A Taste of Europe in Indiana
by Kathleen Schwartz
After 25 years spent working in a family law firm, Lee M. Bowers II began thinking about a career change. He spoke to friends and family about the possibilities, and today, the residents of Huntington, Indiana are grateful for his choice of a new direction.
“I planned to retire the end of 2009,” Lee says. “About that same time, the restaurant that was in this location closed. I had discussions with [the investors of that restaurant], and the numbers all worked out well, and so that pointed me in the direction of restaurant owner. We did extensive renovations and opened the restaurant in March of 2010.”
Lee’s restaurant, The Rusty Dog Irish Pub, has received recognition for its excellent menu and service. It has earned Best Steak, Best Hamburger, Best Bar and Best Atmosphere in the local Readers Choice awards. It has also received the coveted 5-star rating from Ryan DuVall, food critic at Fort Wayne’s Journal-Gazette. This is high praise for an establishment whose owner initially didn’t really know too much about running a restaurant.
“Obviously, this is a dramatic change in direction, opening the restaurant—and I knew nothing about running a restaurant,” Lee admits. “I knew a lot about food and the preparation and serving of food, but I didn’t know anything about running a restaurant. So, it was a big learning curve for me.”
Lee says he worked with food service representatives to figure out the ordering process and what items were available. He also had help from Patrick Ramsdell, a chef he had known for more than 20 years. Before opening the restaurant, Lee met with Ramsdell.
“I told him this is what I wanted to do, and I said, I am not going to open the restaurant unless you agree to come on and be my chef and stay with me for at least a couple years,” Lee recalls. “And so, we had a long conversation about our philosophies of food. Evidently, I passed whatever test he had in his mind, so he agreed.”
The rest of Lee’s staff was able to help in other areas. “Fortunately, the people I had out front, the serving and the bartending staff, had a number of years of experience, and they helped me get the procedures out front. I had a lot of help from people who had experience in the business.”
Next, Lee deliberated the theme of his new restaurant, traveling to England and Ireland several times for inspiration. He fell in love with the countryside pubs.
“They were so cozy and inviting, had good food, and you kind of felt good when you walked through the door,” he says. “I wanted to create that atmosphere here in Huntington, so we decorated it with a lot of things on the walls to make it feel cozy and comfy.”
Next, came the name. Again, Bowers turned to his experiences overseas.
“In England and Ireland, especially in the small towns, the shops and restaurants oftentimes have figural signs over the sidewalk,” he explains. “I wanted to do a figural sign out front, and at home, I had a metal sculpture of a dog that was made from found objects.
“It had been sitting out in my front yard for 15 years, and it was all rusted. So, I was going to use that dog sculpture as my figural sign. Therefore, Rusty Dog.”
Unfortunately, the sculpture ended up being way too small.
“As it turned out, we couldn’t use the original sculpture that inspired the name, but we decided to keep the name.”
When creating the menu, Lee turned to his own dining experience and philosophy of service. His focus would be high-quality items.
“We really focused on bringing high-quality food into Huntington at The Rusty Dog, things that weren’t available in Huntington—duck, lamb, a lot of different seafood.”
In addition to the regular menu, there are usually three featured items on weekends.
“We have several items that we have featured that ended up being very popular so we added them to the regular menu,” adds Lee.
Always keeping his customers in mind, Lee is constantly making additions to his menu at The Rusty Dog. As the demand for craft beers increased, so did The Rusty Dog’s selection. Presently, 12 craft beers are available.
And for those seeking gluten-free items, the Rusty Dog offers several options.
“Serendipity Sweets in Roanoke bakes gluten-free buns for me,” Lee says. “We have marked on our menu items that are gluten-free. We get a lot of people from out of town just because they know we are careful about that, and we are sympathetic to the needs of people who need to avoid gluten.”
Lee enjoys spending all his time at the restaurant. He puts great effort into putting customers first.
“I make it a point to touch every customer and talk to everyone, make sure their meals are good, make sure they have everything they need,” he explains. “And, I think the customers really appreciate that.
“My mission is to create an atmosphere that the customers are comfortable coming into, where they can get good service and quality food at reasonable and fair prices.”
The Rusty Dog Irish Pub is open Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations are suggested on weekends and holidays. Bar seating is available, as well as a family room.
The Rusty Dog Irish Pub
32 N. Jefferson Street
Huntington, IN 46750