Embracing a national trend, Sonder is eager to make you feel at home, offering a relaxing, social, fun experience, with decent food strictly as a side attraction.
The restaurant is heavy on atmosphere. The former home of Prime Cut has a patio with misters, heaters, a fire pit and games like giant Jenga, Connect Four and ladder toss, the game where you toss strings with a ball on each and try to land them on horizontal rods. All we need now is corn hole and bocce ball, but space is at a premium. Inside there are dining spaces with couches and booths that look as comfortable as what you’d find in a living room. On the night we visited, Sonder was definitely drawing the under-30 crowd: four girls at the booth, two guys waiting for their beers at the couch area and other parties.
The interior has been transformed in a way that adds to the kick-back vibe that will eventually build a regular clientele. The bar is still there in the corner, but the meat market in the back looks like it’s been transformed into a banquet space with its own bathrooms and a separate window into the kitchen. The old brick wall has been whitewashed in that style they call a German smear. Festoon lighting hangs across the exposed duct ceiling area and floating shelves on the wall are verdant with various plants. The upholstery is that old school tuck-and-roll reminiscent of the ‘50s. There’s a sliding barn door in the back, a white tile wall in a herringbone pattern and a huge hanging lantern. One of the walls has a chalkboard look with wings that you can pose in front of if you’re looking for visual evidence of your angelic nature. Above the wings are the words “To Live is to Fly.” There was a lot of discussion of the green pastel color used on those booths.
The overall look is distinctive, charming and a perfect antidote to a long day at work. An employee told a friend that it’s been the general manager's lifelong dream to open a restaurant, and she’s been keeping a sketchbook to stockpile ideas her whole life. That passion is evident everywhere.
How’s the food? The menu is fascinating, with appetizers, bruschetta, burgers, sandwiches, salads and dinners after 3 p.m. If I had to make a generalization about what we sampled, I’d say some of it is a work in progress, some is already amazing. The latter would describe the appetizer we ordered, the poutine. Not many Bakersfield restaurants serve this Canadian specialty best known as dressed-up fries. The version here ($9) features “chuck roast gravy,” green onions, mozzarella cheese, habanero salt (a brilliant touch) and fresh-cut large planks of fresh-cut potatoes that were given the lightest of beer-battered coating before frying.
As my companion and I dug into this, enjoying the tender chunks of beef and the buttery hints that were coming from somewhere (I’m guessing the gravy) we almost wanted to cancel our order for the entrees. Seriously, on a light dining night, sharing this and some drinks is a great wind-down formula. The fries were particularly strong, crisp and starchy sweet but not softened by the gravy.
But we didn’t make it easy, ordering two dinners from the entree list before the poutine, my companion selecting the fried chicken ($19) and I falling for the center-cut prime sirloin steak dinner ($22), lured in mainly by the roasted garlic butter that the menu promised it would be finished with. That was an example of the kitchen falling short. The steak was fine, but there was no evidence of the butter on it. Roasted garlic butter has a pretty pronounced taste. It’s hardly subtle, so with no hint of it I’m guessing it was a kitchen glitch.
My dinner came with two sides and I selected the salad and the macaroni and cheese. The salad was marvelous, with tiny, thin cucumber slices and heirloom cherry tomatoes as well as great greens. I asked for the house-made lemon vinaigrette on the side, and believe me it made me miss that butter on the steak even more, so enchanting was it that I’m sure the roasted garlic butter would have been just as charming. The mac-and-cheese, however, reminded my companion of the Velveeta product we used to serve the kids long ago. Don’t judge.
My companion’s fried chicken plate had only one issue: the coleslaw was described on the menu as “broccoli green apple” and we detected not a speck of sweetness from the green apple. The broccoli was an inspired choice, however, so crisp in what is the fashionable light dressing style that coleslaw is moving toward. There was a square dish of fresh mashed potatoes with a great gravy and four pieces of mahogany dark, ultra-crispy fried chicken that elicited fond memories of great meals at J’s Place and The Pantry on Brundage (long shuttered). The meat inside was so moist it had to be brined.
This is a kitchen that knows how to treat fried poultry. Diving into that and the mashed potatoes felt like a Sunday dinner at a Southern restaurant.
My companion was most impressed by the smallest touch, cornbread served with a thin syrup that tasted of molasses mixed with a simple sugar syrup. It was so charming, so interesting but so humble, almost like a small grace note on the plate.
A reader had already told me the real hit was the weekend brunch, which has a special menu. It’s a work in progress, as they’re adding chicken and waffles, biscuits and whiskey gravy and other items soon. The star of the brunch menu is the Danish pancake dish known as ebelskivers (I think I’ve seen these in Solvang), here called #AebleLife. They are round balls with a light, airy batter, like a cross between doughnuts and pancakes. I got the Elvis version ($9), made with peanut brittle, banana custard and Applewood bacon. Wow. The custard was light and frothy, an airy sauce that made it all work, the brittle pieces the serious dose of sugar some seek in breakfast. There are two other versions available, one with cream cheese and berries.
My companions selected the avocado toast ($10) and the brunch sandwich ($10), and both were excellent. The toast was far more complex than the excellent but simple version offered at Cafe Smitten. In addition to avocado slices and spread, the toasted French baguette is topped with grilled corn, black beans, pickled onions, lime and just a sprinkle of cotija cheese. It’s fascinating and good, but, as my companion noted, while Smitten makes avocado the star, here you’ve got an ensemble cast of flavors and textures.
The sandwich featured what looked like a large house-made English muffin, piled with lots of sliced ham, excellent crisp bacon, scrambled eggs, tomato, cheddar cheese and arugula. It came with potatoes and a side, and we chose the house-made chips, which weren’t hot. At a nearby table the couple ordered a breakfast burrito and a plate of chilaquiles that were quite a Texas-sized portion.
If you were wondering about the restaurant’s name, there’s an explanation on the menu that the word is a noun that is the realization that others around you are living life as vivid and complex as your own. There’s more, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself. It can lead to some interesting philosophical discussions that will eventually lead back to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
There are 12 taps for regular and craft beers, and a full list of signature cocktails. The wine by the glass list is not too long, but has some intriguing and fairly priced choices.
Sonder can be recommended for a fine dining experience.