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Commercial Taphouse owner James Talley holds a patron-made memento of the bar's past: the 1998 St. Patrick's Day event.
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Randy Blythe, future Lamb of God frontman, during his stint working at the Commercial Taphouse.
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A montage of colleagues and patrons of the Commercial Taphouse.
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Commercial Taphouse co-founder James Talley displays the 15th anniversary T-shirt that lists the critical history of broken pint glasses, fires and one armed robbery.
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Michael Jackson, the renowned beer expert – not the gloved one — signed his approval to this early Commercial Taphouse beer menu.
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The levers of beer history: the Commercial Taphouse was, in 1993, the first Richmond restaurant to offer Legend beer outside of the Manchester brewery.
It’s James Talley’s last official day at the Commercial Taphouse & Grill, the mainstay Robinson Street establishment he co-founded in October 1993. The narrow dark pub, famed for its multiple taps of craft brews and conviviality, is closing out its epoch on Sunday. It’ll reopen in October with the same name, but under the ownership of beer maestro An Bui of Mekong and his newly opened next-door brew pub.
“I’ll be managing to stay vertical, as opposed to managing, tonight,” Talley says, wryly.
The first night of business in 1993, though, was barely managed chaos. Talley, and partners Sean O’Hern and Jim Dickerson, were uncertain whether their ABC license would come through in time. Talley ran into the building’s owner, Charlie Diradour, and expressed the anxious predicament. “Charlie says, ‘Hold on, let me make a phone call,’ ” Talley chuckles. “I’m not saying he had sway, but his family probably did. All of a sudden, he came by — with the license in his hand — and we were in business.”
Ready or not. The Commercial crew scrambled to prepare. They put a smoker behind the bar, because at the time it was the only place to plug it in, over which the bartender sought to pour beer to customers. “So that first night was total mayhem,” Talley says now, laughing. “We weren’t ready.”
The pairing of “Commercial” to a Richmond restaurant has a long history. A Commercial Café operated downtown during the early 1900s. In 1976, the Robinson Street place was Bogart’s Commercial Café, where Talley worked in the kitchen for a spell before he and the Deprogrammers, the band in which he performed, decamped to New York City. There, Talley worked for the Hard Rock Café for about five years and three more at the Washington, D.C., location. Then time came for him to move back home to Richmond and open his own place.
He started the Memphis Bar & Grill in Shockoe Bottom. He'd gotten interested in craft brews while in D.C. He tried products of the Old Dominion Brewing Co. and Chesbay and later Dark Horse, out of Michigan.
“We had crap and craft beers,” he recalls. As far as Talley knows, Memphis was the first to bring in anything outside of Samuel Adams and Yuengling. This continued with New Amsterdam and Wild Goose – the Snow Goose-head –shaped draft lever remains on the Taphouse wall. People want to buy it, but Talley shakes his head, “No, no. An [Bui] says he wants to keep this stuff right where it is.”
Talley met Dickerson while still running the Memphis, and they decided to try matching beer and food, and the idea evolved into beer dinners. “Mostly bottles and a few drafts,” Talley says. “We had to repeat a number of things. There just wasn’t that much." While judging the 1992 James River Home Brewers Competition, they engaged in a conversation about what to do next.
“And somewhere in drinking beer we decided — or he talked me into — opening a place just for craft beers. It was an insane idea at that time. It was ridiculous; we were terrified. The Home Brewers club in those days had maybe 30 members.” That is, the number of Richmond’s devoted beer aficionados then would make for a slow night at today's Taphouse.
The location on Robinson Street for about 10 years prior had been called the Commercial Café. The restaurant earned a reputation for award-winning ribs and pulled pork. Rather than change the name, Talley and his partners added “Taphouse.” They did not get the former restaurant’s barbecue sauce recipe. “They wanted $10,000 for it, and were serious, and we said, 'Nah, we’ll make it up ourselves.' ”
Other layers of history revealed themselves as they set to work creating the Commercial Taphouse. At some point, a pool hall occupied the barroom, and upstairs they found a row of telephone lines. “We’re pretty sure that they were running book up there,” he chuckles. “They were all in a row. We got them down to two.”
The first concept was somewhat upscale, to include an upstairs dining room. The initial chef for the enterprise was Ken Wall, the present food and beverage manager for the downtown Berkeley Hotel. “He designed all the food items; simple food made from scratch that would go with good beer.”
But from the start, the downstairs bar was supposed to be a dark retreat. Taking his cues from English pubs and old New York City bars, he didn’t mind it a little dingy and cave-like. At McSorley’s Ale House, cobwebs are allowed to cling to corners and bottles. He laughs, “You know, we were looking to make a dive, but the best kind of dive. People come here from all over the country and Europe and they feel at home.”
The atmospheric recipe included dark wood and familiar music, played to backdrop conversation, the food satisfying and not out of the freezer. “But I do on occasion take the cobwebs down,” he says, and laughs. Though well known for its dim interior, the curved, perforated lighting fixtures were designed by Talley’s first wife, Barbara Shore, and fabricated by Northern Virginia artist Key Kidder.
It was Dickerson’s idea to number the rotating beer menus. One Talley is proud of is #79, signed by beer expert Michael Jackson, who came to Legend Brewery and the Commercial Taphouse to find beers he couldn’t find elsewhere. At the Taphouse, he found Stoudt’s Abbey Ale from Pennsylvania, and expressed his pleasure at the discovery.
Dickerson still comes in a few evenings a week, and he’ll be here tonight.
Talley has discussed with staff and patrons about estimating how many pints have been sold. “I’d say we're nearing a million pints drunk,” he chuckles, “and most of those sold.”
Among past workers at the Taphouse have been Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe, who also met his wife while there. They’d sit together after closing for hours for discussions that went on to hours so late they were early.
The now-famous St. Patrick’s Day event started right away, although the castle dressing made its first appearance in 1995. The premiere, Talley recalls, occurred in a torrential freezing rain. Broadcasters like Tim Timberlake and Bill Bowman (of The Bowman Body fame) used to have a table there, but the spirit of St. Patrick’s couldn’t be contained. Talley thinks the Taphouse was the first Fan District bar to have Guinness on tap. “We tried to get anything Irish for St. Patrick’s, but at first all there was were Guinness and Harp.”
Talley, who is also a pastor through The Vineyard Church, performed a marriage ceremony — of sorts — for business partner O’Hern. Something was incorrect in the licensing obtained by O'Hern and his bride, and they were on their way out for the honeymoon. The couple came by at the end of a lunch shift for what amounted to a do-over and impromptu wedding. Talley, on the business side of the bar with O’Hern and wife-to-be on the other, put them through the exchange of vows.
And there have been wakes, including one for his close friend John Carroll, with whom he wrote songs.
Talley plays now with the Big Guys (Harry Gore, Chris Gore, Mark Brown and Vernon Knight), who are veterans of the Good Guys, Deprogrammers and Club Zombie, among other groups.
Talley is part owner of The Cask, the light, airy cousin of the murky, narrow Taphouse. But next year, he plans to open a church with his wife and relaunch The Vineyard Church with name The Bridge RVA.
He’d considered getting out of the bar business and talked with one prospective buyer, but that didn’t work out. Bui knew the party, and when the person needed to step aside, he asked Talley about taking over.
Talley grins, “Neither one of our lawyers likes to hear this, but we took a legal pad and wrote the simplest agreement we could think of. “ Bui wants to keep the bar’s first floor basically the same, but a new beer system will get installed in the basement and the second floor will be remodeled. After not serving as a restaurant, it became a place for private dining and meetings of beer enthusiast organizations. The Taphouse’s food offerings will be overhauled. Talley says people are begging him to tell Bui to keep the wings. He laughs big and raises his hands, “I have no control over that!”
Visitors to the Taphouse have included people with family in hospice care who’ve come over for consolation and a shot. “They need a place to breathe,” Talley says. Hospital employees come by, neighborhood construction workers. “They’re really bummed we’re closing. They’re telling me I've got to take the grill and put it on a food truck.” He laughs. “We’ll see.”
Live music also formed a component of the Taphouse's endurance. Often acoustic, but a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll, with bands including Loversville and Twang Daddy, among numerous others.
One of the hard parts of taking his leave of the Taphouse was removing the poster for the Deprogrammers show at the Mosque, when they opened for Iggy Pop, and the infamous Halloween 1981 concert. And there are a couple other tokens he’s taking with him, including a shot glass and some of the ashes of the late broadcaster Eric E. Stanley, who followed Talley and crew from the Memphis to the Taphouse and supported the music of Talley's band. “He used to sign off his show, ‘Anybody in the left lane of [Interstate] 195 better move out of the way. I've got to make last call.’”
He paused. Robinson Street’s traffic whisked by, sending wavering golden reflections into the gloom, and a bus groaned. Passersby seeing him in the front window waved. “It’s been the fellowship, really, it’s been a form of church for me.” It’s also proved that what seemed to be a crazy and unlikely idea at the time has improved and gained a deep tincture like the old wood on the walls. “That Richmond supports little places like the Bamboo, like Buddy’s, and us, that’s great that we can have that kind of relationship with the community. Comes right down to it, it’s the people.”
Beer is important, but a place — the memorable kind, where you go and bring your out-of-town friends to and they wish they had something like it back home — must have a collection of characters who make it more like an ensemble piece than a bar. That’s what turns a drop-in into a regular. “I've got guys who’ll come in here tonight, and they’ll sit at those first five bar stools, and two of them have come here for 21 years.”
O’Hern is staying on at the Taphouse, in addition to his Cask duties, and will work the final shift on Sunday. Talley doesn’t think he’ll be coming in. He expects that in days ahead, his car, which knows the way, will deposit him here and he’ll realize, “Oh, I don’t work here anymore,” and the laugh shudders his shoulders.