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The Cigar Dinner Boom

Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

Huddled in a dark corner of a deserted public park, a man pulls a long, dark, thin object from his jacket pocket. He flicks the flint on his lighter, brings the flame to the tip of the oblong object and, shielding it from a momentary breeze, carefully sucks in, slowly rolling the end across the flame. In a few seconds, he extinguishes the flame, takes a deep puff and luxuriates in the sweet, mouth-filling flavors of a cigar of the finest origins; one which has been carefully preserved in a personal humidor. He savors the aromas swirling around him, but in a few minutes, before any passersby complain, he stubs out the cigar, throws it into a nearby drain and goes on his way.

This Orwellian isolation of cigar smokers was not only common just a few years ago, but parks, balconies, patios, and private offices seemed destined to become the only places where people could smoke in peace. Cigar smokers were slowly but surely being relegated to the modern version of the leper colony. In the past 18 months, however, an unusual phenomenon has swept the country--men, and a few women, smoking cigars in public places set aside for the occasion and finding support in a fellowship of cigar smokers. The events go by various names: cigar nights, smokers, the Big Smoke (see sidebar ), or cigar dinners. Some are casual with business suits perfectly acceptable. Others have created another stage for infrequently donned tuxedos, adding to the short list of proms, weddings and occasional charity dinners that require black tie.

And it's not just a New York-Los Angeles phenomenon. In Minneapolis, Manny's restaurant holds a regular smoker. In Miami, the Doral Beach Resort Hotel and Hotel Sofitel both hold cigar nights. Then there are the smokers at the American Zenith Cafe in Denver; the Mansion Hill Inn in Albany, New York; Stars in San Francisco; Biba in Boston, and the Senator in Toronto. New York and Los Angeles have their fair share of cigar dinners, too. Schatzi and Remi in Los Angeles started up smoker nights this year as did the Biltmore Hotel. In New York, The Plaza Hotel, San Domenico restaurant, the Water Club, and, before the bombing of the World Trade Center, Windows On The World, have all held successful cigar nights. In fact, the list is too long to print.

Of course, there's the granddaddy of them all, the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. The hotel's manager, Henry Schielein, revived the whole idea about ten years ago, one of the first of the new generation of smoker nights that sought to counter the antismoking climate. He then continued smoker nights at his next assignment for Ritz-Carlton, in Laguna Niguel, California. In addition, Ritz-Carltons in St. Louis, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Palm Beach and Dearborn, Michigan, have held or will hold smoker nights.

Taken by themselves, the smoker nights are an amazing development; just a few years ago, you could count the total smoker dinners in any given year in North America on one hand. By the end of this year, there will have been more than 400 dinners held, many of them sold out with waiting lists.

While Schielein resurrected the cigar night institution, it's not as easy to pinpoint the smoker's sudden resurgence in popularity. The launch of CIGAR AFICIONADO is cited by many as the formal announcement that smokers have rights, too. Certainly, the magazine's "Big Smoke" event in New York City last May, which attracted more than 1,500 cigar lovers, highlighted the pent-up desire for a smoker's rebellion. Or maybe the smoker night's revival is a natural turn of the evolutionary wheel, a belated backlash against politically correct behavior.

Why the attraction? To fully appreciate the answer to that question, you should imagine a typical cigar dinner. First, there's the precise ritual of getting ready for a formal gathering. A tuxedo, worn for a proper occasion, automatically elevates an evening to a higher plane. Once you are at a smoker night, the shared interest in cigars opens conversational doors, and instead of quiet, staid, even awkward cocktail hour moments, the chatter in a room filled with cigar lovers quickly rises to a clamor. By dinner time the libations have been poured freely, and table mates are becoming soul mates. For everyone present, the evening is transformed into a shared celebration of the good life.

If anything, the allure of the good life obscures the real reason many cigar lovers flock to cigar smoker events. Review the answers to the question "Why are you here?" and you'll find little variation. "I wanted to smoke without any hassle." "I didn't want my wife nagging me about my cigars." "I wanted a night out with my friends doing something that we love to do." Sift through the details, and the bottom line is quite simple and straightforward--everyone wants to enjoy his cigars the way they are supposed to be enjoyed: in a relaxed atmosphere, where the best food and wine are available, where the camaraderie is irresistible and the night is always young. Says Ted Herget, an insurance company executive who attended a smoker in Baltimore, "It was a man's night out. I put on a black tie to get the full flavor and mood."

Getting into the mood sounded about right for Henry Schielein back in 1983. He had finished dinner with the outgoing general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, and he lit up a cigar to enjoy with his Cognac. He recalls the visual darts flying across the room from other diners, and while his predecessor encouraged him to smoke, it was clear that he had aroused the ire of others present. It didn't take long for Schielein to figure out that there was a real need for a place to smoke cigars in Boston. A tea room at the Ritz, usually busy in the afternoon, was empty in the evening. Schielein put out the word about the possibility of opening up a smoking lounge at the hotel. "In a couple of days, I had 60 names of guys who wanted to come," says Schielein. "We kicked it off with a black-tie gala dinner."

For the uninitiated, the Boston smoker is, was, and will always be the standard used to judge other cigar nights. The reception rooms are plush, and many guests are veterans of all ten smokers. In a round of introductions at the single table for about 65 people, each person stands up, says his name and usually gives a tally of his attendance--seven, eight, nine times are not uncommon. The air of continuity and the black-tie atmosphere suggest an institution that is every bit as somber and satisfied with itself as it should be. But above all else, this smoker exudes the image of civilized behavior.

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