Duke's Station to deliver the goods from a new location
Sometimes, a bar's best offering isn't something found on a menu.
In some spots, a sense of history and generations of regulars help create something more. For decades, many South Hills residents have done just that at Duke's Station in Bethel Park.
Now, staff at the popular restaurant and lounge are preparing to move after Duke's closed its Baptist Road location on Nov. 18. Duke's will move to the former Pub and Pizza in Mt. Lebanon in mid-December.
“This place is an icon,” says Duke's regular Shelly Harpley of Finleyville. “It will be weird when it's not here. I came here even when I was little and it was first open.”
Duke's history dates to the days when the old railroad line ran through the property. A portion of an old wall behind the restaurant shows where the trestle once stood. In homage to the area's history, the restaurant's original owner had the spot's signature train cars brought in to use as a dining room.
For a few years, the place operated under the name Bethel Junction. For the past 24 years, Duke's has been under the ownership of Jim “Duke” Sims, 71, whose nickname stems from his stint coaching men's basketball at Duquesne University.
“It's like when I was coaching,” says Sims about why he's moving. “It was just time to move to another place.”
Duke's signature train cars won't remain much longer. There are plans for a microbrewery to take over the location and tear them down, Sims says.
Also gone is the wall in Duke's once devoted to articles and plaques documenting Sims' long coaching career, which included stints at his alma mater Edinboro University, Keystone Oaks High School and Penn State Behrend, and a scouting position with the Detroit Pistons.
Long before his coaching career took off, Sims worked at a diner and country club where he learned the ins and outs of the restaurant business. After years of traveling for work, Sims — husband of Evelyn and father of Jimmy and Christian — was ready to return to that world and open a family business.
“We wanted someplace that needed to be rebuilt,” says Sims. “We added a patio for outdoor dining and found a great staff. Those people helped build it.”
When talking about his staff, many of whom will follow him to Duke's new home, Sims relies on an old saying from his basketball days: “You're only as good as your assistant coach or your players.”
“It's all about the team, and that's how it went,” he says.
Working with his family — and his constant sidekick, granddaughter Jordan, 15, at his side — Sims established a loyal Duke's following among people who liked the laid-back atmosphere and the signature menu items. The place is known for its ribs, which, along with items such as wings, pizza and subs, will be available at the new location. Sims, also grandfather of 5-year-old Pressley, plans to stay visible at his new place.
As regulars surely know, chatting about Sims' coaching days is a sure way to get a smile on his face. He particularly likes to talk about the year and a half he spent coaching the 1976 Peru women's basketball team to a gold medal in the South American championships and the men's team to a bronze.
“The team only let me speak English when I was coaching,” he says. “Other than that, they made me speak Spanish. I ate the same sandwich for months because it was the only one I could pronounce: Jamon y queso! Ham and cheese!”
Duke's was home to a mythical regular — Cupid. Dozens of couples met their future spouses at the bar, and many, like Lori and Ed Orr, also hosted rehearsal dinners there.
“We have a lot of special memories here,” says Lori Orr of Bethel Park. “We've made a lot of good friends. This place is a landmark.”
When Sims reflects on his life, he acknowledges his time coaching as a highlight. But ranked among those many accomplishments is his time building Duke's into a beloved South Hills spot. He hopes to continue that in his new business.
“It's a new beginning,” he says.
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or email@example.com.