In The 1920s There Were Speakeasies. In The 1990s There Are Cigar Lounges
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Due to the increased popularity of cigars and stringent anti-smoking regulations in cities around the country, many establishments have answered cigar smokers' prayers with the latest offshoot of the cigar craze: cigar smoking lounges.
In the past, cigar lovers could only indulge at smoker events or late at night in restaurants. Today there are places designed, developed and marketed specifically with the cigar smoker in mind, places with names such as the Grand Havana Room, Fumatore, The Churchill Bar, The Havana Tea Room and Cigar House, The Humidor, etc. Each cigar bar wants to be the preeminent place to smoke, providing cigars acquired mostly through retail tobacconists.tobacconists. Each bar stresses the importance of premium liquors such as single malt Scotches and Cognacs. Each lounge wants upscale and professional customers. And each has a unique personality.
The cigar lounge in the United States has become a phenomenon, with dozens opening in the past year and many more in the works. These lounges are appealing to a diverse and growing clientele, with longtime aficionados rubbing elbows with younger, more recent cigar converts. What follows is a representative listing of these new cigar havens.
With its restrictive smoking laws and large cigar following, New York City has proven fertile territory for these establishments, making it the hottest cigar lounge scene in the United States. Chicago is a natural second choice as new venues are opening almost monthly. From Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., Denver to Miami, cigar lounges are increasingly becoming the social outlet of choice for cigar lovers across the country.
In New York City, for example, six cigar bars opened this summer alone. Compare that to 1995, when only two cigar bars dotted the entire metropolitan landscape. These new lounges are as diverse as the neighborhoods in which they are located. The posh Upper East Side is home to the city's preeminent cigar lounge: Club Macanudo. Club Mac, as it is commonly known, is owned and operated by the General Cigar Co., makers of Macanudo and Partagas. Since its grand opening in May (see our review of Club Macanudo on page 499), crowds have been vying for entrance into this large, plush, wood-paneled mecca, which can seat 125 people comfortably in leather couches and chairs. Over the course of an average evening, about 500 people will pay a visit. Though Club Mac seeks an upscale clientele (jackets are required in the evening), the emphasis remains elegantly informal, catering to the cigar lover.
"Every inch of space in here is dedicated to cigar smoking," says Philip Darrow, manager of Club Macanudo. "If we chose to allow someone in simply because they were a person of great stature or they were a famous actor or someone like that, that would destroy our credibility with the people we built this place for, which is the cigar smoking man or woman who comes in here on a daily basis. That's really our clientele."
And the clientele seems content. Guests can choose from a limited food menu and a wide array of liquors, including single malt Scotches and Cognacs. They can pair their drinks with 100 marques of cigars, including General Cigar's Macanudo, Partagas and Canaria D'Oro, as well as brands from other manufacturers such as Ashton, Fonseca and Dunhill. The club also leases 500 humidor lockers, which were quickly snatched up by eager aficionados. Available for $600 a year, each Spanish cedar-lined unit holds up to 200 cigars. Because of these and other amenities, Darrow believes that Club Mac is New York's first true cigar bar.
But don't tell that to the proprietors of The Cigar Bar at Beekman Bar & Books. Rajmar Holdings Ltd., the owner of the Bar & Books chain, created The Cigar Bar at its midtown Beekman Bar & Books location almost two years ago. It's a small, cozy room at the back of Beekman with soft leather couches and bar stools and stained mahogany walls. It looks much like a gentlemen's club or someone's personal library or den. Co-owner Mark Grossich considers his four Bar & Books locations (Beekman, Hudson, Lexington and the new Carnegie) as upscale cocktail lounges that place a heavy emphasis on cigars.
"We have, relatively quietly, been the leaders in this whole thing for some time now. Club Mac has obviously taken center stage briefly in New York because they are new and different, and like everything new and different in town people tend to clamor to check it all out," Grossich says. "Obviously we have checked it out as well, and it is an interesting place; they serve cigars, we serve cigars. But we don't see them as a direct competitor because we are so much more than a cigar club. I think it is fair to say that our staff is trained better and differently."
While Club Mac employees get in-house training, the staff at The Cigar Bar train at the Alfred Dunhill store in New York, where they learn the proper etiquette of cutting, lighting and serving cigars. The cigar list includes more than 10 selections, many of which are acquired through an exclusive contract with the local Dunhill store. Guests can choose from a Temple Hall No. 3 Maduro for $10 or a Macanudo Vintage No. 1 for $25. The Cigar Bar also has an extensive list of single barrel Bourbons, Ports and Cognacs, among other liquors, all at more than $9 a glass. A jacket (and no jeans), $25 minimum order and reservations are required, making the Cigar Bar a very exclusive establishment.
For those who want a great cigar with a great meal, The Cigar Room at the Grand Hyatt Hotel is the answer. This cigar haven was created more than a year ago as an answer to the strict anti-smoking laws which limit smoking in main dining areas of New York City restaurants to establishments with fewer than 35 seats.
At the 34-seat Cigar Room (See Cigar Aficionado, Summer 1996), the emphasis is on service, says Bill Rizzuto, the Grand Hyatt's executive assistant food and beverage manager. The wait staff is trained in cigar etiquette, and the restaurant's humidors offer a range of cigars such as Davidoffs, Ashtons and Punches with premium liquors, such as single barrel bourbons, single malt Scotches and Cognacs. Guests can enjoy a meal in the dining room or relax with a drink in a separate lounge area. The Cigar Room provides an understated and relaxed ambience.
Another relaxed and understated cigar bar is Aubette, in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. Opened in March, it was created by managing partners David Baxley and designer Erin Silliday. Cigar and bar manager Paul Kulig oversees the cigar lounge to the rear of this sleek bar, with its soft leather couches and chairs and wood-burning fireplace. He stocks his humidors with an extensive and impressive selection. Recent selections included Santiago Cabanas, La Gloria Cubanas and Don Juans. If your favorite brand isn't available, the very cigar savvy and helpful Kulig will recommend a comparable alternative. Prices range from $4 to $35.
Near Union Square and the Flatiron district is Granville, a lounge/restaurant that caters to cigar smokers. Owned and operated by Billy Gilroy, Peter Fay, Chris Heyman and Granville Adams, since its opening in June it has become very popular with area professionals, according to Adams. Because of city restrictions, the upstairs lounge is the only place in Granville where one can indulge in a cigar. With its Oriental carpets and mahogany walls, the room resembles an old men's club. Guests can lounge on leather banquettes, choosing from a list of cigars that includes pre-Castros such as a 1961 Romeo y Julieta Supremo, which retails for $50.
Manhattan's west side houses cigar lounges as well. Within the Michelangelo Hotel on West 51st Street lies The Grotto, a 62-seat safe haven for cigar smokers. Romeo de Gobbi, proprietor of The Grotto and its sister restaurant upstairs, Limoncello, and former manager of Le Cirque, has created a comfortable and relaxed place with tan leather couches where cigar lovers can congregate, choose from a selection of premium liquors, dine on a light repast featuring tuna carpaccio and marinated salmon, and smoke cigars from an ever-changing list. The list includes choices from the Dominican Republic such as Fonsecas and Avos as well as some choice Honduran brands, including Flor de Florez. The Grotto marks up its cigars only 25 percent, with prices ranging from $6.50 to $16.50. Manager Kim Gregory oversees an eager and attentive staff.
Across town on 51st Street is Divine Bar, an attractive two-story lounge. Opened in June, the lounge's second floor features plush antique velvet couches and chairs, where people sit back and savor the flavors of their cigars and wine. Owners Shari Schneider and Michael Vitanza are new to the cigar business, but are eager to please their customers. Cigars range in price from $6 to $14, but due to shortages, the list changes frequently. Recent offerings included Macanudos and Partagas. The wine list is extensive and carefully selected, at competitive prices. It's a place with a decidedly downtown feel, in a midtown location.
If you don't want to venture uptown, the cigar scene is abuzz downtown as well. Webster Hall, a popular four-story nightclub, has its own fourth-floor cigar bar called The Havana Lounge. A 1,450-square-foot, roped-off section of the balcony, it is the brainchild of Greg Alprin, Michael Shine and Nick Orlando, three twenty-somethings who decided that New York needed a cigar bar in a nightclub setting. Opened in August, The Havana Lounge has become a popular hangout for people who want to dance and smoke at the same time. The noise from the main dance floor below can be deafening at times, but the well-worn couches are comfortable and the staff is attentive, if a bit inexperienced. The cigars are priced competitively, from $5 to $15 for a premium smoke. Don't expect to find the usual Webster Hall clientele in The Havana Lounge, however; Orlando, Alprin and Shine created the cigar bar for professionals, not club kids. But do expect to pay a cover of $10 to $15 to get into the club.
Ten blocks south of The Havana Lounge lies The Go-Go Room, a cigar bar in Béla restaurant. Opened in mid-August, The Go-Go Room, named for a turn-of-the-century cigar brand fron New York, is a small, dark lounge with leather divans and chairs. Jerri Banks, general manager and resident cigar expert, describes her lounge as comfortable and understated; you almost feel as if you are in someone's library. Cigar lovers can choose from a revolving list of about eight cigars, which recently included Padron Coronas and El Sublimado Churchills. Cigar buyers should beware, however: a couple of the cigars had astronomical markups (the El Sublimado Churchill was 150 percent above the suggested retail price).
In lower Manhattan, the owners and operators of Windows on the World run the self-proclaimed "Greatest Bar on Earth" and private Skybox, both of which are cigar smoker retreats. The bar is a large, colorful space, with breathtaking views of the city from 106 stories above the streets. Smokers can choose from a small and pricey cigar list that includes Partagas 150s and Avo XOs. Vintage Ports as well as Scotches and Bourbons are available by the glass. The bar is bustling and can be noisy at times. If you prefer a quieter and more private retreat, you can retire to the Skybox, an extremely small (25 seats) but extremely comfortable lounge, set a distance from the bar. Guests can sit back in brown leather and blue corduroy couches and enjoy the view. The Skybox is a private lounge during regular business hours and is open to the public only after 7 p.m.
Not far away, in the heart of Tribeca, a new lounge called City Wine & Cigar Co. has been taking shape. Co-owners Chris Smith and Avra Jain consulted with hot restaurateur Drew Neiporent to create a wine and cigar bar and storage facility, which was set to open in November. Located on the ground floor of the historic former Dietz Lantern factory, City Wine & Cigar plans three smoking lounges for cigar lovers. The 8,000-square-foot establishment will have 400 private lockers for lease with annual and monthly dues. The Cigar Pub, an 800-square-foot retail store, will sell a full range of premium cigars such as Davidoff and Avo. Trained cigar girls will mill around the rooms, serving cigars. You'll have your choice of three bars: the Wine Bar, which is the largest, a private bar in the rear and a spirit bar in the Cigar Pub.
For those seeking an alcohol-free cigar environment, there is the Havana Tea Room and Cigar House on East 78th Street. Mark Nasser, co-owner and manager, created this quaint, Cuban-themed cigar bar without the bar. (The owners have twice petitioned for a liquor license but have been denied.) And therein lies the charm. With its casual and inviting atmosphere, Havana is a welcome alternative to the bar scene. Cigar lovers can choose a cleverly displayed smoke from Havana's glass humidor. Recent choices included Arturo Fuente Fumas and Montecruz Chicos. Savor your selection over a cup of Darjeeling tea or espresso and let the smoke waft up to the palm leaf-covered ceiling fans. The waiters and waitresses, attired in Cuban guayaberra shirts, serve Cuban sandwiches, cheeses and desserts. Be warned: if you come with your own cigars, expect a $3 clipping fee to be tacked onto your bill.
If Manhattan is not to your liking, you can hop over the river to Cigargoyles, a cigar bar opened in September by William Mandile. The two-story bar in Brooklyn Heights is slightly Gothic in appearance; expect to see "cigargoyles" as well as cigar girls around the bar. At street level there is a traditional pub-style bar with marble-tiled floors and wooden tables and chairs. Guests can dine on grilled-based Continental fare and choose from a wide array of beers, Ports, single malts and wines. A large cedar-lined, walk-in humidor contains selections from such brands as Arturo Fuente, Baccarat and Punch, at moderate markups. The lower level houses a dark, cavernous lounge with shell granite and sheet rock walls with faux fresco finishes, lined with leather couches and chairs. During the summer, the outdoor garden is turned into a café, with seating for 75 people. The owners anticipate a lot of business, especially from area professionals who have embraced Cigargoyles as their local cigar haven.
Whippany, New Jersey, is an unexpected place to find a cigar bar equal to the better spots in Manhattan. But the El Rey del Mundo Bar is just that. It is the social point of the huge J.R. Tobacco Outlet, a store that boasts an enormous cigar shop with enough cigar memorabilia to fill a museum. The bar area is small and cozy, with brass-trimmed mahogany shelves, an embossed tin ceiling and cigar box art adorning the walls. El Rey del Mundo may be small (seating is limited to 32) but its cigar selection is unparalleled. If none of the 27 selections on the bar menu suit your palate, you can walk a few paces into the grandiose store and pick out any one of more than 450 types of cigars, both by the box and in singles. Try the extremely rare Partagas Limited Reserve Royale ($17) or the 10-inch-long, 66 ring Casa Blanca Jeroboam $7).
The drink selection is adequate, with wines, Cognacs, Ports, beers and excellent espresso. The Outlet also sports a liquor shop, and you can purchase and consume any bottle from the shop at the bar; there's a $10 corkage fee. J.R Cigar owner Lew Rothman plans to add a cigar lounge and a museum, featuring table service and an expanded drinks menu by January 1.
Cigar bars, of course, aren't limited to the New York area. In Chicago, lounges are sprouting up right and left. Fumatore, a cigar club between the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park sections of Chicago, is fast becoming a favorite hangout for cigar smokers. Founder and principal owner John DePalma created this haven in response to the city's anti-smoking legislation.
"What really pushed me over the edge was when I was sitting in the bleachers in Wrigley Field and I went to light a cigar with my buddies and they said that I couldn't smoke there," DePalma says. "Fumatore is a neighborhood cigar club. I think the more Club Macanudos, Grand Havana Rooms and other clubs there are just reinforces the concept. It will become a staple sooner or later."
Designed much like an old European club, the 5,600-square-foot bar boasts 300 private lockers, 250 of which were rented within two months of Fumatore's grand opening in March. Renters include Fumatore investor and former Chicago Bulls center John Salley, talk show host Jerry Springer and the Caribbean Cigar Co. Members pay a $500 (individual) or $2,500 (corporate) initiation fee, and they must spend $800 (individual) or $3,000 (corporate) at Fumatore per year to retain their private humidor and other privileges.
Membership has its privileges, according to DePalma. Members have full use of the club's private salons for business and sporting purposes, which come equipped with a fax, a computer and satellite TVs. They can also dine or lounge in the special, plush Fumatore booths, each emblazoned with a giant cigar band on the outside, such as Montecristo, Cohiba and Diana Silvius.
But Fumatore is not a private club. People who don't own lockers are free to dine on Cuban food in Cafe Cubano on the first floor, or climb a flight of stairs to the Fumatore Club where on weekends they can dance the night away to salsa beats. They can choose from a wide array of drinks, including Scotches and Cognacs. And of course, they can purchase either of the two brands that are on the limited Fumatore cigar list: the Fumatore house cigar, a Dominican that comes in five sizes, or the Profesor Sila from the Canary Islands. They are reasonably priced, between $5 and $10.50.
DePalma plans on opening another Fumatore around Thanksgiving on Miami's famous South Beach, with John Salley slated to oversee the club, and in Washington, D.C., in the spring.
A hot Chicago nightspot called Drink has become a hot cigar place as well with a tri-tiered cigar room called Smoke at Drink. On any given weekend night, young professionals crowd onto the lower level of the 10,000-square-foot club to sit and relax in funky leather and upholstered couches and chairs. Murals circa 1950 line the brick walls. Twenty-somethings gravitate toward the club's well-stocked, seven-foot, cedar-lined glass humidor, where Drink's resident cigar guru, Arlen, holds court, selling cigars to his subjects. Owners Scott DeGraff and Michael Morton created this room more than two years ago in response to the demand from regular patrons.
"People would come in and smoke cigars and many of the customers would come in asking for them and I would start bringing in five of them with me and passing them out," DeGraff says. "We had this great room, so we said, Let's turn it into a cigar bar. We sell a massive amount of cigars. It is not just a matter of a small cigar bar that carries five or 10 varieties; we have the kind [of selection] that the cigar vendors in Chicago come in and ask, 'How are you carrying this?'"
Those hard-to-come-by brands include Arturo Fuentes, La Gloria Cubanas and Davidoffs. Prices for cigars range from $5 to $30. The bar offers assorted Armagnacs and Scotches as well as other liquors.
DeGraff and Morton own a Drink sibling in Las Vegas, which is 18,000 square feet and also does "tremendous business in cigar sales." This January, the owners plan on relocating their site to a former fish packing factory near the Kennedy Expressway, just one block away. It will be twice as large as the present Chicago site and will include an additional 10,000-square-foot roof deck. Of course, the cigar friendliness won't change.
In an industrial section of Chicago is another cigar haven, called Green Dolphin Street. The brainchild of owner Michael Nahabedian, it is a restaurant, club and cigar scene, all rolled into a 6,000-square-foot space. Although smoking is not allowed in the dining room, there is a separate bar and jazz room where guests can choose a cigar from the well-stocked 5,000-cigar humidor. Although the list keeps changing, one can regularly acquire Punch, Davidoff and José Martí, among other marques. Prices can get a little steep. They run from $6 for a José Martí corona to $25 for a Partagas Signature Series. The atmosphere at Green Dolphin Street is fun and bustling. Jazz bands play on most nights and diners often get up and dance.