Behind Bars: Dempsey's Food & Spirits

Erica Thompson
Jackie Murphy

In 2013, Mark Dempsey spotted comedian Lewis Black during the lunch rush at Dempsey's Food & Spirits. “Nobody recognizes him,” recalled Dempsey, who opened the Downtown restaurant in 2012. “I wait on him [and] get him a sandwich.”

Because Black is known for an agitated performance style, Dempsey was taken aback by the comedian's quiet demeanor during the meal. “I said, ‘I don't mean to interrupt, Mr. Black, but it's really odd that you're so calm,'” Dempsey said. “And he just looked at me. He says, ‘It's a fucking act.' … We've been friends ever since.”

It's no exaggeration. DuringAlive's visit, Black — who was in town for a performance at the Palace Theatre — unexpectedly (and silently) walked into the bar.

The long list of famous patrons includes everyone from Buster Douglas to Peter Gabriel. “Rudy Giuliani watched the seventh game of the World Series in the back room,” Dempsey said.

“Everybody knows Mark,” said night manager Jackie Murphy.

Prior to owning the bar, Dempsey volunteered on campaigns for politicians like Mayor Michael Coleman, and then worked in the Franklin County Clerk of Courts for 10 years. Dempsey's passion for politics is spread all over the walls; there are frames upon frames of campaign buttons, as well as newspaper clippings and U.S. flags. (One can also order “Ginther” and “John McCain” wraps.)

It's not surprising the rest of the decor celebrates Dempsey's Irish heritage and the local Irish community. Dempsey was once president of the Shamrock Club of Columbus, and the bar is a popular destination during Proclamation Day and St. Patrick's Day.

Another wall is covered in pictures of customers who have completed the “Trifecta,” or eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at Dempsey's in the same day. One can take on the feat anytime, but “Trifectivus Day” each August draws the most participants.

“We get a big turnout,” Murphy said. “The whole restaurant will be full of groups of like six to 10 people that will come in their teams.”

Regardless of politics, heritage or willingness to eat out three times in one day, all people are embraced at Dempsey's Food & Spirits. That message is conveyed by a framed color picture of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill, which stands out among the other black and white photos on the wall.

“They are best friends and of different political parties … and at the end of the day they have a beer [together],” Murphy said. “Put your politics aside, come in and be friends. That's the message we try to portray.”