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Cigar Speakeasies

Banished from california bars, cigars are welcomed at a modern version of a prohibition-era fixture
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

The New Yorker pulls open the door and casts a suspicious glance across the room. He draws his travel humidor tight to his rib cage as he steps inside, his eyes narrowing to adjust to the darkness. This is enemy territory after all--a bar in San Francisco, a place where the earth can shake like a Martini being mixed, and--worse--where lawmakers have deemed it illegal to smoke in bars.  

The New Yorker sees a white sign to his right emblazoned with an all-too-familiar icon: a black cigarette impaled by a red, diagonal stripe. At the same moment, a familiar aroma fills his nostrils and brings a smile to his lips. To his left, a man is halfway through his Ashton. Emboldened, the New Yorker bellies up to the bar and opens his travel humidor. He selects a dark, box-pressed beauty, one he has longed to smoke for hours. A beautiful young bartender steps toward him, her dark eyes glistening. She sees the cigar in his hand and smirks. 

"You do know that it's illegal to smoke a cigar in a bar in California," she says. Before he can answer, she lays a cigar ashtray on the bar in front of him, then covers it with a pair of stainless-steel cigar scissors.  

In the days of Al Capone, Eliot Ness and Prohibition, speakeasies were havens for drinkers, serving booze under the nose of the law. A special knock or a crafty password would get you in, and alarm bells and secret exits might get you out in case of a raid.  

In today's speakeasy, many California bar owners flout the no-smoking law and offer smokers a barstool and a light rather than showing them the door. There are no hidden entrances, passwords or conks on the head from swinging nightsticks when the jig is up. But the havens are in jeopardy.  

Since January 1, 1998, all bars in California have been, legally speaking, smoke free. California Labor Code Section 6404.5 (also known as the California Smoke Free Workplace Act) prohibits smoking in enclosed workplaces. The law was designed to make office buildings and other work areas smoke free. Since waiters and bartenders are workers who operate inside enclosed spaces, bars are included in the law. The restriction has hurt the former smoker havens as well as the merchants who once supplied them.  

"The law killed us. Our sales dropped 20 percent the first month. I lost a partner," says the owner of one bar that was particularly well known as a cigar smoker's haunt. Sales have since stabilized, in large part because he still lets his patrons enjoy a cigar or cigarette. He estimates that 80 percent of his customers smoke.  

"I built a restaurant that serves cigars and I can't have one," he says. "Now that bothers me."  

California has been hit with a one-two combination of laws that hurt smokers. The year after the smoking ban in bars took effect, California voters approved (by the slimmest of margins) Proposition 10, which sent cigar taxes soaring. (See the related story on page 216). Both have hurt cigar retailers.  

"I think that no smoking in the bars hit me harder than the OTP [other tobacco product] tax," says Manjit K. Bain, co-owner of the Tinder Box smoke shop in Costa Mesa, California. "Every evening, I would get a rush of customers who would pick up their cigars and move to Morton's to smoke. It's hurt Morton's tremendously."  

Getting around the higher prices that California smokers must shell out to buy cigars at local shops is impossible for now, but tavern and eatery owners have ways to allow patrons to enjoy a smoke. One method is to give equity to waiters, making them owners rather than employees. A more popular method is to create a service-free room. Customers can order a drink and a burger at a bar and schlep them to a private smoking room where waiters aren't allowed to tread. Another way around the problem is to build a patio and let customers smoke outside.  

But the simplest--and ballsiest--method is to ignore the rules. A select group of owners are acting as if nothing has happened, and they simply allow smokers to carry on as they did before the law was enacted. We're not going to identify them--we don't want to make it easier for the antismoking brigade on the West Coast to shut down these special outposts, and we don't want to penalize the bold owners who are letting their customers smoke in peace. But if you ask around, you might be lucky enough to find one.  

"If you came in here to bitch to people about smoking, they'd say 'f--k you,'" says Stephen N. Worthington, puffing away happily on a Padrón 1964 Millennium Series cigar. He's sitting on a barstool in a San Francisco restaurant, flanked by nearly a dozen other cigar smokers. It's 2 p.m. on a Friday. The financial market has closed. No one is paying much attention to the no-smoking sign, which is contemptuously taped to a smoke eater.  

"I wanted to go to a place where I wouldn't be harassed," says Worthington, 40, who manages a technology fund. "I've been smoking these things since I was 14." Worthington, who keeps in shape by swimming in the frigid San Francisco Bay year-round, is the host of what he calls the city's oldest cigar-smoking club, an institution which he has been running for a decade.  

Most California bars, Worthington says, treat breast-pocket cigar cases like shoulder holsters, and the ones that don't are becoming an endangered species. In January, according to the San Francisco Examiner, 118 Bay Area barkeeps were hit with warning letters from the Department of Public Health's Tobacco Free Project. (The letters came with no smoking signs.) The message? Continue to let people light up and face a $2,500 fine per day.  

The city of San Francisco has even filed six lawsuits against bars accused of breaking the no-smoking ordinance.  

Proprietors, even those who welcome cigars, say they are in compliance with the law because they instruct bartenders to tell smokers that it's illegal to light up in a California bar. The City and County of San Francisco Department of Public Health apparently feels it's not that simple. In its letter of warning to wayward establishments, it states that warnings should be made in good faith, "in a manner that genuinely communicates that smoking is not permitted inside the establishment. Providing ashtrays, continuing to serve drinks to patrons who are smoking, lighting patrons' cigarettes, and similar conduct is not consistent with the requirement...."  

"This is not new McCarthyism, this is fascism," says a bar owner. "They want your employees to tell on the employers, they want the employers to fire the employees. They want names and dates of who smokes. I'm not going to open another restaurant in San Francisco because of this. They've regulated my chosen profession pretty much out of business. I think it's time for the speakeasy again."  

California barkeeps have been placed in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to follow the law or please the customer. Do you conduct business according to the laws of your state or stay true to the doctrines of Capitalism 101? "If people can't come in here and have a smoke," says Jim Brandt, owner of the Gold Coast restaurant and bar, "they'll go somewhere else."  

Brandt has enough square footage to allow legal smoking--a large room upstairs is the Torpedo Lounge. "We've got about 100 members," says Brandt. The comfortable room has leather chairs and a pool table, but don't expect to get any service. If you want food or drink, you need to get it yourself. "We don't allow employee access to the room," says Brandt. A $99 payment gets you in for life.  

Brandt used to allow smokers to light up throughout his bar, inside and outside the lounge, but he grudgingly complied with the law after receiving the threatening letter in January. (He made his workers wear "Smoke Police" badges, and some handed out nicotine patches to patrons who lit up.)   Not everyone has the space--or the inclination--to make a legal nest for smokers. So the speakeasies will remain. And so will the people who fight against them.  

A bar owner spins a favorite tale to a visitor. In 1998, not long after the smoking ban was put into place, a man walked into a bar and began harassing smokers who were ignoring the new law. He became incensed, moving from patron to patron in an attempt to get them to snuff Macanudos and Marlboros alike. No one listened. He then started complaining to the bartenders, but they refused to separate paying customers from their smokes. Frustrated, he walked to a pay phone and dialed 911.  

Three cops walked into the bar, and the man's face broke into a smile, certain that justice was about to be served up like a trussed up Thanksgiving turkey. The man demanded that the police arrest the smokers. The cops said they weren't about to arrest people for smoking. The man then demanded that the police throw the bartender in jail for ignoring the smoking ban.

Again the cops refused. The bar owner (who still allows cigars to be enjoyed in his establishment, and thus will remain nameless) says this is where the story gets interesting. The man became apoplectic, demanding that someone had to spend time in jail for stinking up his air.  

The owner breaks into a wry smile. "They ended up arresting him," he says. The gleam in his eyes, and the Arturo Fuente in his hands tell you how sad he was to see that happen.

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