Black Sheep Bartender

In Eat, Feature Stories, October 2021 by Eric Ginsburg1 Comment

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Exclusive: Bar and restaurant owner Jason Howard is opening two new spots in DTR that you will either love or hate—either way, it won’t bother him.

Photo by Food Seen by Felicia Perry Trujillo

Photos by Susan Holt Photography

Jason Howard isn’t particularly concerned with what people think.

“I find it better when you put your blinders on and do what you think you would like,” said the Raleigh bar owner and restaurateur in our exclusive sit-down interview. “Just open up something you like and see what happens.”

Howard, a service industry lifer who’s worked everywhere from Applebee’s to Pittsboro’s Fearrington House, is the man behind the Downtown members-only speakeasy Atlantic Lounge and hot dog dive bar The Cardinal. And, now, he’s unveiling several other projects around the same time in DTR, its exurbs and beyond.

One of these projects, which will be located up the street from The Cardinal, is a 23-seat “diner-esque country kitchen” called Rainbow Luncheonette. It’s the opposite of the many chef-driven places that are opening (or have recently opened) around the city, focusing instead on more modest classics. 

“It’s basically a Waffle House on steroids—with liquor,” Howard laughed. As always, he’s having fun with it. In addition to diner staples, Rainbow Luncheonette will serve breakfast and lunch, and, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, handcut steak, baked potatoes and salad will grace the menu.

“I’m either going to get laughed out of town, or just the opposite,” said Howard. “But either way, it doesn’t matter to me. There’s nothing else you can do these days with bars, so you just have to be as against the grain as possible.”

It’s that take-it-or-leave-it mentality that frees him up to be different, opening decidedly untrendy concepts like the forthcoming Pink Boot. The country music-blaring, domestic beer-slinging honky-tonk will be “the smallest, weirdest bar” in Raleigh, he said—the kind of place where Yoo-hoo, vanilla Stoli and Godiva come together in just one of the many “trailer trash” cocktails.

The only food offerings at Pink Boot will be pickled Brussels sprouts, peanuts and Lunch Lady Pizza (literally the same mass-produced square ’za shipped in from New Jersey and made famous in public school cafeterias nationwide—which also serves as a nod to his mom, who was Howard’s head lunch lady and school bus driver from elementary through high school).

“Everything’s getting a little too complicated for me,” Howard explained. “There’s just so much going on in Raleigh, you’re just missing some simple stuff.” 

Instead of chasing trends, Howard hopes to open restaurants and bars that can last a generation. “The simpler they are, the more longevity you have,” he argued.

And, despite arguably being on the cutting edge of the Oak City’s food and beverage scene, Howard rejects the idea that anything he’s doing is innovative. “These kinds of places have been all across America your entire life,” he said. “You’ve just got to find them. They’re not front and center.” 

He’s also expanding The Cardinal to Clayton and Wilson, and he’s working on a taco place called Lil Hombre that emphasizes smoked meats, tequila and frozen margaritas. But previously announced plans for a barbecue restaurant were tabled—at least for now.

Howard isn’t turning away from Raleigh; after all, he’s about to open two new businesses here, and others will likely follow some day, he said. But his sights are set beyond the Triangle, as he muses about reaching into places like Rocky Mount or Winston-Salem. He’s particularly excited about his plans for Wilson and Clayton.

“I’m banking on small-town America,” he said. “These small towns are ripe for the picking. Clayton is awesome. It reminds me of [Pittsboro], where I grew up. Wilson may be the most beautiful downtown in the state. Go see it before all the growth happens.”

At first blush, Howard’s concepts seem dissonant. A speakeasy where patrons need a key to enter, and then a honky-tonk? A taco place and a Waffle House on steroids? Expanding to Wilson, nearly an hour east of his Downtown empire? 

But on closer inspection, there’s a through-line. These establishments are neighborhood-oriented and hyperlocal. They aren’t designed for the zeitgeist or the limelight, but play on a humble kind of nostalgia. They’re small—usually really small—and follow a clear philosophy. And the disparate styles reflect their creator, a man just as likely to be listening to Run The Jewels as Waylon Jennings. “If you like it, you like it; if you don’t, you don’t,” said Howard. “We want to make money while keeping our integrity.”

Howard’s approach to opening bars and restaurants is, in many ways, the reverse of
his peers. “I don’t ever go looking for a space for a concept,” he said. Instead, when he finds a spot that interests him, Howard likes to stand in the space, feel it out and study the neighborhood to decipher what would make sense. 

“Sometimes you need to let the building tell you what it wants to be,” Howard added.

That’s what happened with Atlantic Lounge. For The Cardinal, he passed the building so many times on the way to his friend’s business across the street that he eventually decided to think about what he could turn it into. Same for Rainbow Luncheonette. When he saw the tiny adjoining space, Howard mulled it over until the idea for Pink Boot was born. 

It’s not that he isn’t interested in scaling his success—after all, he’s replicating The Cardinal beyond city limits, and describes Lil Hombre as a very similar format, only taco-based. 

But he’s too creative, and maybe a little too impatient, to ever be satisfied with just one idea. “I get bored too quickly,” he said. “I like to do a lot of different things.”

Howard maintains that part of the key to launching so many different businesses, especially in an industry with high turnover, is to keep it small. (That—and he gets by with a little help from his friends: “I couldn’t have done any of this without my partners,” he said.)

“I don’t think I’ll ever do anything over 1,500 square feet,” he said. It isn’t manageable enough. You lose that strong relationship with employees. And the costs multiply. By denying his businesses any elbow room, it’s easier to iterate, and to care less if it fails, Howard added. 

“I don’t have that much to lose with these small spaces, which lets you get a little weird,” he said. But weird perfectly fits Howard’s MO—and Raleigh sure seems to love it.

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  1. Downtown Wilson put the big nail in the coffin,with the sellout of BB&T. Ward Blvd or Raleigh rd is killing the inner core as well. Oh yes RIP John Blomqvist. U will be remembered.

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