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The Cigar Dinner Boom

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

(continued from page 1)

Schielein left Boston in 1986, on to warmer pastures at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel. "As soon as I arrived, people started asking when I was going to do one [a smoker] here," says Schielein. "It was unbelievable." He says his list of hopeful attendees exceeds 400 every year, each willing to pay the $300 if he is privileged to be invited. Schielein says he limited this year's event to 100 people, after the one last year turned into a raucous night with nearly 200 attendees. "It's an elegant evening. Black tie. You don't find that many events where people dress up. It's a throwback to the good old days, and there's a certain romance to it." There's no word whether Schielein will carry along the tradition to his latest stop in his hotel career, the Grand Wailea in Hawaii.

CIGAR AFICIONADO held two cigar dinners in the first year of the magazine's existence: the launch party in New York City, and a $1,000-a-head charity dinner, also in the Big Apple, called "A Night to Remember." The first, by invitation only, drew nearly 250 people to the St. Regis Hotel rooftop for a night of smoking and drinking. The second, also by invitation, was held at the "21" Club; CIGAR AFICIONADO editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken and the restaurant's president, Ken Aretsky, were co-chairmen for the event, which let guests specify one of six charities to which they wanted to donate their money. Pre-Castro Cuban cigars were part of the attraction as were the magnums of 1961 Château Margaux served with the strip steak imported from Chile.

"We need this. We want this," says Gregory Hines, the Broadway actor and film star, who took nights off from his role in the smash hit Jelly's Last Jam to attend both of the CIGAR AFICIONADO smokers. "It's been a great evening." Nearly 100 people attended the "21" Club dinner, including author Gay Talese, Edgar Cullman Sr., of Culbro; Leonard Riggio, CEO of Barnes & Noble; Gene Pressman of Barneys department stores; and Jonathan Linen, president and CEO of American Express Travel Related Services Company.

Later, after coffee and drinks in a downstairs lounge, the conversation turned to one of the bigger issues about cigar nights and smokers and dinners: Should women be included? Talese at first argued that it was a man's terrain and should be preserved as such, but then, taking a contrary position, suggested, "If we're trying to expand the audience of cigar smokers, shouldn't women be included?" Aretsky was more adamant: "I feel crowded when women are invited to these things. This should be an evening of fraternity." Shanken agreed and said the presence of women at a black-tie smoker completely altered the evening, making it "more difficult to openly express yourself."

The atmosphere at the smoker held by the Doral Ocean Beach Resort in Miami illustrates what's different about a mixed crowd. "Where There's Smoke There's Fire" was held in late January at the Starlight Roof, a grand old cabaret room from Miami's golden era, which has a sweeping vista of Miami Beach and the downtown Miami skyline. More than 250 people, including 50 women, attended the event hosted by Chris Perks, the hotel manager. Some smoked cigars for the first time, but others were already avid smokers who took their place right alongside the male guests. "These were all civilized people enjoying the craftsmanship of these stimulants to body and soul," said Perks.

The event sold out within three weeks after it was announced, with a ticket price of $125, and, in fact, was expanded from the initial estimate of 150 to 250 because of the huge response. The event will become an annual ritual with a gala dinner next year on January 27, and it will be linked with one of CIGAR AFICIONADO's Big Smokes. As it did last year, the dinner will kick off the South Florida Food and Wine Festival.

But imagine a window back on the 1950s. Beautiful women in long gowns. The soft jazz of the George Tandy trio. Hundreds of small white lights twinkling from the Starlight Roof ceiling. Add to this picture food prepared by seven of Miami's hottest chefs including Norman Van Aken, formerly of A Mano; Douglas Rodriguez of Yuca; Allen Susser of Chef Allen, and Mark Militello of Mark's Place; Oliver Saucy of Cafe Max; Robbin Haas of the Veranda at Turnberry Isle, and Matteo Giuffrida of Alfredo's the Original of Rome. Finally, include in this scene thin wisps of premium cigar smoke drifting toward the ceiling. "The spirit was flowing," said Perks. "The evening pulled together all the ingredients that celebrate civilization. All the senses were touched. It was a celebration of sensuality."

Bill Fader is one of the most respected retailers in the cigar business and the current president of the Retail Tobacconist Distributors Association. He put on a smoker at Baltimore's Center Club in March, the first one he's ever done. About 60 people were expected, but 90 persons bought the $90 ticket, a mixed bag of people from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., including lawyers, doctors and other professionals. "They came to enjoy their cigars in an environment where everyone else was doing the same thing," said Fader.

Robert Levin of Holt's Cigars in Philadelphia has been holding cigar dinners for several years now. But he had 300 at his most recent one in October 1992 for $50 a person at the Warwick Hotel, and he noted there was a lot more interest for that one. "We turned away a lot of people," says Levin. The camaraderie factor, Levin says, is the most important reason behind people's desire to come to cigar dinners. "They can smoke without anybody telling them to put it out. And what's not to like? They get a great meal, wine, Port and great cigars. People don't care about the cost. They want to smoke cigars and not get hassled," says Levin.

Some smoker nights have special attractions to bring people in. In Toronto, Tom Hines, the owner of Havana House, one of Canada's top retailers, hosted a charity event at the Founder's Club in the Toronto Skydome Stadium in early June. The hook was simple: an auction of pre-Castro Cuban Cigars. Seventy-five people paid $300 each to attend, and more than $18,000 was raised for an AIDS hospice in Toronto and for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation of Ontario. "We got people from all walks of Canadian business life," said Alex Mangiola of Havana House, who helped put the event together.

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