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Young Aficionados

Cigar Smoking Is Hot with the Twentysomething Crowd, Which Agrees: It Is More Than a Fad

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Three blocks south on the other side of Wilshire is The Peninsula Hotel, one of the most fashionable spots for young aficionados to gather. Late in the afternoon, especially on Thursdays, the bar fills with young smokers: agents, producers, music and video sharpsters obviously on the make, eager to be seen with a $20 cigar jammed in their lips. Still, the Peninsula is a joy, an island of taste and refinement in a town not otherwise known for subtlety or grace. For anyone interested in high chic, impressing a date, or in just taking time out to enjoy a fine cigar, this is the place.
"Cigars are a good business for us right now," says Peninsula beverage manager Rucci. "I can sell 20 or 30 cigars a night, and it has picked up just in the past six months. We have always been a cigar milieu, and we were well-placed when cigars really took off." As in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, "the big thing now is the women," Rucci says, and women are very particular about the style and atmosphere of where they smoke in public. "The environment has so much to do with it," he says. "If the cigars are good, the room smells good, and for women that's very important."
The Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey has a similar appeal, along with something more: a cigar-friendly terrace overlooking the marina, an ideal spot to smoke a cigar and watch a sunset. As in San Francisco, the Ritz-Carlton here has turned cigars into a major commercial attraction. At a cigar tasting in August, the hotel attracted 30 aficionados, many of them women, at $25 a pop. At a full cigar dinner in June, some 50 people paid $65 for a gourmet meal complete with cigars and a moonlit view of the Pacific.
After cocktails and a cigar at The Peninsula or The Ritz, young aficionados have a broad choice of cigar-friendly dinner spots, no matter where in Los Angeles they care to go. One favorite of the L.A. smart set is Rockenwagner's in Santa Monica. The restaurant features elegant European cuisine, leisurely dining, and a congenial bar with a well-stocked humidor, handcrafted by owner Hans Rockenwagner. He also features cigars as part of his regular "stammtisch," a community table he likes to put together for friends and simpatico clients. "The 'stammtisch' is an old, respected tradition in southern Germany," Rockenwagner says. "The word means table, but it also means the stem of a tree or tribe. Good food and good conversation were always part of the tradition. And now cigars are part of the tradition, too."
The Beverly Hills Pipe & Tobacco Co. is another hot gathering spot for young aficionados. Formerly known as The Tinder Box, the shop is a cluttered cubbyhole with an established clientele dating back 22 years, to when cigars were still an all-male bastion. Judging from one recent afternoon, it is still predominantly a guy place, although owner Todd Kornguth says he is seeing more and more female customers. Kornguth, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who took over the shop from his father, does some of his biggest business on Saturday afternoons during football season, when his shop fills with young guys who like to smoke a good cigar and watch college football on TV. During the week, Todd does a brisk trade with local firemen and policemen who, after their shifts, like to come in for a smoke. So much for the notion that the present cigar boom is confined to upscale yuppies and wanna-bes.
"More and more people are smoking cigars," Kornguth says. "It's definitely a trend right now, a status symbol. And the people coming in here are smoking big cigars, expensive ci-gars. They have little interest in a $3 cigar." Even the cops. On a recent afternoon, one patrolman came in and bought an $11 cigar. "It's amazing what's happening here," Kornguth says. "I've got the whole Beverly Hills fire station smoking Macanudos. We also get a lot of women smoking, and not petites either. They're smoking Churchills and Presidentes."
Gus's Smoke Shop, in the San Fernando Valley, has been catering to serious cigar smokers for 68 years, and owner Jimmy Hurwitz prides himself on being anything but hip and glitzy; he and his clientele were cigar devotees long before it became fashionable. But Gus's, too, has seen a major influx of young smokers, both in the shop and in the private club he runs for aficionados. Long before it became chic, Gus's ran regular cigar dinners on Monday nights; today the back room remains the way gentlemen's clubs used to be: full of mahogany, deep leather chairs and the smell of fine cigars. With an annual membership fee of $500, and a charge of $10 per guest, the club offers everything from coffee and snacks to full-scale dinners, with fine wines, liqueurs and, of course, fine cigars.
Though traditionalists like Hurwitz have little time for the glitz, Hollywood remains Hollywood, and the stars have gotten into the cigar act, adding visibility and glamour to the boom. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an avid cigar smoker for years, features a well-stocked humidor (out on the patio) at Schatzi On Main, his restaurant in Santa Monica. The big news in Hollywood cigar circles, though, is the Grand Havana Room, an exclusive smoking club above the trendy restaurant On Canon. The club features a 1,700-square-foot walk-in humidor, complete with customized lockers for individuals or companies to store their stocks of cigars. (At Hollywood prices: individuals pay $2,000 for a membership and $150 a month to rent a locker; companies have to pony up $5,000 to get in and $300 a month for a locker.)
"We try to be a sanctuary for serious cigar smokers, a place where stars can come and smoke without having a photographer stick a camera in their face," says Russell Shinn, manager of the Grand Havana Room. The buzz (this is Hollywood, after all) is that on any given night at the club you can run into Schwarzenegger, Robert De Niro, Dennis Franz from TV's "NYPD Blue," Andy Garcia, or Sylvester Stallone. That kind of buzz is clearly good for business and for attracting the well-to-do in the young, hip crowd.
The Grand Havana and the Ritz-Carlton may be a bit pricey for many young aficionados, but there is no shortage of young, hip clubs that cater to the twentysomething crowd and welcome cigars. The Viper Room is a case in point. Every Thursday night The Viper Room puts on "Mr. Phat's Royal Martini Club," a theme night styled after a 1940s nightclub, complete with a mirrored ball bending light over the dance floor, nostalgia-drenched oldies-but-goodies from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Louis Prima, an old-fashioned, high-kicking dance troupe, and, as a finishing touch, a crew of cigar girls canvassing the room with humidors. "It's a great night, everyone gets dressed up, and cigars fit right into the '40s mood," says Dean R. Miller, who helps promote the room and serves as DJ. When it comes to cigars, Miller knows of what he speaks: In his day job, he works at Davidoff.
The exotic L.A. nightclub scene, of course, is a far cry from young aficionados like Tammy Fogler in Chicago. But the cigar phenomenon is clearly broad enough to embrace them both. It is also broad enough to embrace different generations and different corners of American society. As Fogler reports, the boom has even reached into small rural towns in the American heartland: "I have an aunt and uncle who live in Thorp, Wisconsin, just a tiny little cow town. And you know what? They've been going out to cigar smokers! They are quite the affairs, too. My aunt and uncle get all dressed up and make a real evening of it, and so do their friends."
Judging from the reports of many young aficionados, it would be easy to conclude that these young cigar smokers constitute some sort of high-toned cultural and sociological trend. You could even make the case that the trend represents something of a backlash against political correctness and against all of today's public and parental campaigns against everything from smoking and drinking to not eating enough broccoli. But such sweeping generalizations can easily be overdrawn; indeed, today's boom derives from young people with vastly different tastes and vastly different reasons for taking up cigars. Their degrees of indulgence vary dramatically as well; Markus Funk smokes upward of six small cigars a day, while Tammy Fogler will only smoke one large Dunhill every couple of weeks.
Among all the young aficionados with whom I spoke, though, there was one common, unifying refrain: pleasure. In these troubled times, when young people across the country see their lives and relationships strained by economic uncertainty, political division, racial tension, urban violence and the threat of AIDS, cigars offer them one small, reliable moment of pleasure, to be enjoyed alone or with friends of similar spirit. As Funk learned with the Aficionados Club at Northwestern's law school, cigars can forge convivial bonds among people who might not otherwise be drawn together. And as Fogler learned, smoking cigars is a pleasure that can calm you down and make you feel, however briefly, that everything is right with the world.
"Once you light up a cigar, you have to sit down for a while to smoke it," Fogler says, in words that echo the sentiments of many young aficionados. "You have time to relax, to meditate, or have a really good discussion. I think that, especially in a profession that tends to be high-powered and high-pressured, cigars are ideal. They force you to sit down and relax, and come down off stressful times."
Paul Chutkow is a freelance writer based in northern California.
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