Oakland Mills is getting another last chance.
Despite doubts about the licensees, Howard County's liquor board has unanimously approved a license for a new restaurant to replace the closed Last Chance Saloon - a hopeful sign for village boosters who watched a plan for a replacement restaurant fail last fall.
"I'm very excited. When the Last Chance left our village, it really did leave a hole," said Barbara Russell, the village's representative on the Columbia Council. "It was a big draw. People have been asking about it. We need a friendly, neighborhood gathering place."
That's exactly what the new operators hope to provide in the 156-seat Fire Rock Grill, which is to open in mid-July, according to licensees Vaughn Lee Ennis, Nishith R. Patel and Cynthia Ann Nagel.
The 5,344-square-foot restaurant will sport a refinished and redecorated interior, cafe tables out front and a deck out back. Specialty sauces and spices - and maybe tablecloths - will brighten the space and accent the American cuisine menu, the operators said.
Ennis has worked in and managed restaurants from here to Hawaii, he said, though most recently he worked as a systems engineer. Patel said he gave up a career in the financial services industry for the chance to run his own place. Each man owns 45 percent of the corporation, and Nagel, a Realtor, is the local resident agent and owns the remaining 10 percent, the group said.
But board members at a hearing last week were upset to learn that Patel, 38, of Laurel, has two drunken-driving convictions, and that 12 years ago Ennis, 54, of Silver Spring, used a friend's West Virginia address to obtain an out-of-state driver's license to avoid paying a $150 in disputed fees to Maryland.
Attorney Tom Meachum said the men had been scrupulously honest about their mistakes and had no pattern of deceptiveness.
Ennis said he straightened out the issue six to eight months later and regrets what board Chairman David A. Rakes termed "immature" behavior.
Patel called the drunken-driving incidents "extremely regrettable" and said he attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, though he does not consider himself an alcoholic.
Board members, expressing reservations, approved the license, 4-0. Member Christopher J. Merdon did not attend.