We revisit the most popular cigar-friendly spot in the nation's captial.
The temperature is hovering around freezing on a cloudy Thursday evening in the nation's capital. The city is rapidly emptying for the holidays as a massive snowstorm approaches. It's 5 o'clock and I'm just leaving W. Curtis Draper's, one of my must-visits anytime I return to Washington. Matt Krimm, one of the partners at the tobacco store, is about to run over to Shelly's Back Room to deliver some cigars and I'm going with him.
The first time I wrote up Shelly's was 1998, in the magazine. It's worth revisiting. I'm always a little bit surprised when a cigar bar has survived the assaults of various smoking bans. That Shelly's has made it through the anti-smoking wars is a relief to many in downtown D.C., just two blocks from the Treasury building and, perhaps more significantly, very close to numerous federal buildings and one block from a subway hub. In other words, Shelly's is very accessible, both geographically and hospitably.
Apart from the surprise that Shelly's has survived, I'm heartened that a former haunt has become a new one. When I travel I look for places to hang out, to wait in between meetings, to have lunch, a drink, a cigar. Shelly's is that, again, for me. First of all, Shelly Jacobs is no longer the owner, but Tony is still here. That's important.
"I've been here 12 years," says Tony, Shelly's bartender and spiritual anchor. "God, I can't believe it sometimes."
Shelly's is pretty much the same even though ownership has changed. Shelly's is still, at its core, an unpretentious cigar bar, though now with high-defintion, flat-screen TVs. The menu remains basically the same, except for the prices. You can still get a pound of the roasted —not fried—Campfire Wings, but they'll cost you $10.75. The fiery sausage is still there. Better still, the booze selection has remained excellent. The dark rums, about 18 of them, include everything from Appleton to Zacapa. The bourbon selection goes from Baker's to Woodford Reserve, with a great Eagle Rare in the middle. Scotch and single-malts? Fuhgedaboudit. You can't keep up, but since we're going alphabetically, start at Aberlour and end at Talisker 25.
On this evening, before I have to go meet people for drinks on Capitol Hill, I choose a Bacardi 8 on two rocks and study the cigar list (Ashton to Zino, by the way) and select an Oliva Serie V Double Robusto, $12.50, on the "From Cigar Aficionado Top 25" section of the menu. Matt stays a little while before heading off and I finish the cigar and drinks with two guys I've met before at Draper's. For a town full of transients, I'm always happy to see some good people stick around.
Living on the West Coast, I don't get to Washington as frequently as I used to. And if I had my druthers, I wouldn't be there anytime I might get stuck in 20 inches of snow. Still, when I do visit, it's good to know that Shelly's is still there as my new, old cigar-friendly perch.
Shelly's Back Room
1331 F Street, NW
Phone (202) 737-3003
Monday—Thursday 11:30 a.m.—2:00 a.m.
Friday 11:30 a.m.—3:00 a.m.
Saturday noon—3:00 a.m.
Sunday noon—1:00 a.m.
Images courtesy of Shelly's Back Room