Jason Howard knows the view from the front porch of The Cardinal—the cozy bar he will open on West Street next week—will not last long.
In the years to come, developer John Kane will bring a North Hills-sized, mixed-use development just beneath the hillock on which The Cardinal sits. And as the city center and Glenwood South continue to congeal, Howard anticipates more construction, pushing around and above the 900-square-foot, deliberately minimal dive bar and hot dog joint. With its expanse of aging industrial and office buildings and its proximity to the city’s core, this section of Raleigh is one of the ripe for change.
Howard is OK with that. To some extent, that’s the point.
“Even as the city grows up around us, we want to be the little Cheers in the middle of the city,” says his business partner and the bar’s general manager, Dan Murphy. “We’re going to let people come and make this a neighborhood bar, and we’ll always be the little spot between all these big buildings.”
The Cardinal is little. Housed in the former office of the Cardinal Cab company, the bar can hold forty-nine people inside and thirty-one people outside, on a porch that offers the best new downtown panorama.
The room is incredibly compact but efficiently designed. After acquiring the lease, the team ripped everything out, from the drop ceiling and second floor to all the interior walls. It became an empty shell, with an exposed ceiling and rafters and a concrete floor that’s since been covered with salvaged-and-stained wood.
A gorgeous twenty-seven-foot wooden bar, made by joining together reclaimed planks, almost runs the length of the thirty-three-foot-wide room. Behind one side, there’s room for a bar, packed with a mix of macro- and micro-brews and a very straightforward liquor collection with few if any mixers. In a city favoring evermore extravagant bars, The Cardinal is a deliberate counterweight.
“We’re not craft cocktail bartenders. We’re not going to try to be craft cocktail bartenders,” says Howard. “This will be very simple, like bars used to be. And I think that will be appreciated right now. We’re just a regular place.”
But there is one unexpected addition: On the far side of the bar, there will be a tiny kitchen, complete with a griddle and a cooler. That’s where one half-bartender, half-line cook will prepare hot dogs, steamed in a mix of onions and rotating local beers. They’ll be served in lobster rolls with the sides lopped away, slathered in mayonnaise, and griddled until the mayonnaise just begins to caramelize.
“My first idea was to do a little hot dog-and-canned beer bar, but it got nixed,” remembers Howard.
But then he saw a 1967 photograph of Charlie’s World-Famous Hot Dogs on the Instagram account Olde Raleigh. Charlie’s was in the current home of Endless Grind, not only the new space’s neighbor but also Murphy’s first skateboarding sponsor. Howard had his idea. And after seeing how nearby bottle shop State of Beer was able to fit a sandwich kitchen behind its bar, he knew how to execute it, too.
But he had to be precise.
“I did a lot of the ordering for the equipment, and Jason kept saying, ‘If you go a half-inch small, that’s fine. But if you go half an inch big, we can’t fit it all,’” says Murphy. “There will always be two bartenders sliding by.”
Howard and Murphy met nearly a decade ago, not long after Howard opened another small bar, Brooklyn Heights, on Glenwood Avenue. Murphy, who moved to Raleigh to attend N.C. State, had been a professional skateboarder for several years. He stayed busy with travel, but when he was home, Brooklyn Heights was his neighborhood bar.
They became friends, and Murphy often tossed off the idea of opening a bar with Howard. In 2015, Howard decided to sell Brooklyn Heights to escape the hubbub of Glenwood South. Howard had closed Quality Grocery, his small café in Oakwood, and stepped away from the restaurant The Rockford, the LGBTQ bar Fifteen, and the downtown bar Royal James.
This was their chance to work together, especially now that Murphy’s skateboarding career was slowing with his age. He’s excited about this second phase of his life, moving off of the skateboard and behind the bar. Howard jokes he’ll teach him to run a bar, so long as Murphy teaches him how to skate.
Just about that time, a Norfolk Southern train eases past the bar, on the tracks just beyond The Cardinal’s rear parking lot. Howard and Murphy stand there, commending their other view. This one will likely be here for a while, no matter what happens outside the front door. Howard mentions adding more food someday and perhaps even reducing the alcohol supply, as the city builds a park and a long-awaited water feature nearby.
He’s here early enough, he says, to respond to the city.
“We’ve got parking. We’ve got cheap rent. We’ve got a great view, and you can eat a sneaky good hot dog,” Howard says. “We get to be the bellwether on this side of town.”