Dickmann's Sports Cafe owner opens new sports bar Smoke Justis in Covington
Garin Pirnia | WCPO contributor
7:00 AM, Oct 12, 2016
COVINGTON, Kentucky -- Richard Dickmann, owner of Dickmann’s Sports Café in Fort Wright, wants Cincinnatians to remember Covington’s historic baseball era.
In 1913, Covington had a baseball team for two months: The Blue Sox were one of eight teams in the so-called third major league, the Federal League. In July 1913, the team was rebranded as the Kansas City Packers and shipped off to Missouri. The Federal League dissolved in 1915, and so did a part of Covington’s esoteric baseball history.
That history serves as the inspiration for Smoke Justis, Dickmann’s new sports bar in Covington’s Roebling Point District named after former baseball player Walter “Smoke” Justis.
Dickmann said he is not a huge baseball fan — he loves football — but he became enamored with Kentucky’s baseball past.
“Something like this was needed,” he said. “We didn’t have a place to go and watch sports. I wanted to tie it into this city’s history.”
Before Smoke Justis arrived, the building’s basement operated as dive bar Down Under, which offered some food and Skee-Ball. Now, the main bar is situated upstairs, with light spilling through big windows, bartenders pouring 24 drafts from Miller Lite to MadTree and TVs flickering. The wait staff dons baseball shirts and hats with an “S” logo sewn on, and a pint glass filled with peanuts sits on each table.
Not seeing a lot of barbecue places in Covington’s urban core, Dickmann wanted to offer smoked meats.
“I did more [baseball] research and found that the pitcher for opening day was Smoke Justis, so that’s where the Smoke Justis name came from,” he said.
Former Taste of Belgium executive chef Michael Wilcoxon and Dickmann developed the menu, with nods to the league’s century-old past. The smoke part of the forename entails smoked wings, smoked turkey used in Kentucky Hot Brown sliders, and a Rebels chicken sandwich, an homage to the Pittsburgh Rebels.
The Chicago Whale crab cake derives from the baseball team for which Wrigley Field was originally built. The bar also serves potato boxes, such as the Green Box, featuring hand-cut fries smothered in cheese sauce and topped with pickled jalapeños, diced tomatoes, red onions and cilantro; smoked brisket and house-made barbecue sauce coat the fries in the Hoosier Box. The Federal burger will be available in single, double, triple and home run sizes — a stack of meat.
The eatery held its soft opening Oct. 7, and Dickmann said a grand opening will take place the first week in November, when the adjacent bourbon bar and downstairs area will open. Downstairs will again offer a pool table, shuffleboard, video games and a new feature, a self-serve beer dispenser.
“This is feeling our way through,” Dickmann said. “I have my vision, but people in the area are going to tug and pull at it a little bit to make it work in the area.”
Two striking artifacts in the bar are the Smoke Justis murals hanging behind the taps. Justis wears a baseball uniform, and his quote “The harder they hit, the harder I threw” wraps around sketched baseball bats. Dickmann commissioned Gary Joseph Cieradkowski, a Fort Thomas graphic designer-illustrator and author of the book “The League of Outsider Baseball,” to generate the images from only a few existing photos of the athlete.
“I specialize in taking a minimal amount of photographic evidence and bringing them back to life again,” Cieradkowski said. “So it was a natural to do Smoke Justis because there weren’t that many photographs of the guy.”
Cieradkowski hand-sketched the images into a composite of Justis, drew it in black-and-white ink and then colored it in his computer. The pictures were then printed on canvas and mounted on canvas stretchers.
Among creating designs for movies, Los Angeles restaurants and murals for Wrigley Field’s bleachers section, Cieradkowski focuses on long-forgotten baseball players, like Justis, with whom he was already familiar.
“It’s nice because I don’t do any work around Cincinnati,” he said. “I just don’t have any clients here, so it’s nice to be able to go and see something that I’ve done and just be able to drive to it instead of taking a plane.”
The seal of approval came from Justis’ great-great-granddaughters, who told Dickmann the murals “looked just like Smoke.”
Dickmann hopes Smoke Justis will help bring more businesses to Covington’s core and that Roebling Point — which already houses Blinkers Tavern, Keystone Bar & Grill, Roebling Point Books and Coffee, Nuvo and Molly Malone’s — could become a swinging district. In the summer, he would like to shut down Court Street and Park Place and throw a recurring block party.
He said he expects folks from the more corporate Banks area will come to the more “charming side” of the river to see what Kentucky can do.
“It’s a natural thing,” he said. “You’ve got everything blowing up in Cincinnati. For it not to move over into the next closest thing would be odd. I told myself — and my wife — this is going to be the next big thing, and I don’t want to not be a part of it. It just needed a little shove, and that’s what I’m trying to do. “