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Young Aficionados

Cigar Smoking Is Hot with the Twentysomething Crowd, Which Agrees: It Is More Than a Fad
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 3)

For the ultimate in cigar chic, young San Francisco aficionados with the means to splurge gather at the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, on the slope up to Nob Hill. Judy Rowcliffe, head of public relations for the hotel, says the cigar boom has doubled, and in some months tripled, the bar's revenues from sales of cigars and drinks. "It's just gone crazy," Rowcliffe says. This past April was typical. With the bar crowded with cigar smokers nearly every night, the hotel registered $3,190 in cigar sales and $14,550 in beverage sales. During the summer, the boom hit a snag: Diners in the hotel's adjacent gourmet dining room complained about the cigar smoke, and the hotel temporarily halted smoking in the bar. With so much revenue at stake, though, the Ritz-Carlton management is planning to outfit the bar with a new ventilation system, hoping to appease the dinner crowd without giving up the lucrative cigar trade in the bar.

In Los Angeles, too, cigars are now high chic, especially among young men and women, and cigar clubs and lounges are sprouting up everywhere to cater to young aficionados--and to cash in on the trend.

To get a fix on the L.A. cigar scene, an appropriate place to start is at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Little Santa Monica, an intersection dominated by the artful building I.M. Pei created for Creative Artists Agency, the most powerful talent agency in Hollywood. Two blocks north of Wilshire, on Little Santa Monica, two chic spots cater to young cigar aficionados: Hamilton's, a refined wine and cigar lounge co-hosted by actor George Hamilton and Dennis Overstreet, and Philip Dane's Cigar Lounge, a bright, cheerful new place designed expressly for the twentysomething crowd.

With its exposed wood beams, rustic furniture and stacks of old magazines, Philip Dane's is designed to feel like a cozy lodge, a lodge that just happens to sport a big walk-in humidor, an antique Coke machine, and a flashy new espresso machine. The humidor offers a wonderful selection of cigars: Dunhills, Paul Garmirians, Avos and a wide assortment of other fine cigars from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and farther afield.

Dane, 28, clearly knows his cigars and his target clientele. He has made his lounge comfortable and inviting, and with an eye toward novice smokers who might feel intimidated buying cigars, Dane has lovely young women advising customers. He has put them through cigar seminars and had them read Richard Carleton Hacker's authoritative guide, The Ultimate Cigar Book. The effort has paid off: His young saleswomen know their stuff. But they do not use the often imposing vocabulary you hear in the more traditional cigar shops. One saleswoman, recently guiding a hesitant customer through the humidor, pointed to an Aliados Piramides and opined: "This is one honker cigar. It takes so long to smoke!"

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.

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