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Smoking in Peace

David Shaw
From the Print Edition:
Premier Issue, Autumn 92

(continued from page 6)

The format and the size of the crowd varies at these events. Some have a dozen people; some have more than 100. Some serve a set menu; some let diners choose from the regular menu. Some provide complimentary cigars, courtesy of local tobacconists; others expect guests to provide their own cigars. Prices range from $40 to $250 per person.

Tabibian had his first cigar dinner last fall and the event was so popular that he had one monthly, then bi-weekly and--starting this past June--weekly. Every Tuesday, 10 or 12 cigar smokers pay $75 a head--tax, tip and wine included--to gather in the wine room at Remi for a four-course dinner, with a different wine accompanying each course ... and cigars and Cognac after dinner (although at Remi, as at the other cigar dinners, some guests smoke a cigar before dinner and/or during dinner as well).

Two other Los Angeles restaurants--Ma Maison and Pierre's Los Feliz Inn--have similar events monthly. So does Yuca in Miami. And San Domenico in New York. Last January, Windows on the World, also in New York, had 85 guests for its first cigar dinner, complete with a master cigar roller from the Dominican Republic--and a different cigar after each course. (The barbecued baby striped bass on smoked corn and cilantro was followed by a Macanudo Baron de Rothschild; the honey- and coriander-glazed côte de boeuf, with fried sage and celery root, was followed by a Partagas No. 1.)

At Stars in San Francisco, chef Jeremiah Tower, executive chef Mark Franz and former general manager Tony Angotti--cigar smokers all--orchestrated a dinner in March that also matched each course with cigars as well as wines.

"We had 25 people, a waiting list of 20 more, and we could have sold out four times over," Angotti says. Now the event will be monthly.

Henry Schielein, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel, on the Pacific Coast about two hours south of Los Angeles, probably deserves credit for the renaissance of the cigar dinner. Schielein, whose proposal of marriage 29 years ago was contingent on his fiancée's acceptance of his cigars "for the rest of our lives," was annoyed one night in 1983 when he sensed people glaring at him as he lit up a cigar in the dining room at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. Schielein had just taken over as general manager of the hotel, and he made two quick decisions--he'd sponsor a cigar dinner and he'd turn the ladies' tearoom into a cigar room at night.

The cigar dinners have continued in Boston every year since, and when Schielein came to Laguna Niguel in 1989, he started them annually there, too. Ritz-Carltons in various other cities--Philadelphia, San Francisco, Marina del Rey (Los Angeles) and Washington, D.C. among them--have since followed suit.

In general, all follow the Schielein formula--black tie, multi-course, multi-wine dinners followed by cigars, Cognac, Armagnac and vintage Port. Cigar retailers and distributors often provide a large selection of complimentary cigars, and there are few sights more amusing than watching more than 100 tuxedo-clad men, most of them quite wealthy, scrambling greedily to stuff their pockets with as many free cigars as they can grab.

The sudden proliferation of special cigar dinners is evidence that cigars--at least premium cigars--are making a comeback. Premium cigars account for only about 5% of total cigar sales but 15% of total cigar dollars. As with premium wine, sales of premium cigars have been increasing in this country in recent years, while overall cigar sales (like overall wine sales) have been declining. Sales of cigars priced at more than $2.50 each almost tripled from 1987 to 1990, according to the Cigar Association of America.

Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. As in earlier generations, the cigar is, to many, a symbol of material success--"a baton of power," in the words of George Brightman, formerly the manager of the Davidoff store in New York. That may, in fact, account for the unbridled animosity so many women exhibit toward cigar smokers--and there is no question that "it's almost always women who complain--never men," as Susan Wine of the Quilted Giraffe puts it.

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