Behind Bars: Justin Boehme at Eugene's Canteen
At first glance, Eugene's Canteen has a menu like any other bar. You'll find a selection of mostly Ohio drafts, plus liquor and cocktails. One drink, Cajun Lemons, does stand out because of its unique combination of ingredients: fresh-squeezed lemonade, Tito's Vodka, hot sauce and a splash of Sprite. It is the establishment's most popular drink.
But if you flip the menu over, you'll see some unexpected items: rolling papers, T-shirts, Visine, Altoids and more.
“People come in who have maybe thrown up at Axis,” said Eugene Canteen owner Justin Boehme during a late-September interview. “They come get a toothbrush.”
He used to offer Hot Pockets as a bit of a joke, but they became a surprising best-seller.
Justin's intention is to mimic a military canteen, or general store. As a whole, the bar is a tribute to his late grandfather, Eugene Boehme, a World War II veteran. As a child, Justin would visit Eugene's home in Columbia City, Indiana, during the summer or holiday season.
“It was the greatest time,” Justin said. “He would not talk about [the war]. You would bring it up [and] he would leave the room. So I don't know a whole lot about his military career except that he was at the Battle of the Bulge, he carried a bazooka and saw a lot of shit.”
“I figured if I'd go in the Army, I could probably share war stories with him,” Justin continued. “But I never had that opportunity.”
Eugene died more than 20 years ago, but Justin did join the Army, serving in “Operation Iraqi Freedom” during the Iraq War. Afterwards, he moved to Indiana and begged Joe Vuskovich, owner of popular Cajun-Creole restaurant Yats, for a job.
After mastering the cuisine, Justin relocated to Columbus and opened his own restaurant, Da Levee, with locations in Gahanna and the Short North. Last spring, he closed the latter and rebranded as Eugene's Canteen with the help of his then-fiancee, Jenny.
“She designed the place [and] I built it,” he said. “We worked every day for 35 days and we did not kill each other.”
The couple actually married in the bar a day after our interview, taking advantage of the raised platform and floral wallpaper — the “Instagram wall” — near the door. Justin said they plan to use their wedding photographs to market the bar as a rental space.
“We're always thinking business,” he said.
Preston's: A Burger Joint is the permanent pop-up kitchen at Eugene's, though Justin would like to add a weekly Cajun night in the future. He also plans to partner with veterans' organizations.
For now, he is celebrating veterans with the Wall of Heroes, which includes pictures of himself and his grandfather. Customers are encouraged to bring in framed photos of either themselves or loved ones in uniform to add to the collection.
Though Justin is currently hands-off with the daily operations at Da Levee in Gahanna, he doesn't intend to leave food behind.
“It's not the end of restaurants for me,” he said.