Belle Isle Moonshine

Replace your vodka with something better.

Behind the Bar: Melissa McGoniagle / Can Can Brasserie

Behind the Bar, Cocktails, RichmondBrandon Day2 Comments

The famous painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec once said of the Can-can, "La vie est belle, voila le quadrille!", translating to "Life is beautiful, here comes the Can-can!" Much like the dance craze that swept France off its feet, Can Can Brasserie in the heart of Carytown has quite the following of its own.

We were lucky enough to sit down with the Melissa McGoniagle, lead bartender at Can Can Brasserie, to talk more about this Richmond classic with an Old World charm that continues to garner the love and attention of neighbors and visitors alike.

Tell us about yourself…

I'm a lead bartender at Can Can Brasserie in Carytown. I've been bartending for six super fun, interesting, enlightening years! They promote from within at Can Can, so I worked my way up from the bottom and eventually was lucky enough to have a bar spot open up. The slot I filled was actually that of Beth Dixon, who has been the bar manager over at Pasture for a while now, and has made quite a name for herself on the national cocktail scene. She was so gracious and encouraging to me when I started, its been really cool seeing how much press and recognition she has earned in the time since. 

I had some fantastic mentors here when I started, who opened my eyes to the world of classic cocktails and creative flavor combinations, and who encouraged me to experiment and really let my personality come through in my drinks and the way I relate to my guests. The Richmond bar scene is pretty insular in that a lot of people know each other from having worked together at one point or another, so it's a very supportive community. Can Can is a big restaurant with a large staff, so I have the privilege of knowing a ton of cool people around town who are now either working in other restaurants or in other facets of the food and beverage industry.

Bartending, particularly at a restaurant that draws in such a broad clientele, has also allowed me to get to know the community in a way that I might never have had the chance otherwise... people really open up to their bartender in a way they might not with coworkers or acquaintances. It has been a wonderful experience!

What do you do when you’re not bartending? Any hobbies/side jobs/secret identities?

I teach yoga as a side gig, it is really rewarding to share something that has been so beneficial in my life with others. I'm very interested in wellness in general, and would love to eventually transition into a career helping others optimize their mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Bartending might seem contrary to that, but I think providing good drinks, good company and good vibes is right in line with those ideals. It's all about balance, right? 

Beyond work, I love to be outside, being active. I love the mountains, both for hiking in the warmer months and snowboarding in the winter, and any activity on the of the things I love about Richmond is the James River Park System, there are so many things to do at our fingertips! I really enjoy kayaking, paddle boarding, wakeboarding, and have recently taken up trail running, and also can frequently be found down by the river or at one of the city's many awesome parks slung up in my Eno hammock with a good book. I also started rock climbing this summer, which is super fun and challenging. I love going out with friends for a good meal... there are so many amazing options around town, I wish I had more nights free to get to them all!

Probably my favorite thing to do with friends or family is to see live music. My tastes are all over the place... I lean toward jam bands, funk, jazz, and dance music, but I truly like anything and everything if it's good. I also love to cook, mostly healthy stuff, but I have a bangin' chocolate chip/coconut/butterscotch cookie recipe that I'm happy to share, come visit! I have been known to make my own granola. Am I painting too much of a hippie dippy picture here? Haha, oh well.

What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?

People frequently comment on me being sweet, which I wouldn't say is false. It takes a lot for me to not like someone. Basically, don't be a dick, and we'll be friends. That being said, people are surprised to find out, as they get to know me, that I have a really raunchy sense of humor. It is pretty much impossible to offend me. I will laugh at the darkest joke you've got. Unless you're a dick, of course. Then you'll get a stern look of disapproval. Probably followed by a laugh. 


What’s your favorite thing to drink? Favorite classic cocktail? Favorite thing to drink when no one’s looking?

Tequila is my favorite spirit, it's the easiest booze for your metabolism to work with, as long as it's 100% agave, and has as much variance and terroir as scotch. I'm really feelin' mescal right now. Los Amantes Reposado, on the rocks, with a tiny squirt of fresh lime... simple, clean, smoky, perfect. For a classic cocktail I'd say a Manhattan, up, rye, with orange bitters, skip the cherry unless someone made them with love, and not corn syrup. When no one's looking? Hmm. I don't really do many shame beverages these days, but I'd be lying if I said I'd never enjoyed a beer-mosa with PBR and OJ over ice. It's not as bad as it sounds!

Tell us about your bar… 

Can Can is one of the most beautiful bars in the city, no doubt. There's the bar itself, which is 80 feet of solid zinc, made in France, backed by a massive wall of wine and spirits. The restaurant is huge - there's three private dining rooms in the back, in addition to a full bakery, pastry kitchen, and enormous downstairs prep kitchen - but still full of character and Old World European charm. The owners took a lot of care to build out the space to look as if it had been there forever, from the molded tin ceilings, hand tiled mosaic floors, retro light fixtures and speaker boxes, all the way to subway tile bathrooms and chain-pull toilets. People have a hard time believing it was a bridal salon less than 15 years ago.

We are a full service brasserie, meaning we open early in the morning for coffee and pastry service, and stay open all day long, through lunch and dinner, to bar-only service at the end of the night. Can Can has become a destination for a very broad clientele based on this model, from business meetings over incredible pastries in the morning, to lunch with Mom, to celebratory dinners after graduations or while entertaining out of town guests, to late night drinks or again, incredible dessert after a show or on the way to or from the more raucous night spots in town.

What’s the neighborhood like?

Carytown has really blossomed over the last decade, there is something for everyone. High end clothing and gift shops, skate shops, yoga studios, a historic landmark movie theater, dozens of restaurants of all price points, including some of the best ethnic food in town, ice cream, cupcakes, vegetarian/vegan friendly, you name it. 

A lot of businesses have come and gone over the years, but there are some anchors that have kept it feeling very homey. Can Can of course, Galaxy Diner and Weezie's Kitchen across the street (you'll hardly ever go into Weezie's without seeing at least one or two Can Can employees, it's pretty much our living room), New York Deli, and Bev's Ice Cream are all standards that locals feel fondly toward while in town, and nostalgic for if they move away.

What makes your bar unique?

Can Can attracts so many different types of people, from all walks of life. It is a gorgeous space that might feel intimidating, until you realize that many "regulars" are people from the neighborhood who come to read the paper or shoot off emails in their flip flops. The point of a brasserie is to provide a high quality atmosphere and product, all day, without pretension, and I think we nail that. We can wine and dine you with the best of 'em, but we'll also remember how you like your latte and ask you about your kids.


What’s your favorite part about working there?

The people I've met, for sure. My coworkers over the years have been some of the most interesting, talented, dynamic people I've ever come in contact with. We have a lot of fun together, which I think comes across to guests, and they appreciate that. Many of my dearest friends are from this job, and I feel super lucky to have a broad network, literally across the globe, of people I've worked with here. I also have had incredible, life-changing interactions and relationships with people on the other side of the bar, people who have provided love, humor, knowledge, friendship and opportunity, among other things. I'm super grateful for the positions I've been placed in through this job, my life is definitely richer for it. I will definitely look back on this job fondly, which is a blessing, as I spent a lot of time here!

What’s a good night look like for you? What are people ordering?

A good night is one where guests are interacting with each other, soaking up the atmosphere, talking and laughing and making merry. I love when I look down the bar and don't see anyone staring at their cell phone. I am happy when people are drinking what makes them happy, but it's fun when people are adventurous and trusting enough to give me some creative liberty. I think a mark of a good bartender is being able to read a guest and make them something they'll like, off the cuff.

What’s your favorite menu item / cocktail pairing?

There's a drink of mine from a previous cocktail list that still gets ordered often, it's called the Absinthe Presse, made with, you guessed it, absinthe, limoncello, lemon and champagne, over crushed ice. The anise and citrus components make it a really nice accompaniment for raw oysters, or, even better, the moules frites with white wine, garlic and parsley.

Can you share a Belle Isle creation with us? What inspired it?

My current contribution to the cocktail menu at Can Can is The Ruby Moon. It's a take on a Negroni, with a fresh, zesty twist to help beat the Virginia heat.

The Ruby Moon


  • 2 oz. Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapfruit Moonshine
  • 1 oz. Aperol
  • 1 oz. Lillet Rose
  • 1 oz. white grapefruit juice

Stir ingredients with ice in shaker tin, strain into a rocks glass over ice, preferably a single large cube. Garnish with a large twist of grapefruit. Voila!

Recipe by Melissa McGoniagle

Photos by Joey Wharton