died, I decided to drive up to Marlyn’s for dinner. She was heartfelt in expressing her condolences, and after the meal, she said had she known of his passing, she would have made an expression of sympathy, therefore she wanted me to think of the bounteous meal I had eaten as her offering.
As Tappahannock expanded southward, the little café was swallowed up in the burgeoning hubbub of commercial activity. A chain lumber yard bought the property next to Marlyn’s, and ultimately she agreed to sell the building. The chain moved her home, but the idyllic café was demolished. I still look over to the site when passing through Tappahannock and think of the great dining experiences our family had there. For the years that Marlyn’s operated, Tappahannock had its own Julia Child.