If you’re a regular Paste Drink reader, then you’re no doubt very much aware that Richmond, Virginia is a great craft beer city—my own guide to the more than 40+ breweries in the greater Richmond area is arguably the longest city beer guide I’ve ever written, the product of having lived in Richmond since 2019. Almost every neighborhood of RVA has at least a brewery or two to call its own, and you’re never far from an excellent taproom.
One might expect, then, for the city to be awash in world-class beer bars as well, showing off the best Virginia beer culture has to offer, but they’re actually not quite as easy to find as the omnipresent brewery taprooms. There are a few reasons for this—notably, taproom culture has increasingly come to dominate the beer scene, with old-school beer bars being squeezed out by the very “drink local” culture they initially fostered. Secondly, Virginia law makes the operation of a true “bar” quite difficult in and of itself because of the mandate to sell a large amount of food with the alcohol, meaning the hole-in-the-wall beer bar without a full kitchen is an impossibility. What you’re left with is a collection of quasi-bar restaurants, which can happen to boast good tap lists.
With that said, there are a few classics within the Richmond scene that still fit the “beer bar” designation, and a few other modern restaurants that do a good job of offering an impressive beer selection. If you’re traveling through RVA and looking for a beer destination that isn’t a brewery taproom, put these places at the top of your list.
Honorable mentions: Union Market, Southern Railway Taphouse, Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint, Rare Olde Times
Mekong is the unquestioned paterfamilias of the Richmond craft beer scene, at least when it comes to bars and restaurants, and it’s still one of the better overall beer bars on the East coast more than 27 years after it first opened its doors in 1995. Owner An Bui truly seemed to be seeing the future when he decided to pair his traditional Vietnamese restaurant with a heavy focus on American and imported European beer, simultaneously building an audience that loved the restaurant for its food, and another that congregated for the beer. Eventually he also moved into the brewing game with the popular Answer Brewpub located next door, but Mekong and The Answer still maintain separate draft lists and identities from one another. Where The Answer’s menu hews more toward comfort bar food, Mekong takes on more traditional Vietnamese classics, and where The Answer is extremely devoted to modern conventions such as DDH hazy IPA and pastry stouts, Mekong maintains quite a bit more conceptual balance on its draft list.
It’s the latter feature that continues to make Mekong such a treasure in the modern day, in a time when too many draft menus are completely dominated by a handful of styles that include IPA, imperial stout and fruited or flavored sours. This is a bar that has truly stood the test of time, and the draft menu tends to reflect this, making room both for local classics and the Belgian imports that helped build the local beer community in the first place. One can also tend to find beers here that aren’t on tap anywhere else in Richmond, a testament to the influence that the bar long held as a tastemaker. The concept of the “beer bar” may not hold as much cache with drinkers as it used to, but Mekong is still very much essential to the Richmond experience.
If Mekong laid the foundations and did the early legwork for the craft beer scene of Richmond, then the Capital Ale House would have to be cited as the most prominent follow-up act. Founded in 2002, with its first location in downtown Richmond, the modest chain today consists of six locations in Virginia, and three in the greater RVA area. The original downtown RVA location is still around, and it can boast a lovely alley patio that some visitors are likely to overlook.
Capital Ale House locations tend to maintain a pretty large draft list overall, with a focus on Virginia breweries, although the pricing isn’t always exactly competitive with local taprooms—you will routinely find beer from a local brewery such as Triple Crossing going for several dollars more here than the same pour would cost you in the taproom. In fact, the biggest selling point for the Capital Ale House might actually be its food—their menu is sprawling and extremely eclectic, but its anchor is one of the best executions of the “brewery soft pretzel” you’ll ever find. Also, a word to the wise: Savvy customers will take a minute to peruse the bottle and cans menu, as you can often find the best beer values here.
Holding down the fringe of Richmond’s popular Carytown neighborhood, a hub for the city’s bars and restaurants, you’ll find Cask Cafe, one the city’s best but most unassuming little beer destinations. Essentially a “beer cafe,” as it were, The Cask styles itself with more of a continental European flair, structured around a food menu of house made sausages, rolls and baguettes, along with charcuterie, cornichons and the assorted accoutrement. It’s a friendly little joint—no frills in terms of decor, but with a genuine focus on quality beer.
The beer menu, meanwhile, isn’t the biggest in the area but it is nicely balanced, and it tends to include both foreign imports and beer from some smaller Virginia breweries that aren’t necessarily found with regularity throughout Virginia. All in all, where a business like the Capital Ale House feels built for franchising, the Cask Cafe is very much the opposite, an eccentric local gem.
Crafted is a testament to the fact that sometimes an excellent beer bar doesn’t even really seem to advertise (or recognize) its own status as a beer destination. The marketing on this upscale southern dining destination in RVA’s Libbie Mill neighborhood seems to focus more on the food and the solid cocktail program, but not to be overlooked are the 30 gleaming tap handles. Menu highlights include classic southern staples such as shrimp ‘n grits, fried chicken, pork chops and fresh fish, all of which are complemented nicely by one of the more well-rounded bar programs in Richmond.
The beer list here really is impressive, both in terms of scope and balance. It’s a good place to sample sought-after drafts from RVA staples such as Triple Crossing and The Veil, but one will also spot occasional hard-to-find selections from out-of-state breweries as well. Likewise, Crafted maintains a nice balance in styles—there’s a lot of IPA here, sure, but there always seem to be at least a few excellent lagers, along with some impressive barrel-aged stouts and dependable local beer flagships. All in all, they display more curation in the beer list than many similar RVA restaurants, and that’s what makes the place stand out.
And finally, what beer scene would be complete without at least one proper pub? Downtown Richmond plays home to this spot-on English pub, which truly feels like an island of class and comfort in an area without many great bars to its name. Founded by a Liverpool native and in operation since 1979, this place is an utter fixture, and not even the pandemic could put a hitch in its stride. Inside, one will find an absurd amount of British paraphernalia papering every possible surface, and a menu that delivers spot-on versions of all the expected classics of the genre, from fish ‘n chips and chicken curry to cottage pie, Cornish pasties or bangers and mash.
The beer list, meanwhile, truly is a comforting tribute to an era of the American beer bar that has long since vanished, serving the likes of Old Speckled Hen on nitro, or classic British pale ale/porter from Fuller’s. You’ll find Scottish ales and Guinness (of course) alongside just enough European imports and a handful of American craft selections to round things out. Or if you’re not in the mood for beer, there’s also plenty of cider or scotch whisky to whet your whistle. Genuine places like Penny Lane are becoming more of a rarity with each passing year, so we owe it to ourselves to hang onto whichever ones we can.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.