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While expanded hours and enhancements are coming to Smith’s Row Food and Spirits, the new owners of the two-story bistro in downtown Columbus promise they won’t try to fix what isn’t broken.
“We’ve been very impressed by the restaurant, so when we found out it was for sale, we wanted to preserve it,” said Steve Provenza, 45, who purchased the restaurant at 418 Fourth St. with his wife, Jennifer Cook-Provenza, 28. “We wanted to keep Smith’s Row as an icon, as a centerpiece to downtown Columbus.”
Provenza, who finalized the purchase Dec. 17, said he was concerned that if the wrong person had bought Smith’s Row, the restaurant might have been dramatically changed.
“During the last few weeks, I can’t tell you how many out-of-state people have told us they’ve heard this is the best place in town,” Provenza said. “I can assure you we are going to continue the Smith’s Row tradition.”
The Provenzas, who married last year, bought Smith’s Row from Mary Dietz Arnholt, who opened the bistro Dec. 31, 1998, with her then-husband, Jim Dietz.
After spending several years in the restaurant profession, Arnholt said she decided to sell last year upon reaching retirement age.
“I remarried three years ago and now have 10 grandchildren, so this is my chance of a lifetime to enjoy being with my loved ones,” Arnholt said. “But letting go after 15 years has been an emotional roller-coaster for me. Establishing a restaurant is like raising a child.”
While Arnholt admittedly has mixed feelings about retirement, the veteran restaurateur feels confident her baby is in good hands.
“The Provenzas want to keep everything the same,” Arnholt said. “They are both very energetic and youthful, and I think they’ll do a great job.”
For the new owners, an important part of maintaining Smith’s Row’s long-established integrity is keeping Arnholt’s entire managerial team, which includes longtime general manager Ben Watkins, sous chef Scott Jones, kitchen manager John Garrett, pastry chef Lindsay Villalobos and day manager Molly Humes.
“We also have servers who have been here since the restaurant opened, and they are just as important as the management for the Columbus community,” Cook-Provenza said. “They have a following who comes in on a regular basis, and those servers will still be here.”
Cook-Provenza recalled that after Arnholt and Jim Dietz purchased the former Left Bank restaurant in 1998, an additional half-million dollars was invested into upscale renovations and furnishings to provide a unique, New Orleans-style ambiance.
“Mary built a very beautiful restaurant, and she was hands-on in designing the building,” Cook-Provenza said. “We really want to thank her because there’s no equivalent to Smith’s Row in Columbus. That’s why we were so excited to have the opportunity to buy it.”
Provenza nodded in agreement with his wife’s assessment of the restaurant’s unique charm.
“I mean, where else in Columbus can you eat outside but above the sidewalk?” he asked.
The changes coming to Smith’s Row are meant to enhance and broaden the established dining experience rather than replace it, the couple said.
For example, Smith’s Row no longer will be closed for two hours in the afternoon. The restaurant will remain open 11 a.m. through 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
In order to cater to the needs of customers, Smith’s Row is developing both an express lunch and bar menus.
Beginning Jan. 17, the Barney Quick Trio will perform at 6 p.m. every Friday in the second-floor open area between the banquet rooms at the top of the stairs. Besides Quick on guitar, the jazz group includes Carolyn Dutton on violin and Matt McConahey on stand-up bass.
“Our intention is to have a ‘club within a restaurant’ atmosphere on Friday nights,” said Quick, who was placed in charge of coordinating live entertainment for the new owners. “The idea is to provide a nice way for young professionals to kick off their weekend with a real sparkle.”
Those who come upstairs for live music can enjoy a separate bar and an appetizer buffet, Quick added.
If Friday night jazz is well-received, a different type of entertainment could be booked later this year for Saturdays, Provenza said.
On Jan 19, Smith’s Row will begin offering brunch from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.
“There’s so much pedestrian traffic downtown on Sundays, and what we want to do is provide them a nice, upscale, off-the-menu brunch,” Provenza said.
Provenza’s primary career background has been in providing medical and dental services to the military. However, the couple also own local rental property and recently invested in the Story Hilltop Lodge, a bed-and-breakfast in Brown County.
While some owners of former downtown eateries have said the historic business district may have become oversaturated with restaurants, the new owners of Smith’s Row disagree.
“I think if you look at the projections, you’ll see that Columbus is growing at a pace that’s going to outgrow the competition that’s coming in,” Provenza said. “The people of Columbus deserve that competition because it will improve both the product and the pricing.”
The recently completed street renovations along Fourth Street show that Columbus continues to enjoy healthy growth, and the infrastructure upgrades will further enhance Smith’s Row’s reputation as a destination restaurant, Cook-Provenza said.
Although the new owners acknowledge Smith’s Row has a reputation of being a higher-priced restaurant, Provenza said he thinks that assessment is based more on perception than fact.
“When we did the pricing analysis, we found there’s only one entree on the menu that’s over $30,” Provenza said. “Most upscale restaurants have a whole listing of menu items that are over $30, so I feel our pricing is very competitive and more in the mid-range.”
Smith’s Row is named after the tinsmiths and blacksmiths who occupied that section of Fourth Street in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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