By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Feb 03, 2009 at 8:32 AM

"Bar Month" at is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun bars and club articles -- including guides, unique features, drink recipes and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in! 

Milwaukee's historic nickname, Brew City, is a point of pride for a hard-working town that built success on a solid brewing past. But times change, and Milwaukee may be gaining a new nickname: the ashtray of the Midwest.

Unlike Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Madison, the lack of an official smoking ban in the city of Milwaukee places the decision to allow patrons to light up on business owners. Until recently, the number of bars and restaurants willing to tamper with tradition was minimal, at best.

"It used to be without question," says Joe Sorge, co-owner of Swig, Water Buffalo and two Water Street bars. "We worked to accommodate smokers."

But now that those smokers make up a smaller portion of the population than they did decades ago, some bar and restaurant owners are shifting their perceptions of the standard. And although still a minority here, totally smoke-free environments are a rising trend.

But can they compete in a city like Milwaukee?

It's been about a year since Sorge and his wife Angie relocated Swig from its original Water Street spot and reopened it as a non-smoking restaurant in the Third Ward. Shortly after, they banned smoking at Water Buffalo after allowing it for the previous 18 months. The reception, he says, was largely positive, and even a bit surprising.

"What pushed us over the edge at Water Buffalo was finding out that people were actually surprised that they could smoke at the bar," Sorge says. "When we took it away, it really changed the way the restaurant smelled, which is a big part of the dining experience."

Now he's opening AJ Bombers, 1247 N. Water St., as Water Street's first non-smoking bar.

"We're very happy with how pleased our staff and customers are with the non-smoking at the two restaurants. I realize it's a risk to try non-smoking at a bar, but since the response has been so overwhelmingly positive, we feel good about it and I like that it will be a solid point of differentiation (on Water Street).

Sorge says going smoke-free has sparked a renewed interest in nightlife among people who'd otherwise written off smoky places. But, he says, the change doesn't come without a downside -- he's noticed a decrease in bar-only business.

Adrienne Pierluissi, who owns the Palm Tavern and Sugar Maple with her husband Bruno Johnson, has noticed a similar transition in her demographics.

"I think that Bruno thought it would be the death of us," she says of converting the Palm Tavern to non-smoking in 2008. "Initially it was hard because our late-night crowd -- midnight to 2 a.m. -- totally dropped off. But in exchange, we're getting the people who haven't been out to the bar in five years because it's too smoky. Although they're not as consistent and don't drink as much as the smokers, I think it's been a great exchange."

When she and Bruno opened Sugar Maple in April '08, they felt that going smoke-free from the get-go was a given.

"It really makes sense at the Sugar Maple," she says. "I do a lot of family-friendly events -- I couldn't do that in a smoky place. I got tired of putting the kids down and smelling like smoke, especially cigars. I'm sympathetic to smokers and their freedom of choice, but what really hit me was that my kids don't have that choice and I'm raising them in an environment that I feel I can control. I don't know if it should be across the board, but people have a choice now."

Kris Gorski, co-owner of champagne bar Cuvee, had other reasons for opening as non-smoking in October 2007.

"We felt that the state would soon be heading in this direction, and that we could be ahead of the curve," she says. "We wanted a healthy environment for ourselves, our staff and our guests. Outside of the issue of second-hand smoke, we also recognize the damage that it causes to the facilities. Our smoking guests still have the option to go outside to smoke if they wish. We will be adding outdoor seating this summer so that they can still enjoy their bubbly and the beautiful weather."

La Merenda, an international tapas restaurant curbed smoking in October 2008, eight months after opening at 125 E. National Ave., in Walker's Point. Owner and executive chef Peter Sandroni says he wasn't going to wait for the state or the city to pass legislation.

"It was the right thing to do for our staff, it was the right thing to do for our customers and even a number of smokers have told me they actually prefer to smoke outside and eat inside a smoke-free setting," he says. "Inhaling smoke and eating at the same time does affect the flavor."

He admits the choice cost him some reservations and a handful of regulars, but overall has gained the restaurant more customers.

"I really think it's helped the business and I don't regret it at all."

The other business owners adamantly share Sandroni's sentiment.

"I'd take the decline in business any day," says Pierluissi. "It was the right thing to do for us."

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”