In 2018, Minnesota-born musician Caroline Smith released a breezy ode to dive bars under the name Your Smith. “The Spot” is bittersweet, its upbeat tempo counterbalanced by minor keyboard chords. “The story of the song is that the narrator is dealing with relationship troubles and feeling like garbage and just wants to go plop down at a bar ... where all the regulars are friends,” Smith says.
These days, the song sounds a bit like a prophecy. Smith and her husband, chef Adam To, bought Whitey’s Bar in Stillwater last summer. After quietly operating the bar for months and getting to know the staff and regulars, they reopened the space this month as Howard’s Bar, a comfy hangout and restaurant named after their Staffordshire terrier mix.
To and Smith, who met through the Minnesota music scene and reconnected while living in Los Angeles, returned to Minneapolis near the beginning of the pandemic. While Smith fixed up their duplex and carried their first baby, To, previously a chef at Michelin-starred Trois Mec in Los Angeles, was scheming to open a bistro. Their realtor eventually sent them the listing for Whitey’s in Stillwater. “We said, this would be great,” To says. “We just had a child. We can live and work in one place — we can have a restaurant concept that’s not so demanding that I won’t be able to see my family.” After a series of “wild rides” with investors, the couple was able to cobble together a down payment via loans and a grant.
Howard’s, first and foremost, is a bar. It serves beer, wine, and rail drinks, and — like so many cozy bars across Minnesota — it boasts a pull tab station in the back corner. But while the menu features a number of bar standards (a classic cheeseburger, gooey cheese curds, and a whole sandwich menu), Howard’s also serves a few supper club-like dishes: lasagna made with fresh pasta sheets, house-trimmed rib-eyes with loaded baked potatoes, smoked trout dip with a toasted baguette, and so on. Some items, like the bacon-and-ketchup-topped meatloaf, hearken back to the Whitey’s days. “It’s a bar, but you can also get a good-quality meal,” To says. “You don’t have to fill up on onion rings.”
To, who works on the line five days a week at Howard’s, has been cooking for more than 15 years. While living in Minnesota, he worked at Blackbird Cafe, 112 Eatery, Brasa, and Sea Change. Then, he moved to Pittsburgh and cooked at a Kevin Sousa restaurant called Salt of the Earth. But it was in Los Angeles where he really leveled up. At Trois Mec, a small staff prepared 10- to 12-course prix fixe menus five days a week. The kitchen atmosphere was “extremely focused,” To says. “The menu would change all the time. Lots of components, lots of detail. ... I grew way more in that small period of time than all my [prior] cooking years combined.”
The Howard’s kitchen doesn’t have that same intensity. “I absolutely respect and value the culture of focused food and traditional brigade-style kitchens and hope to one day be a part of something like that,” To says. “But with Howard’s Bar, it’s our intention to make it work in the community, to add to the community, to be honest, and to provide food that’s delicious and familiar and comfortable. It isn’t brigade-style, but we are organized, and we prep things in small batches. I want to stick to the basics, and then we’ll go from there.”
“Building on the basics” is a good way to describe the ambiance at Howard’s. Smith and To used their small budget and guidance from designer Deidre Webster to juice up the ’70s basement vibes. They added wood paneling and spruced up the space with neon signs, paintings and posters, and taxidermied deer and cow heads, upping the Minnesota dive factor. “I like a little mess,” Smith says. “I like a little history. And definitely a warm, cozy atmosphere.”
Many of the current Howard’s staff also worked at Whitey’s Bar. “Whenever you take over a place, you never know what the culture is,” To says. “I was fortunate enough to inherit a really great staff at this place.” Kevin Dunn, who ran Whitey’s for nearly two decades, even swings by and runs food on busy days.
Howard’s hosted another guest food runner during the soft open this month: Dan Manosack, who helped open Petite León in Minneapolis, co-owns Little Tijuana, and happens to be one of To’s oldest friends. “That first week that [Dan] was open as Little Tijuana’s, Adam was in the kitchen with him, making sure everything was running smoothly, working out the kinks with him, being a sounding board,” Smith says. Manosack repaid the favor, helping To run the first few nights of service and crashing at the couple’s living space above the bar.
Little Tijuana fans should feel right at home in Howard’s. Both bars offer funky basement vibes and juxtapose familiar food with surprising but well-executed dishes. (Have you ever eaten Calabrian chile hummus or mapo rigatoni at a bar? Head to Howard’s for the hummus and Little T’s for the pasta.) Both spots can be simultaneously described as historic institutions, comfy hangouts, and high-quality restaurants.
But Howard’s isn’t primarily geared toward the city kids who pile into Little Tijuana booths. “There’s only one group of people that’s gonna keep us in business through the winter,” Smith says — and that’s the people of Stillwater.
Above Howard’s well-worn wooden bar, there’s a red neon sign that reads, “I remember when it was John’s Bar,” referencing the beloved Main Street institution that predated Whitey’s. “That was Adam’s idea,” Smith says. “It was so genius, because when we took it over, everybody was really kind and welcoming, and they wanted to tell us their personal story about their connection with that bar. ... We really wanted to honor the people that remember it as John’s Bar.”
The bar’s new namesake, Howard the dog, has become a minor local celebrity. To and Smith adopted him early in the pandemic, when they had time to watch what To calls “a shitload of Cesar Millan,” the TV dog trainer. Howard is actually named after a bar himself: Howard’s Pub on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, where Smith’s family has vacationed every summer since the 1960s. “When everyone’s done eating and people are just hanging out in the bar, I’ll bring him down,” To says. “Everyone’s like, ‘Howard!’ He runs through, and he’ll eat fries off the ground. He loves it.”
After traveling the world and living in big cities, Smith and To have happily settled in a small one to run their business and raise their son. In a way, they’re simply carrying on their family legacies. “My mom owned the first coffee shop in the north Minnesota area of Detroit Lakes,” Smith says. “After school, I’d go to the coffee shop and do my homework there. It was a hub for our family.” To’s father owned the late-’80s Vietnamese restaurant Tea for Two in tiny Lindstrom, Minnesota.
“It just felt like coming home to a small town to have our baby and start our story,” Smith says. “I really hope we make Stillwater proud.”