Photos and words by Steve Deason
There are ninety-three locations in Richmond that post their tap list on Richmond born “what’s on tap site” Trinkin.com. Breweries are on the list, but many restaurants now offer craft on draft too and are redefining the term taphouse. Richmond’s Mekong Vietnamese Restaurant was heralded by Craftbeer.com as the best beer bar in America for three years straight before they altered the contest in 2015 to winners by state. An Bui’s Mekong and his neighboring Answer Brewpub’s state of the art taproom have been well documented in this magazine and many others. Listed below are nine more restaurants that originated in Richmond where craft beer fans are sure to find a draft beer they love.
James Talley was already a fan of British Ales when work with Hard Rock Cafe brought him to Northern Virginia. There he discovered local craft beer from breweries such as Old Dominion Brewery and when he opened Memphis Bar & Grill in Richmond he searched out such beers to put on tap. Memphis was the first and largest account for Sam Adams in Richmond. Jim Dickerson was President of James River Homebrew Club around the time he met Talley at Memphis. Talley was planning a restaurant and Dickerson asked “what do you think about doing a dinner place with beer instead of wine?” The two opened The Commercial Taphouse in the fall of 1993 with eight taps of quality imports and whatever craft beer they could find. The Commercial Taphouse served Legend Brewery’s very first keg in 1994 and kept their Brown Ale on tap for over fifteen years.
The year 1995 was a busy one for Talley and Dickerson. A second Commercial Taphouse was opened in Norfolk. Just back from England, the partners got a phone call that noted beer and whisky writer Michael Jackson was at Legend Brewery. Jackson wanted to come to Commercial Taphouse because it was the only place with Stoudts Maibock on draft. Talley and Dickerson were big fans of Jackson’s books on beer. The jetlagged partners rushed to meet him and a photo from Jackson’s visit hung proudly in the taphouse for years to come. Talley and Dickerson had been in England to learn more about cask ale. Cask ale, sometimes referred to as Real Ale, is served with only natural carbonation and is not pasteurized. A cask hand pump was obtained for the taphouse from a friend of Dickerson’s who bought it at a yard sale in England.
The beer menu at Commercial Taphouse was ever changing based on supply. In the early days, they might get a keg of Sierra Nevada or Anchor Steam but sometimes the best they could find from the U.S. was the Miller Reserve Series. The tap count was increased to fifteen when supplies improved. In later years Talley added a new partner, Sean O’Hern. The two built the beer menu around styles. There would always be a dark beer such as a stout or porter. Pilsner, Hefeweizen, Pale Ale, IPA, and Double IPA styles plus Belgian Beer were also standard offerings.
Dickerson points out that craft and import distributor Specialty Beverage launched in 1991 was a main supplier in the early days. He said distributors didn’t have enough demand to make money selling a wide assortment of craft beer in Richmond until Capital Ale House opened in 2002. “We weren’t big enough to make that happen, we were competitors but we benefited from their (impact)” admitted Dickerson. Commercial Taphouse was sold to Mekong owner An Bui in 2014.
Capital Ale House
Real Estate Publishers Mike and Linda Jones met Matt Simmons and Chris Holder at Legends Pub where the two worked. Simmons had been thinking for a while about possible beer centric ventures when he discovered a “turnkey” restaurant location in downtown Richmond. The four beer enthusiasts became partners and after much work on a very old building the first Capital Ale House opened in November of 2002 with an ice rail bar and over fifty taps. Additional locations were opened in the Richmond areas of Innsbrook and Midlothian plus in the cities of Fredericksburg and Harrisonburg. Capital Ale House’s slogan is “raise the bar” which is apropos since this has been the owner’s goal since the beginning. Offering a unique selection of beer was just the first step. They sought to differentiate their restaurants with fine dining versus pub grub. Ambiance was important too. Linda Jones says their designs were to make it “comfortable and enjoyable, where you could talk to your neighbor at the bar about what they are drinking.” To this end, none of the Capital Ale Houses had TVs until 2013.
The five locations tap counts range from 51 to Innsbrook’s 101. Holder says in the early days “They were told what came in, asked have you ever heard of it, and do you want it? We got our hands on everything we could. Now selection is huge and we could support more taps but freshness would be an issue. ” About half of Capital Ale House’s taps are dedicated to Virginia breweries and about ten percent are imports. After the economic crash in 2008, Simmons launched Project Virginia which was a further commitment to support local suppliers, tradesmen, and charities near each location.
Capital Ale House has always had an impressive assortment of bottled and canned beer. At Holder’s suggestion the “to go” prices were lowered and are competitive with retailers. This insures the inventory stays fresh and is part of a “one stop shop” beer offering that includes growlers. Kegs are available at Midlothian and Innsbrook locations and plans are to do so at others. Happy Hour specials are from 3-6:30pm weekdays with discounts on growlers Thursdays.
Cask Cafe & Market
James Talley opened Cask Cafe in late 2013 in partnership with David Garrett, Jason McClellan, and Sean O’Hern. Talley says the beer knowledge and the unique selection at their “Czech style cafe” are superior to most everywhere in town. In December Cask Cafe was nominated by industry professionals for an Elby award for best Beer Program. Elby sponsor Richmond Magazine will reveal the winners in a ceremony to be held February 21. The food menu features Richmond made Sausage Craft Sausages and Billy Bread plus cheeses, sandwiches and occasional soups. The sixteen taps feature unique beers covering a wide variety of styles. The esoteric can and bottle offerings sell fast to knowledgeable fans. Happy hour specials are from 3-7pm every day and there is also a “growler hour.”
White Horse Tavern
James Talley opened his newest venture in the fall of 2015 and named it after a favorite pub in England. Chef Stephen Henderson prepares freshly made British fare such as meat pies and fish and chips plus some favorites from Commercial Taphouse’s old menu. There are twelve taps and one hand pump. Talley says he “tries to do what others don’t do by remembering the German and Czech Pilsners plus British Ales, the original beers that got us to where we are.” U.S. craft beer plus beers from Belgium and Italy (which Talley says are “big now”) are also in the tap mix. Talley says White Horse’s early dining popularity with neighborhood families has caused him to add a children’s menu and additional toddler seating. Happy Hour is from 4-7pm and all day Sunday. Pints are $2.50 each for “kick the keg” specials on Mondays.
After needed renovations to the draft system Commercial Taphouse was re-opened in October of 2014 with An Bui’s niece running the kitchen. “Thuy Bui’s menu is unlike anywhere else in the city. Calling it Asian fusion doesn’t do it justice” says Sean O’Hern who is still a partner at the taphouse. O’Hern manages the twenty taps and says “the line-up changes constantly based on what is fresh and blowing our minds.” The taps are split equally between Virginia craft, U.S. craft and imports with a few dedicated to cider and artisanal wine. The approximately twenty-five bottled or canned beers they offer are focused on sour, wild, and strong beers. Happy Hour is four to six each day and there is always a spotlighted Virginia Beer for $3 a goblet. “It is a great way to get folks to try something new and promote the many great breweries across the state” says O’Hern about his favorite special. Commercial Taphouse will be hosting a special sour/wild beer tap takeover in February.
Southern Railway Taphouse
General Manager Mark Chavez describes Southern Railway Taphouse as an “energetic restaurant, except for Friday and Saturday nights we are a busy bar. What makes us unique is our beer selection, a good selection of whiskies, consistent food quality, great service and just a great place to hang out and not feel like you’re at a club.” Southern Railway Taphouse and its forty taps are located near Richmond’s Canal Walk. A second location has opened in West Palm Beach, Florida. Chavez says roughly sixty percent of their draft list is from Virginia breweries. Southern Railway Taphouse was opened in August of 2013 by partners Hani Atallah and Chris Farag. The partners recently opened another beer centric restaurant in Richmond called District 5 that has about forty-five taps.
Hurley’s Tavern Co-owner Mark Hurley says “Our menu offers non-typical and innovative tavern fare with over fifty percent vegetarian and vegan options as well. We prepare almost everything in house from fresh ingredients with predominantly locally sourced foods.” Hurley and his co-owners Janice Rossano, Amanda Brown, and Tray Vanneman are visibly involved in daily operations. Hurley says you might find as many as sixteen of the twenty taps are Virginia beers. Hurley’s Tavern often hosts special events featuring local breweries. Growlers are available and happy hour is noon to eight every day. By press time a second Hurley’s Tavern should be open in Charlottesville.
Brew American Gastropub
Karen Verdisco, a self-described foodie, launched the first Brew in Chester in 2013. The goal was to create a craft beer centric non-chain restaurant with a fresh seasonal menu near her home. When a location opportunity arose, a second larger Brew was opened in Midlothian in December of 2014. Verdisco points out that “The suburbs don’t usually have such an offering.” The Chester location offers thirty taps and the Midlothian location seventy. About five percent of the draft beers are imports. About one in five taps are dedicated to Virginia Breweries. In order to educate the customers and reduce the intimidation such a large selection might create, Brew offers “Beer School” at both locations every Saturday at 4pm. Beer Buyer Joey Johnson hosts the event at one location while a lead bartender hosts the other. Happy Hour is Monday through Friday from 3-6pm with $2 discounts on pints, appetizers, and glasses of wine.
Sergios’ Proprietor Joe Conigliaro and his family are planning a huge twenty-fifth anniversary celebration on June 17. If he hadn’t changed his tap list, the celebration might not be so great. Conigliaro said he found the business had stagnated and wasn’t selling much wine or beer. Sergios tap offerings were three “megabrew lights” plus one each from Yuengling and Devils Backbone. After a friend took him to Mekong he revamped his draft list to sixteen craft beers plus Miller Lite. Sergios tap list increased to thirty when after many requests a bar was added in June of 2014. Conigliaro says he “will put his tap list (and pizza) up against anyone’s. Craft beer drinkers … want what’s new, what’s seasonal.” Usually ten to twelve Virginia beers are on tap. Imports are mostly Belgian and he tries to offer a sour or two. Conigliaro says they update their beer list on Trinkin.com within thirty minutes of a change. Happy Hour is 3-7 with most craft drafts two dollars off. Growler fills are half-off on Sundays.
Dennis Barbaro launched Sedona Taphouse in December of 2011 in Midlothian after years of association with Outback and Bonefish Grill operations. His vision was of a high quality restaurant experience that catered to both the beer and wine lover. Additional locations are open in Fredericksburg and Charlottesville as well as outside of Virginia. Barbaro states “each location has fifty taps and over five hundred craft beers total. I believe we have the largest craft beer selection in Virginia and one of the largest on the east coast.“ From forty to fifty percent of the tap list is Virginia brewed.
Barbaro says “we prepare our food in house …such as fresh hand cut fish and hand cut Choice Certified Angus steaks cooked on a wood burning grill… we have no fryers.” Sedona was voted “Best Happy Hour” and “Best Bar” in a 2015 Richmond Times Dispatch contest. Happy Hour runs from 3-6:30pm and includes food, wine and cocktails. All drafts are half-off from 3-5pm and growler fills are half off on Thursdays. Every Sunday at 1pm. Sedona hosts a free craft beer seminar and tasting.