Ten years ago, when Sonoma's Bar and Grille opened in Columbia's Owen Brown Village Center, the concept was "basically a restaurant," said owner Jerry Seidel, 41.
Over time, the concept was tweaked. Televisions and live music acts were added. "We found out that our niche was more of an upscale sports bar with entertainment at night," he said.
And, until recently, that meant that smoking was allowed at Sonoma's. To accommodate the smokers, a large partition with glass windows had divided the restaurant, separating the smoking section from the nonsmokers. Naturally, the smokers were the ones with access to the bar.
As of June 1, Sonoma's, like all bars and restaurants in Howard County, no longer allows smoking. Other counties have enacted similar smoking bans, and the state will adopt one in February.
Instead of looking at the smoking ban as a problem, Seidel decided to turn it into an opportunity. Over the past two months, his establishment has undergone a renovation and expansion. It has become more family-friendly, and it no longer smells like smoke.
That partition has been removed, creating a more spacious feel, and a wall was bumped out, adding about 375 square feet to the existing 3,000, he said. "It has a lot more flow to it," Seidel said.
New carpet, new paint and a thorough scrubbing helped eliminate any lingering cigarette smells.
The upgrade included swapping all the TVs for high-definition televisions, and adding four, bringing the total to 18. The sound system has been upgraded, too, said Steve McLaughlin, who has worked at Sonoma's almost since it opened.
Sonoma's stayed open during the upgrades, though it stopped serving lunch while the work was in progress. Lunch hours were resumed Monday.
The smoking ban has created a new audience for Sonoma's. "Now we're able to tap into a market with a lot of families that can come in," Seidel said.
Smokers, of course, are still welcome. Sonoma's has always had outdoor seating in the village's courtyard. Those tables still have ashtrays on them. In cooler weather, space heaters help keep patrons warm, Seidel said.
"The smokers are still coming here," said McLaughlin, who said he is a smoker.
Seidel and a partner opened Sonoma's Bar and Grille on July 11, 1997, in a site formerly occupied by a bookstore and cafe. "My own thought was there was a need for an upscale bar and restaurant," said Seidel, who now owns the restaurant with different partner, Greg Troendly.
One of the remaining nonchain restaurants in the county, Sonoma's serves a standard American menu of burgers, salads, chicken wings and steaks. The menu is tweaked every few months, with less-popular dishes dropped and new ones added, Seidel noted.
Now that more families are coming to Sonoma's, some lighter options have been added, including a taco salad and a chef's salad, he said. The restaurant still offers live music nearly every night, as well as trivia games and lots of sports on television.
The smoking ban, said Seidel, has "worked out well."
Sonoma's Bar and Grille is at 7284 Cradlerock Way. The phone number is 410-381-7220.