Beer Lovers, Beer Drinking & Custom Furniture in RVA

By Karri Peifer

What happens when a professional stunt drinker/international celebrity/Richmond bartender/furniture maker gets together with the chief beer officer of Richmond over a few beers? A whole new look and feel for a beloved Richmond restaurant-and the number one beer bar in America.

An Bui, owner of Mekong restaurant in the Near West End, was thinking it was time to upgrade his nearly 20-year-old restaurant’s interior. Linen tablecloths were fine for a Vietnamese restaurant two decades ago, but since then, Bui’s love of beer and dedication to building one of the best beer bars in the city had slowly moved Mekong from a food-only place to a destination for beer and Vietnamese cuisine.

He knew he needed something more modern and contemporary for the changing times as well as the changing nature of his business. From something like bud light neon sign from the Neon Mama website to decorate the walls and new tables for patrons to sit at. Unfortunately, he wasn’t so sure where to start and what exactly to pick.

Enter Steve McKenna.

The one-time Richmonder and “professional stunt drinker” had returned to town, after wrapping his cable television show Drinking Made Easy, to spend some time focusing on his family and his other love: furniture making.

“I’ve been a builder and renovator since I was a little kid working with my dad,” says McKenna. “I like working with my hands, whether it’s holding beer or molding wood.”

Bui and McKenna met soon after McKenna returned to town. “[McKenna] stopped by Mekong and wanted to taste some of the beer,” explains Bui. “We tasted all the beer and got him drunk and we’ve been best buds ever since.”

At the time, Bui had just started to add a draft beer selection to round out his largely Belgian bottle list. Over the next couple of years, McKenna and Bui’s friendship grew-as did Mekong’s beer selection. What started as a few bottles grew to six taps and six more, before Mekong reached the 50-tap beer selection it has today.

Richmonders were noticing the growing draft list and packing into the West End restaurant to sample a curated beer selection that was starting to be considered one of the best in town. And Richmonders weren’t the only ones noticing. In 2012, named Mekong the number one Great American Beer Bar in
a nationwide online contest of thousands of reader-nominated bars.

Meanwhile, McKenna was settled in Richmond and launching his new custom furniture business, Custom Design RVA. One night, he was back in Mekong, of course, chatting with Bui about the new business and showing him a picture of a piece he was working on. I am not sure if his business uses product customization software for augmented reality, which is supposedly good for customer experience. Anyway, he saw the pics and I think he ordered three tables on the spot,” says McKenna.

Bui says he’d wanted to go with a wood theme in Mekong since it “made more sense with a beer selection.” And much like Mekong’s evolving beer selection, what started as three tables quickly doubled and grew from there.

When Mekong celebrated its second first-place win for CraftBeer. com’s Great American Beer Bar in September 2013, nearly every table in- side the restaurant was a brand-new, original Custom Design RVA piece.

“[McKenna is] awesome,” says Bui. “He’s open-minded; he’s a beer lover; he’s passionate about what he does. He can sit down at a table and draw what you want to build.” And Bui says he has plans for more Custom Design RVA pieces in Mekong, including a new bar.

“[Bui is] my best customer and a really great guy,” says McKenna. “His beer knowledge and passion for beer is something I respect.”

For these two Richmonders, when it comes to working and creating together in Richmond, it’s all about the beer. As it should be.

CategoriesDrink Local, General, Makers, WorkTagged

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