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Smokin' U S A

In The 1920s There Were Speakeasies. In The 1990s There Are Cigar Lounges

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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.

Another Chicagoland cigar bar is Jilly's. Jilly's is the namesake of one of Frank Sinatra's best friends and bodyguards; Old Blue Eyes even calls it his "favorite bistro." Jilly's clientele is slightly older than its area competitors'. You can choose from more than 27 single malt Scotches, 15 brands of Champagne and more than 42 types of cigars, which manager Steve Miller acquires through Chicago's Iwan Ries tobacco shop, one of the country's oldest. Prices are as varied as the cigars. You could pay anywhere from $3 for a Wolf Brothers Crooks to $50 for a Davidoff Aniversario No. 1.

Jilly's also features a one-of-a-kind offering: a cigar grab bag. Customers pay $5 and pick a cigar from the bag; they could come away with a cigar worth more than $5 retail. Jilly's employs cigar girls, who, dressed in matching black-and-white outfits, can help you cut and light your cigar. If the bar scene is too subdued for you, you can go next door to Jilly's Retro, a disco where you can dance the night away.

Harry's Velvet Room in downtown Chicago is a bustling lounge and restaurant that caters to cigar smokers. Dion and Jeanne Antic have owned and operated this plush 1,700-square-foot, two-level operation since its opening in November 1994. Smokers from around Chicago gather here to savor cigars from a moderately priced ($4 to $15) list, which often includes Davidoffs and Avos. Dion Antic says people return to Harry's because of its style and ambience, which, with plush furniture and dim lights, is decidedly intimate and inviting. Martinis are a hit here as are single malts and Cognacs.

Just outside of metropolitan Chicago in the town of Aurora lies The Cognac Cigar Bar, part of Walter Payton's Roundhouse Complex, a multilevel 72,000-square-foot entertainment center owned by the National Football League Hall of Famer and former Chicago Bear running back. Opened in May, the club hosts people between their 20s and 50s who come to choose from more than 50 different cigars, including Dunhills and Astrals. The list is moderately priced; cigars range from $7 (H. Upmann Churchill) to $20 (Don Tito pyramid). Guests can handpick a cigar from the room's glass humidor or ask a cocktail waitress for a smoke on the bar's cigar list. Co-owner Mark Alberts met Payton several years ago when he did some consulting for the legend's nightclub operations. Now, Payton visits the bar at least twice a week to ensure that the complex named after him is running smoothly.

At the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills, California, you could say that things are running smoothly. Since its grand opening more than a year ago, this private cigar club has been jam-packed with the movers and shakers of Hollywood. The lounge offers 400 lockers, all of which are rented, many by celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson. Two hundred people are on waiting lists to get lockers, although owners Stan Shuster and Joey Pantoliano have no plans to build more.

"We like to think of ourselves as the first true high-end cigar place. We have been written up all over the world. We are recognized as the premier cigar place," proclaims Shuster. "I don't know what really separates us other than we are the first one and we are the Walt Disney of the cigar world."

Because of the success of the flagship club, Shuster and Pantoliano plan to open two other Grand Havana Rooms. One is an 8,000-square-foot club in Washington, D.C., and the other is a 16,000-square-foot complex in Manhattan, at the 39th-floor location formerly occupied by the famous Top of the Sixes restaurant. Pantoliano and Shuster are considering going international with the concept.

Another successful private cigar club in California is Havana Studios in Burbank. The brainchild of Nick Nikkah and his son, Edward, Havana Studios is a 4,000-square-foot club that caters particularly to people in the entertainment industry. Members can enjoy drinks at the club's bar and choose cigars from an impressive list that includes Avos, Diamond Crowns and Buteras. Cigars range from $1 to $17 in the adjacent retail cigar store. Havana Studios has 135 private lockers, all but a few of which have been sold; there are no immediate plans to build more. There is a billiards room and a conference room for business meetings. The Nikkahs plan on expanding the Havana Studios concept to other cities, including San Francisco next year and Chicago down the road.

In Pasadena, John Derian and three other owners created The Humidor as a place for those he calls typical cigar smokers. Housed in a historic brick building, this 1,700-square-foot club and store features a lounge with wood-burning fireplaces and old English furniture. Leather chairs and custom-made draperies create an atmosphere similar to an English men's club. Private membership furthers the comparison. There are three tiers of membership: the Humidor Club ($750 annually), the Churchill Society ($1,500) and the Corporate Humidor Club ($2,500). Each member gets his or her own personalized humidified cigar locker, from the club's 120, and can select from more than 50 cigar varieties, including El Rey del Mundos, Diamond Crowns and the Griffin's. Prices range from $2.50 for Henry Clays to $25 for a Partagas 150. Members also enjoy once-a-month Cognac and Port events.

In a region synonymous with handmade cigars, the hottest cigar scene in Florida is at the Cuba Club at the Forge on Miami's South Beach. Proprietor Shareef Malnik created the lounge this January as a celebration of everything Cuban. The 150-seat members-only club caters to serious cigar smokers who pay $4,000 for a 12-year "vault" membership with locker and $1,500 for a lifetime membership, without a locker. Depending on the membership, members are entitled to private humidified lockers, access to the club, access to special events such as parties featuring celebrities, special vacation packages and a 20 percent discount on Pan Am Airbridge, which can take members to sunny destinations such as the Bahamas and Key West. Fuente Fuente Opus X, Davidoff, Licenciados and La Flor Dominicana are just a few of the brands in the Cuba Club's large humidor, with prices ranging from $5 to $25. Cigar girls work the room, helping cut and light cigars. The bartenders can serve you a choice of wines, Ports and spirits. You can sit back and relax in leather and mohair couches and enjoy the "dramatic" atmosphere, according to Malnik.

Orlando has its own cigar club as well, called Art's. Opened five months ago, owner Art Zimand's 3,400-square-foot lounge and retail operation has 84 private and 20 corporate cigar lockers for lease. There are three tiers of membership: the Robusto ($100) allows you access to the club and free capuccino, espresso and soft drinks; the Churchill ($195) gives you the same privileges as the Robusto but with the added bonus of discounts on non-tobacco and alcohol-related merchandise; and the Presidente ($345) provides the aforementioned amenities but with a humidified locker. Members can relax in the Club Room's soft leather chairs, sip coffee or liquor and choose a cigar from the club's 500-square-foot humidor that houses premium brands. For the professional there is also a conference room equipped with computer, copier, fax and scanner.

The nation's capital has seen a boom in cigar lounges. While club owners in other cities are planning on opening branches in Washington, the area already boasts two very popular cigar lounges.

The D.C. suburb of Rockville, Maryland, houses the 500-square-foot Shelly's Back Room in Shelly's Woodroast restaurant. Opened in November 1995, Shelly's Back Room is the creation of entrepreneur and cigar collector Sheldon Jacobs, who designed it for cigar lovers like himself who desire a place to kick back their feet and relax (in cloth-covered divans or wooden chairs at the bar) and sip Scotches or Cognacs.

Two large humidors at Shelly's serve different purposes: one offers single cigars for sale, ranging from $5 to $16; the other is a communal humidor available for rent to people who need to store a box of cigars, but don't want private lockers. Jacobs built 72 private lockers, which sold out in two months. Available for $400 a year, each locker gets a personalized plaque.

Early next year, Jacobs will open another Shelly's Back Room on 13th and F streets in Washington, two blocks from the White House. It will be larger, with an additional retail tobacco operation. He also plans more Shelly's rooms in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle.

A popular year-old D.C. nightspot is the Ozio Martini and Cigar Lounge on K Street. The lounge, managed by Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld, is intended as a retreat for politicians and professionals who love cigars. On any given night, the upscale clientele crowds into the 4,500-square-foot bar to savor cigars from Arturo Fuente, Don Tomas and Don Lino, among others. Prices range from $8 for a Montecruz Corona to $25 for a Dominican Cohiba Double Corona. While relaxing in the Art Nouveau-inspired ambience in swayback couches, guests are encouraged to try one of 13 different Martinis or one of 32 single malt Scotches, or select a tapas from the international menu.

Over the border in Virginia, amid the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, is the Oasis Winery, which recently opened its Cigar Smoking Lounge. The 1,600-square-foot cafe-lounge boasts 18 premium cigars, including Davidoffs, La Flor Dominicanas and Gilberto Olivas. Prices range from $3 to a whopping $48 a stick. Tareq Salahi, general manager of Oasis, which has been a family-owned operation since it opened in 1977, cleverly pairs cigars with Oasis wines. Guests can savor their cigars and wines in café chairs with armrests, while dining on a light repast that includes a grilled chicken sauté with oriental noodles, and beef tenderloin served chilled on a bed of greens. Guests can also tour the winery, where they can taste cabernets, barrel-fermented Chardonnays and Gewurztraminers.

Farther south in Atlanta, you'll find The Havana Club, located in the posh area of Buckhead. The creation of Steve Sharman, the 6,100-square-foot lounge is his Southern response to the cigar bars of New York and Los Angeles. Area business professionals congregate at the Havana Club to relax in overstuffed love seats and chairs, sample the Cuban fare and select a Cognac, Port or Scotch. But it's the cigars that are the major draw. Sharman has a retail store connected to the lounge that carries about 60 brands, including Don Pablo and cigars by Villazon and General Cigar Co. They retail for $7 to $25. Cigar girls serve the cigars on a tray. Private memberships are available for $300, $500 or $750, which allow access to the private Churchill Room, cigar discounts and lockers with plaques, depending on the level of membership. The Havana Club regularly hosts cigar and wine tastings. Look for new Havana Clubs opening in Nashville and Charlotte, North Carolina, within the next one to three years.

Texas has a few cigar bars as well. The Velvet Elvis, a popular Houston hangout since August 1994, has a cigar bar that was intended to be a private room but soon turned into something more. The decor in the Smoking Room is classified by general manager Suzy Melson as "American satire/cheesiness." Soft velvet and paisley silk couches and dim lighting give it an intimate atmosphere. Velvet paintings hang on the walls. The bar's cigar list includes Macanudos, Havana Classicos and Don Diegos, all priced moderately. Guests can sample Ports, Champagnes, beers and 30 different single malt Scotches, as well as American cuisine. There is also a large patio area where smoking is allowed. The Velvet Elvis has its own cigar society called the Velvet Fez Cigar and Pleasure Club. The 50 members of the club meet once a month. The owners expanded in March to Dallas, where it is known as the Velvet E. Other cities are being considered.

Dallas is also home to The Harder Bar. Since its July premiere, this informal lounge has become a cigar haven for the city's hippies, yuppies and college students alike. With its red brick exterior and blue interior, it exudes a feeling of relaxation, says owner Craig Vaught. Daisy's Lounge, named after Vaught's young daughter, is a cavernous den with brick walls emblazoned with murals of animals, flowers and the night sky. Cigar lovers can kick back in one of the many comfortable divans or club chairs and savor the flavors of moderately priced cigars such as the Santa Clara No. 6 or La Aurora Corona while sipping tequilas, Bourbons or whiskys. Vaught often bartends so that he can get to know the clientele.

The Rockies also have their cigar havens. Opened in February 1996, The Churchill Bar, located in the atrium lobby of Denver's Brown Palace Hotel, has a decidedly clubby ambience. Bookshelves line the walls and plush red leather chairs provide comfort for 35 guests. The Churchill Room offers premium spirits, wines and beers. Cigar lovers can hand-select from a choice of 70 cigars such as Thomas Hinds and Camorras, ranging from $5.50 to $20. Experienced waiters and waitresses will cut your cigar and light it with cedar strips.

Within The Churchill Bar the hotel has created a private Founder's Club open to cigar smokers who want the best, according to Churchill Bar general manager Fariborz Rouchi. For an initial $500 fee and $250 per year thereafter, members get their own engraved cigar box, 12 premium cigars, a three-cigar pocket case and other amenities. The 75 lockers sold out immediately, with 90 people on a waiting list, although the bar has no immediate plans to create more lockers.

Back east, a vast, 22,000-square-foot "social gallery" complex in Pittsburgh called Heaven houses a cigar bar (as well as Champagne, Martini and billiards bars). Opened in August, the 200-seat cigar lounge, overlooking the marble dance floor and underneath the 45-foot vaulted dome ceiling, is a haven for area professionals who have been eagerly awaiting a place to enjoy cigars. The ever-changing cigar list contains 10 to 13 brands, ranging from Arango Sportsmans for $2 to Astral Perficiones for $18. Co-owner Michael Schumacher believes that the cigar craze will continue, especially with new smokers such as young professionals, many of whom are women. The owners of Heaven are coordinating a weekly Cherub Club for cigar smoking men and women, complete with elected officers.

In Boston, the place is Oskar's. Owners Jeffrey Unger, Newman Flannigan and Ted Gracy intially envisioned a lounge that would simply offer premium cigars, but eventually settled upon a restaurant-cum-lounge, which was expected to open in October. Named after Jeffrey Unger's dog and housed in a former liquor store, Oskar's features a 250-square-foot Great Room where a large, cedar-lined humidor will house close to 50 brands of cigars. You'll be able to find such hard-to-find smokes as Moore and Bode, and La Gloria Cubana, at moderate prices ranging from $6 to $15. Wines and premium spirits are available by the glass. Comfort is key for the owners of Oskar's, as they try to create "exclusivity through value."

On the other coast, near Seattle, lies the International Cigar Store and Smoking Lounge. This retail/lounge complex opened almost two years ago to overwhelming success, according to owner Jeff Allen. Allen readily admits that he opened the club only for the money. Although he isn't a cigar smoker himself, he stocks more than 100 different cigars from Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, the Canary Islands and Germany. Prices range from $4.50 for an Hoyo de Monterrey Rothschild to $30 for the Louisville Slugger-sized, 18 inch by 66 ring Cuba Aliados General. The 2,800-square-foot lounge, with dark green leather seats and Italian chandeliers, offers a relaxing smoking environment. The bar features Ports, beers and coffees as well as light American fare. Cigar girls serve smokes on sterling silver platters and light cigars in several different ways. This past spring, Allen opened an International Cigar Store at the Sheraton Hotel in Tacoma; he claims that he will eventually open 240 lounges worldwide.

All the lounges surveyed for this article are having difficulty getting cigars, whether from tobacconists in their area or direct from manufacturers. Because most cigar distributors aren't opening new accounts with tobacconists or clubs, newcomers venturing into the market will find it virtually impossible to acquire top-of-the line brands.

Many of these clubs have installed state-of-the-art ventilation systems to make their cigar lounges accessible not only to cigar lovers, but to friends of cigar lovers as well. Owners of many of these lounges say they are trying to attract serious cigar smokers, not those grabbing onto the latest fad.

These are by no means the only cigar lounges around. Lounges are opening at an increasingly rapid rate, with more added every month. Recent openings noted shortly before this article went to press include Fumé and The Essex Supper Club, both in San Francisco; Harry's Martini and Cigar Bar in Toledo, Ohio; Churchill's in Cooper City, Florida; Stogie's Friends in Rogers, Arkansas, and Mos'quito, The Smoking Lounge at Gotham Comedy Club and The Cigar Room at Harrison James in New York City.

What's more, hundreds of cigar friendly bars (such as the Gingerman in New York City and Neon's in Cincinnati) and restaurants around the United States were not included in this article. To control the scope of this story, only establishments specifically designed for cigar smoking were included.

Cigar bars, lounges, clubs, whatever they are called, are a true reflection of the way cigar smokers are now being seen in a growing number of cities across the United States: They are a group that needs to be taken seriously, because they are here to stay.

Bar Hopping


Beverly Hills

Grand Havana Room
301 North Canon Drive
(310) 446-4925

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