Tim Gillis, a homeowner in McLean, Va., sometimes receives a phone call from someone asking: “Is the bar open?” He knows it’s not a wrong number.
The caller is likely to be one of the former regulars at McKeever’s Pub, a neighborhood bar beloved by many McLean residents for four decades. Gillis didn’t buy the bar when it closed, but he did bring it home.
“Building my basement bar to look like McKeever’s is probably the stupidest thing I have ever done and also the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Gillis. “It gets way more use than I expected by me and my family and all our friends.”
Gillis says friends call more often to stop by, including a Little League coach he knows from the days when Gillis’s kids, now in their 20s and 30s, were young. Gillis entertains work colleagues in his bar and his adult kids invite their friends to hang out, too. When one of Gillis’s sons got engaged recently, everyone knew immediately to head to the Gillis home to celebrate.
“McKeever’s Pub was like the TV show ‘Cheers’ — a great little place on Old Dominion Drive that everyone could walk to,” says Gillis. “It was a family place where we’d celebrate Little League games, watch football or baseball games or just have a beer and a burger and catch up with our neighbors.”
Jeffrey and Lori Judge bought McKeever’s Pub from the original owner, George Karydes, in 1984. The couple sold the business in 2015.
“A group of us regulars wanted to buy McKeever’s Pub and keep it open, but that didn’t work out, and the place is still empty,” says Gillis.
Since he couldn’t buy the business, Gillis purchased as many items from the bar as possible and brought them to his basement to recreate the pub. While Gillis already had a partially finished basement, he took a section of unfinished storage space and transformed it with the help of Stephanie Dickens, a designer and interior specialist with Case Design/Remodeling in Falls Church, Va., and Neil Shaut, director of project development for Case in Bethesda, Md.
“When Tim brought me over to McKeever’s just before it closed it helped me see what he wanted to do, but I never envisioned it would turn out the way it did,” says Shaut. “Every detail has been thoughtfully planned out, with things to look at high and low, and different types of wood that all blend together.”
When guests arrive at the bottom of the stairs in the Gillis basement, the first thing they see is the backlit McKeever’s Pub sign welcoming them into the bar. At the far end is a restored stained-glass window from the pub.
“We went through the bar and bought all their signs, including a St. Paddy’s Day sign and a small poster about not serving alcohol to minors,” says Gillis. “The owners had a sense of humor, so we picked up some of the things that they had around that were subtly fun, like a framed Life magazine cover with a photo of an elderly woman smoking a cigarette and a streetlight permanently set to read ‘walk.’ We reclaimed the wood that ran along the bottom of the bar and an old bench seat and bought a table and chairs from the bar for authenticity.”
Dickens says the entire project, including insulating the walls and adding drywall and electricity to the space, cost about $120,000.
“I thought we were designing a small bar with a pool table, and then we started thinking bigger,” says Shaut. “We even wanted to buy the McKeever’s bar top, but the owners decided to keep it for their winery in Leesburg.”
Gillis insisted on a new wood bar top rather than going with marble or granite as Shaut had suggested.
“I know it will get nicked over time, but I decided to let that go,” says Gillis. “A friend asked me if he could carve his name into the bar the first time he came over, but I wouldn’t go that far. I just know it will patina over time, especially since people always forget to use coasters.”
Dickens is less sanguine about the bar getting damaged someday since she had to have the solid wood cut twice and custom-stained twice to get the color to blend with the reclaimed wood under the bar top. Dickens’s design incorporates the souvenirs from McKeever’s with some elegant touches and some rustic touches that pull together varied types of wood along with a masculine charcoal gray and brown palette.
“The kitchen section, with the sink, cabinets, a granite counter and oversize tiles for the backsplash, looks like a nice, high-end kitchen, but we also left shelving under the bar top open for more authenticity,” says Shaut. “We have a stool for the bartender, too.”
Above the bar sink is a flat-screen TV that blends in with the dark cabinets and open storage for glasses. The bar includes a stainless-steel ice-maker and refrigerator and a kegerator.
“We have space for two taps so we can offer a couple of choices for guests,” says Gillis. “The hardest thing is keeping the temperature and pressure just right for the beer, but that’s part of the fun, too, since it’s turned into a little project to take care of the beer.”
Gillis’s storage space once had room for 3,000 bottles of wine, but he immediately realized he would never need that much wine. Now Dickens incorporated a glass-front, temperature-controlled wine refrigerator that holds 200 bottles into a corner of the bar. Other types of liquor are on display in open shelving behind the bar, almost entirely gifted by friends who like to know their favorite drink will be available when the bar is open, such as a sipping tequila and Johnnie Walker Blue Label scotch. Nearby are some old menus from McKeever’s and a book about antique bar signs. A drawer slides open to reveal a collection of beer taps from the pub.
“We had some challenges in placing some of the McKeever’s items and had to wire electricity into the space,” says Dickens. “For instance, the ‘New Inn’ sign rests on one of the pedestals we built on either side of the bench because we realized it’s a big heavy sign that shouldn’t hang over someone’s head.”
Gillis has a guest book on one pedestal in which people write in recipes for their favorite cocktails and bar snacks. He opted to use a warming tray for snacks rather than build cooking facilities into the bar.
Overhead are recessed lighting and a beamed ceiling.
“We needed to build in soffits for some of the wiring and piping, so we decided to connect them with wood beams to give it a pub-like feel,” says Shaut. “The lighting plan includes general and task lighting, recessed lighting and pendant lamps plus special lights to highlight the artwork and the stained glass. We put in under-cabinet lighting and toe-kick lighting underneath the foot board of the bar.”
The foot board is new, but Shaut measured the height and depth of the foot rail at McKeever’s so it could be replicated and regulars would feel right at home.
Even though Gillis was happy to turn over much of his basement to the pub, he still needed some storage space and Shaut needed space to access controls for the home’s electronics and other systems.
Gillis showed Dickens a photo of barn doors in a friend’s home in Colorado, which turned out to be an excellent solution for the bar. Two distressed wood sliding bar doors are designed to slide over artwork on one wall and over the recessed stained glass window on the other. The second door opens to reveal a mirrored exercise room and a door to an unfinished storage room with shelving.
“We restored the stained glass and framed it in reclaimed wood with lighting behind it,” says Dickens, “then we had to recede it so the barn door could slide over it, but it looks just like it did in McKeever’s now.”
These days, nearly everyone loves the idea of being able to walk to a favorite bar or restaurant. Gillis has taken that concept a step further by bringing his favorite place home.