Howard’s Bar: A New Chapter for a Local Favorite

by | Dec 2023

Howards Bar Stillwater Dining Room

Photos: Chris Emeott

Historic Stillwater establishment enters a new era as Howard’s Bar.

“I remember when it was John’s Bar,” reads a bright neon sign displayed at the newly opened Howard’s Bar.

“It was Barney’s, then Sonny’s, then John’s, then Whitey’s, then Howard’s,” says Adam To, the Stillwater establishment’s owner and chef.

It’s a legacy that’s not lost on To and his partner and co-owner, musician Caroline Smith. “We hear it one thousand times a day, ‘I remember when it was John’s Bar,’ so we wanted to do a little homage,” Smith says.

After the pair purchased the two-story building on Main Street in August 2022, they continued to run the bar as Whitey’s for a year—a period that To says was an “invaluable and a necessary part of taking a place like this over.” When they reopened as Howard’s Bar in June 2023, it was with a fresh coat of paint, an updated menu built on Midwestern-American classics and a new name aligned with the self-titled tradition of past proprietors.

“That’s why we wanted it to be Howard’s. It felt in line, in step with the history of it all,” Smith says. Who’s the new namesake? That would be the family’s dog, a Staffordshire terrier mix named Howard. “This is his bar, by the way!” Smith says.

A Familiar Place

If you walk into Howard’s wondering what’s changed—that’s just what Smith and To want you to think. “We tried to keep the spirit of Whitey’s intact with doing our own little twist on it,” To says. “… The goal we were hoping to achieve … is like, ‘Something’s different. We just can’t put our finger on it.’”

Inside the old-school laminated menu is an assortment of recognizable items, with To’s fresh take. “That’s kind of what we do—familiar classics. Just try to make them as nice as we can,” To says.

Italian Chop Salad

Italian Chop Salad

Every menu item is made from scratch, with meats sourced from Peterson Craftsman Meats in Osceola, Wisconsin. Whole ribeyes are brought in, butchered and dry-aged in house. Bar snacks like trout dip (a Howard’s specialty) and hand-dipped cheese curds reign. And hearty entrees, like lasagna and meatloaf, appear beside lighter options, like a Cobb salad with pulled rotisserie chicken that’s “become kind of a staple here,” To says.

Even the staff is much the same as when the bar was Whitey’s. There was some initial hesitation with the change in ownership, recalls Smith, who handles many of the backend, organizational tasks at Howard’s while working a regular 9 to 5 elsewhere. But it didn’t last long. “We became fast friends,” Smith says of the staff. “They learned we weren’t going to do much with it, and I feel like all my friends in Stillwater are the people that work here, at Howard’s.”

Family Legacy

Another name you’ll likely hear on your next visit to Howard’s? Marty—Smith and To’s rosy-cheeked 19-month-old son and a Howard’s celebrity. As I chat with Smith and To in one of the bar’s reclaimed green booths, Marty is dancing on the bar with bar staff and sitting in his parents’ laps, shrieking gleefully, with a salt shaker in one hand and pepper in the other.

“He’s a lucky little kid,” To says. It’s their goal for Marty to grow up here, with an extended family in the Howard’s staff. And Marty is joining a family legacy, of sorts. As a high school kid, To always had a “fundamental rapport” with cooking. His father ran a Lindstrom Vietnamese restaurant, Tea for Two, and his grandfather in Vietnam owned a pho restaurant; “It’s kind of what we do,” To says.

He spent the last 15 years making food in Minneapolis restaurants—with stints at Blackbird Cafe, Brasa, Sea Change and 112 Eatery—and as chef at Michelin-starred Trois Mec in Los Angeles. He even has a sibling in the industry. “His brother owns a restaurant outside of Nashville,” Smith says. “It runs deep.”

And it’s not just To. Smith spent much of her childhood in Detroit Lakes in her mother’s coffee shop. “When [Howard’s] kind of fell into our laps, it reminds me a lot of that coffee shop,” Smith says. “The old wood bar and the checkered floors—it’s so full circle. [Adam] did the pilgrimage back to his place of origin, and I did the pilgrimage back to owning a similar business in a small town.”

As full circle as it may seem, it’s a reality neither of them would’ve envisioned.

Longtime friends through the Minneapolis music scene (To also sings), Smith and To reconnected while living in California. To was living in the Bay Area; Smith was living in Los Angeles. They met up in 2018, and “the rest is history, truly,” Smith says.

When the pandemic hit, Smith and To were living in a one-bedroom in the Los Angeles suburb Los Feliz. Meanwhile, Smith’s mother’s three-bedroom home with a lush yard back in Minneapolis sat vacant. So they drove back to the Midwest, saying to themselves all the time: “When it blows over, we’ll move back to L.A.,” Smith says, adding. “We didn’t. We had a baby.”

“The universe just kind of spat us back [to Minnesota], and then the light bulbs went off, and we realized we could maybe do the things we really wanted to do long term,” To says. “Once we realized that our goals were aligned as partners. We were like, ‘OK, well let’s get married and have a kid and do all the stuff we want to do.”

Said kid (Marty) ended up being the impetus the duo needed to kick the pursuit of their passions into high gear. “We had a nine-month ticking time bomb to get it done, so that was kind of like how it went,” Smith says.

“That’s his middle name, Time Bomb,” To says.

“Time Bomb To,” Smith says, laughing.

Finding Community

When Whitey’s was presented as an option to the pair (who were looking for a rental in Minneapolis at the time), everything suddenly fell into place. “The more we thought about it, and the more we spent time here [it] was like, ‘Oh, my God. We want this very badly,’” Smith says, adding that a move to Stillwater presented another benefit. “Where’s a better place to raise a kid?”

They have been stunned by the support they’ve received since joining the Stillwater community. Smith was invited with her band to headline the 89th annual Lumberjack Days. And each day, faces new and old come into Howard’s. “We’re carving out a new lifestyle and a new community,” To says. “Minneapolis will always be there; our friends are there. It’s kind of cool. It’s like we’ve expanded the circle.”

“The unique thing about Stillwater, too, is all the business owners are really supportive of one another,” Smith says. “We’ve gotten to meet the other restaurant owners because they come in here and order stuff and introduce themselves. It really is a special community.”

Even the difficulties they’ve had taste a little sweet, from being short-staffed in the first six weeks as Howard’s when To was working doubles every day, to fixing things on the roof midwinter in sub-zero temperatures. “There’s a lot of challenges in juggling the business, ownership of the building and also our personal life. But at the end of the day, they’re good problems to have and the problems that we wanted. Showing up for yourself, showing up for your family, even though it can be difficult,” To says.

“It’s a lot, but it’s like that feeling at the end of the day when you’re, like, happy-exhausted,” Smith says. “Sometimes. Most of the time.”

“It’s good stuff,” To says.

Rapid Fire Q+A

Howards Bar Stillwater Tables

What has been the most memorable part of this journey?

Smith: I think signing the papers for the building was surreal. It was a surreal experience.

To: Yeah, that was crazy. And the soft opening, too. It was really Howard’s. We had rolled out the menu. The place was packed. Tons of friends. It was pretty indescribable.

How do you spend a day off?

S: We go to the dog park.

T: Dog park, Square Lake, hang out with the little guy …

S: Cook a meal.

What’s your idea of perfect happiness?

T: Perfect happiness is to be a present father and a good husband and just make the most of every day.

S: Making a living off of something you love doing that doesn’t feel like work. And every day just feels like happiness. Also, we kind of as a family believe that happiness is not something that happens to you; it’s something that you choose.

T: You have to make it.

S: You really do have to make it. So we just choose to be happy. There are days we could slam doors and storm around and think, ‘Oh, poor us. Life is so hard because this bad thing happened to us.’ But we just choose to be like, ‘Woah. We’re so incredibly fortunate.’ And just choose to be happy.

What has made you the most proud during this process?

T: I’m proud that we were able to do this. We don’t have any money, we have a kid, she was pregnant, I’m a first-time business owner—coming into a community we’re not from. Everything was against us. All we had was our vision and our experience and a belief that we could do it. And her belief in me and my belief in her, and that’s all we had. I’m pinching myself that this is even something that was even in the realm of possibility for us.

S: I’m really proud of the remodel. We didn’t really have much resources to throw at it, and we were really thrifty and had a great team, and I really love how it turned out. A lot. We sometimes just come down here when it’s closed and just look around and be like, ‘This is our spot.’

Howard’s Bar
302 Main St. S., Stillwater; 512.555.0110
Facebook: Howards Bar
Instagram: @howardsbarmn


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