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Outside is Woody Allen's New York--a tree-lined stretch of restrained East Side elegance just a few yards from Madison Avenue's posh boutiques and bistros. But inside, nestled between the Leonori Hotel and a luxurious apartment building, is a decadent, woody oasis where cigar smoking isn't just encouraged--it's the sole reason the place exists.
Club Macanudo, the popular new cigar bar on Manhattan's Upper East Side, is the brainchild of Edgar M. Cullman Jr. Cullman is the chief executive officer of Culbro Corp., the parent company of General Cigar Co., maker of Macanudo and Partagas. Sensing a void in New York's burgeoning cigar scene, and seeking to extend the Macanudo brand, Cullman decided in May 1995 to build "a place for cigars, where everything else is secondary." He signed a lease for 26 East 63rd Street, the former home of Quo Vadis, a grandiose Italian restaurant that was popular with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and other members of New York's social elite in the '60s and '70s. Cullman hired Cullman & Kravis, his wife Ellie's interior design firm, and Philip Darrow, a New York restaurant veteran whose résumé includes stints at Cafe des Artistes and Picholine, as general manager. Construction began on the first of this year. Just four months later, on May 1, the club opened to the public.
It was an overnight success, and Darrow says there's been a line outside almost every evening since. About 400 to 500 people come through its doors each night, he says, but never more than 125 are there at once. Darrow is highly aware of how important it is for a cigar bar, with its inherent conflict of crowds and smoke, to carefully govern traffic. Equally critical is an excellent ventilation system, a lesson Club Macanudo learned in its first few weeks when it became clear that its system was inadequate. To fix the problem, management closed the club for a week in June. A new ventilator was installed in the ceiling, through which air is suctioned out through a 12-story-tall shaft, and extra vents were added. On a recent, moderately crowded week night, the system worked well.
Manhattan's bar and restaurant scene has yielded a bumper crop of cigar friendly establishments over the past year, and more seem to open every week. Others may differ, but Darrow maintains that Club Macanudo is the city's first "true" cigar bar in that every detail was designed with cigars in mind. He's got a strong case. After being ushered in by a uniformed doorman, you're saluted by a cigar-store Indian in the corner of the entry foyer. On the wall to the left are framed collages of old cigar bands from legendary cigars such as Romeo y Julieta and Partagas, jostling those of defunct marques, including Operas Especial and Regalia Favorita.
Next you enter the Humidor Room, a narrow receptionarea, facing a wall of engraved private humidor lockers. Most lockers have been leased, but a limited number remain available for $600 a year. On the opposite wall, glass cases house retail merchandise, including Macanudo sportswear, cutters by S.T. Dupont and humidors by Daniel Marshall and Michel Perrenoud. It's all for sale.
The hub of Club Macanudo is the Bar Room. Wooden Indians flank the horseshoe-shaped bar, which is staffed by warm, knowledgeable bartenders. The room is crammed with sumptuous Art Deco-styled leather couches and glass-and-marble cocktail tables. Lithographs of Indians adorn the walls; the wallpaper is embossed with tobacco leaves. The high ceiling, retained and refurbished from the days of Quo Vadis, suggests the lid of a burlwood humidor with its geometric inlays of earthy reds, greens and browns.
The Club Room in the rear is dominated by translucent windows of leaded glass and a large painting of well-known cigar smokers living and dead, including John F. Kennedy, Sigmund Freud, Jack Nicholson and Julie Andrews. In two corners of the room, televisions silently show CNN, financial news and major sporting events. Club Macanudo's cigar school, a four-session, $225 course on the fundamentals of cigar smoking, meets each Monday night in the Club Room.
New York's smoking laws preclude Club Macanudo from offering full restaurant service, but it does offer a limited, inexpensive menu. Chef Bette Publicker, formerly the longtime executive chef for Columbia Pictures, has crafted a straightforward blend of robust dishes, the best of which can stand up to even the brawniest smoke. The spicy lamb and goat cheese quesadilla is an example, as is the fried calamari with lime-curry mayonnaise. The Cuban sandwich is satisfying if predictable. On the lighter side, but perhaps the best dish we tasted, was a barbecued salmon salad with fresh corn, fried onions, baby green beans and romaine lettuce. Desserts include a Jack Daniels pecan chocolate torte and a carrot cake topped with diced coconut. A strong espresso is the perfect complement to an after-dinner smoke.
While Club Macanudo's food is tasty enough, it's secondary to the ample cigar and drink menu. Guests are welcome to bring their own cigars, but for those in need the club offers General Cigar's brands (Macanudo, Partagas, Ramon Allones, Temple Hall Estates and Canaria D'Oro) as well as cigars from Hoyo de Monterrey, H. Upmann, Nat Sherman, Bauzá, El Rey del Mundo, Punch, Licenciados, Paul Garmirian, Dunhill and Montecruz. Conspicuously absent are General Cigar's Dominican Cohibas.
There's a vast selection of Champagnes, Ports, Cognacs and single-malt Scotches (including several bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and sold exclusively at Club Macanudo), plus 10 microbrewed beers and a selection of small-batch Bourbons and 100 percent blue agave tequilas. The wine list consists of recent vintages from well-regarded American producers. All major varietals are represented, and prices are reasonable.
The overall effect? Club Macanudo manages to be at once clubby, welcoming, elegant and relaxed. "Our entire purpose is to make people feel at home," Darrow says. "When you're at home you're comfortable, and when you're comfortable you can relax, and when you're relaxed the world is yours."
As you leave Club Macanudo you may notice a lone window facing 63rd Street on the north wall of the Humidor Room. Heavy drapes obscure the view of the street, and the cushion on the wide sill is the least inviting seat in the club. "Acknowledge the outside world if you must," the seat seems to say, "but we don't encourage it."
Brendan Vaughan is the assistant editor of Cigar Insider, Marvin Shanken's monthly newsletter.
26 East 63rd Street
Phone: (212) 752-8200