A Smoker's Guide to New York City
Despite not one but two smoking bans, you can still smoke in Manhattan—if you know where to go
From the Print Edition:
Jay-Z, May/June 2009
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Also keeping up the tradition of cigar hospitality is De La Concha, a business formerly owned by Lionel Melendi before Davidoff acquired it in 2006. (Ron Melendi, Lionel's son, runs the shop today.) De La Concha has a bustling lounge in the front of the store that provides a smoking bastion for the constant foot traffic of Sixth Avenue.
De La Concha is one of the many cigar lounges clustered in the 50s in midtown Manhattan, forming a "cigar belt," or "cigar band," of places to puff. Barclay-Rex (on Lexington Avenue) offers not only floor-to-ceiling cigars, but a series of humidified lockers and a lounge that is usually full at lunchtime. It's a cozy room with about a dozen chairs, magazines, a coffee machine and a television. Don't let the abrupt nature of the staff intimidate you, especially that of shop co-owner Billy Rella. He might have the no-nonsense demeanor of an old-world chophouse waiter, but he is very accommodating and knowledgeable. His rules are simple: don't argue about online prices and don't even think about smoking something in the lounge that you didn't buy at the shop. The latter is a simple code of conduct that applies, really, to every cigar shop with a lounge, and is part of the etiquette that should be followed if you're going to park yourself in a lounge's chair. You should just be thankful that a warm, dry place is being provided for you to enjoy your cigar.
If New York's cigar shops have gone out of their way to provide comfortable smoking environments, then the venerable Nat Sherman has turned this business model into a full-fledged production. The new three-tiered smoking landmark, formerly located across the street, resides in its own freestanding building on East 42nd Street, in between the New York Public Library and Grand Central Station, with an Edwardian-era, Londonesque façade that is both out of place and fascinating. When you pass under the shop's trademark bronze beacon clock mounted over the front door, you feel as though you've just walked onto an elaborate Broadway set. This was by design—Hollywood set designer Charles McMarry was commissioned to make each customer feel like a cast member. There are seats in the vault-like cigar-locker room, but the main attraction is one flight down where you'll find the underground Johnson Club Room, the shop's inner-sanctum cigar lounge. It is a swanky, fully furnished membership club with limited access to nonmembers.
Walking out of Nat Sherman only a few steps puts the smoker squarely in front of Grand Central Station, which, in a way, is a sad reminder of all the previously smoke-friendly sanctuaries that did not survive New York's twin smoking bans. The Campbell Apartment is a wainscoted hideaway above the station's marble halls and used to be an elegant space for enjoying fine cigars. Hospitality Holdings Group saw to it that all the historical architectural details of the space remained intact, but could not restore cigar smoking as a practice. It did not, however, abandon it as an institution. The company added a cigar bar to its portfolio of cocktail lounges when it carved The Carnegie Club out of the back of Carnegie Hall in 1996, bringing theater- and concertgoers the luxury of a pre- or postshow cigar. The Club has a voluminous variety of spirits behind the bar and a creative cocktail list. There's also a cigar menu, and a cutting fee if you bring your own. Like wine, the cigars are marked up anywhere from 100 to 200 percent from suggested retail price—typical for a New York City cigar bar—but this is how a place like The Carnegie Club ensures that the requisite 10 percent of its revenues comes from tobacco sales or humidor rental fees, a requirement to qualify as a cigar bar in New York City.
One new destination, Beekman Bar And Books, found a clever way to get around the smoking laws, bringing a much needed spirits bar and cigar lounge to the east side of midtown Manhattan. The bar is part of the international Bar And Books chain and satisfies the city's statute by sealing off its cigar-smoking room from the rest of the space, forming a well-ventilated lounge within a lounge. Waitstaff are forbidden to enter, and smoking is prohibited outside the room. "It was very challenging," says managing partner Ben Scorah. "Our attorneys spent a lot of time investigating New York's smoking laws before we came to this arrangement, and it was very expensive."
According to Scorah, the community did not at first understand Bar And Books's mission, nor did the city. "They opposed everything. Our building license, our liquor license. The tenants in the building were opposed to us opening in the first place, but now that we're here and we've proven to be a respectable place, I haven't heard a peep, and the people really like it. But like I've said before, it's a privilege to smoke and that's what we're trying to bring."
Scorah does not allow cigarette smoking in his cigar lounge. "With the room being so small, we want to keep it to cigar smoking," he says. "Of course, if there's a group of people smoking cigars and one person is smoking a cigarette, we'll turn a blind eye, but I don't want that room full of cigarette smokers." Bar And Books has two other cigar bars in Manhattan, which were open before the smoking bans and continue as places where smoking is allowed. Downtown on the fringes of the Meatpacking District, Hudson Bar And Books has all the personality of quintessential Old New York: cracked mosaic floors, tin stamp ceiling and not a lot of elbow room. Lexington Bar And Books, on Lexington Avenue at East 73rd Street, attracts the professional crowd and has a jacket requirement. All Bar And Books locations employ talented bartenders and a fairly solid cigar menu with the expected markups. Each has an extensive Scotch list, innovative cocktails, book-lined walls and a constant showing of any given James Bond movie on the television. At the Beekman location, the small monkey lamps are an interesting nod to the days of colonial trading before poaching laws were put in place.
While Bar And Books and Hospitality Holdings have made sure that the city's smokers have a place to enjoy cocktails and spirits with their cigars, what of the lost practice of dining and smoking? The idea of steaks and cigars seems as archaic as bare-knuckle boxing, but a few establishments bring this luxury to Manhattan by elevating cigar smoking to the grandiose club level. Club Macanudo, located not far from the cigar belt on East 63rd Street, between Park and Madison avenues, has been offering the dining-and-smoking experience since 1997, before the activity could earn you scofflaw status.
The opulent club, owned by General Cigar Co., one of the world's largest makers of handmade cigars, comprises a large, cavernous series of pilastered rooms, sculpted ceilings, leather couches and subdued lighting. In the back of the club (which is open to the public, despite its name), opposite the wall of humidified cigar lockers, is the restaurant, whose straightforward menu offers lunch, dinner or small snacks, but the draw isn't the food itself so much as it is the freedom to eat and smoke simultaneously. Club Macanudo has managed to preserve the city's age-old practice of smoking a cigar before, during and after your meal, which is not even permitted in Las Vegas anymore. The cigar menu is quite extensive, offering a large portfolio of General's cigars, as well as a few third-party brands. It is a club in name only, but a dress code is enforced and service is delivered at the private club—quality level, drawing some of the city's most urbane cigar smokers, including many female aficionados, as the sophisticated decor makes this destination very female-friendly. Once you walk through the first set of exterior double doors, a small travertine foyer holds both the inviting smell of sweet cigar smoke and the anticipation of a transporting evening.
There is one smoking space in New York that boasts perhaps the most exclusive, private cigar-smoking experience in the country. At 666 Fifth Avenue, an express elevator rapidly transports a very few select smokers to the top floor of the building, transcending the smoking bans, the rudely indignant pedestrians and the frequent adverse weather conditions found on the ground level. At the "Top of the Sixes," as its predecessor was once known, resides the Grand Havana Room, the allegorical ivory tower of the cigar elite. It is a private club, and membership, which is often closed, is by invitation only. In addition to being the most exclusive cigar club, Grand Havana is also the largest, occupying 17,000 square feet of the 39th floor with 180-degree views of the metropolis facing south and east. A long, windowed hall leads to the bar and then opens up to a grand room where it is not unusual to see a celebrity. The dining room is farther in and is well partitioned. Beyond the dining room is the salon, a separate chamber for private events, serving as a club within a club. Every room has a view. The servers are some of the most attractive in the city, and will gladly bring you anything from Grand Havana's bar or humidor—but be warned, the cigar markup is quite steep.
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