The Right Mix: The Cardinal

photograph by Keith Isaacs

“We want to do one thing well and that’s it. We’re not trying to be a restaurant or anything,” says Jason Howard, one of the three owner-founders of The Cardinal, a low-key bar on West Street near Glenwood South. But as he sits on a barstool, Howard’s eyes dart to the flat-top grill tucked into the corner of the 900-square-foot bar. There, New England-style buns slathered with mayo (on both sides) are sizzling, grilling until crisp, when they’ll be stuffed with beer-and-onion basted Nathan’s dogs. Manning the grill might seem an unlikely bartender task, but not here: Howard reveals The Cardinal’s unofficial motto is “a dive bar with a sneaky good hot dog.”

Nonchalance is the name of the game at The Cardinal. Howard, professional skateboarder Dan Murphy, and music producer Brad Stancil opened the bar last December in a building previously occupied by Cardinal Cab, which inspired its name. They worked with next-door neighbor August Construction Company and architect Matthew Konar to give the place an overhaul, a four-month process that resulted in today’s rustic, minimal space that’s at its best when the large garage-door-cum-main-wall is rolled up and fresh air is flowing in. The front porch overlooks a token view of downtown Raleigh (“for now,” adds Howard. Planned city updates to the Peace Street West streetscape will change the vista in the next year). There is one arcade game: “one thing everybody can recognize is a pinball machine;” and a jukebox, “so people can come in and play whatever they want.”

You can order whatever drink you want, too, if you ask. “We do have a full bar, but we’re not interested in having any sort of menu.” Order the cocktail you prefer and the bartender can handle it. Or, order the customer favorite and recommended hot dog pairing, “a cold beer. In a can.” As for those hot dogs, you order Char-Grill style on a piece of paper, checking the boxes of desired toppings. There’s a veggie version, and bagged potato chips, and the options stop there. “We sell a ton of beer, but we don’t even have a huge beer selection,” co-owner Dan Murphy says. Howard nods in agreement, his point made. “This is a simple place. Just a plain ol’ bar.” – Jessie Ammons