Game for Change 

Michael Byrne, owner of Richbrau in Shockoe Slip, unveils a major makeover this week at the city's biggest multipurpose restaurant. It's been a long, expensive process with a fair amount of risk attached. Now he's hoping Richmond will play

click to enlarge food41_richbrau_200.jpg

Style Weekly: How has your approach to the restaurant business changed in the 28 years you've been in it?
Byrne: I used to believe you defined your customer and found your base. Now, the expectation of a guest is very different — there's a contemporary need for action and convenience, and we've made big changes to satisfy a very diverse clientele. During the week we feed the hotels and business community. At night it can be a soccer team from New Jersey to convention people. We have to address all of that from kids' menus to hand-cut steaks. The expectation is, if you create this big, wow environment, you have to have the basics, and those haven't changed: good food, good service, a clean environment, friendliness, a commitment to hospitality.

What's your big renovation at Richbrau intended to accomplish?
It is 30,000 square feet of operating space, the biggest restaurant in the city, and I've been putting this property together piece by piece for 20 years — it's half a city block. I would say it is a multitask environment, high-energy and diverse. You can come down and have a beer sampling in the Taphouse, have dinner in Richbrau Restaurant, play a game of pool, dance to a DJ, listen to live jazz, have a late-night something to eat and go back to your hotel room or your home — and it's all been in one place. You can chill with a date or bring your 10-year reunion or a private party for 250. You can play an array of games like basketball and racing in the high-tech game room or watch sports on TV. We have two kitchens with separate menus, staffs and concepts, all in the same building. I don't know of any places in Richmond where you can do all that.

What's involved in the brewery side of the business?
Brewing beer is not an easy task — it's hard to do it well and consistently but we've won national awards. It might take a year to train a line cook, but four to five years to have a brewer who really knows what he's doing. As one of two breweries in Richmond we've got something unique to offer. We have two full-time brewers who can make 50 different beers and we keep seven to nine on tap at any given time. We're overseen by the Department of Agriculture, the ATF, the health department — we probably have as many inspections as anyone in Richmond.

You've been fairly high-profile in your involvement with city politics. What have you learned?
My business is a direct reflection of how the city manages its bureaucracy. I needed to have a city government that supported the neighborhoods of Richmond. I need Jackson Ward; Jackson Ward needs Shockoe Slip; the Jefferson Hotel needs Millie's — it's a series of neighborhoods that all need to be interconnected, and for 20 years I've been singing that song, and yet it always seems to be that each project is done in isolation. I worked hard to be involved with a master plan. It's not about any one business, it's about a community of businesses working together. I've learned a lot, I probably know more than I should. I'm on committees, I read the reports — it's all public information. How many City Council members do you think have actually read them? S

Richbrau is open daily at 1214 E. Cary St. 644-3018. www.richbrau.com


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