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Smoking in Peace

David Shaw
From the Print Edition:
Premier Issue, Autumn 92

(continued from page 1)

I've stopped smoking cigars at Dodgers Stadium because of all the complaints--complaints I just don't understand in an outdoor setting, where the smoke disperses so easily--but in restaurants and elsewhere, relatively few people have objected to my cigar. Even people who have objected have generally done so politely.

When a group of women sweetly asked a friend and me not to smoke after lunch in an Italian restaurant not long ago, we took our cigars into the bar--for which they graciously thanked us; on their way out, they thanked us again. On another occasion, a man responded to my cigar question by saying, "We'd appreciate it if you'd wait until we finish our dessert." Ten minutes later--seconds after wiping the last crumbs of chocolate cake from his lips--the man leaned over and said, "We're through now. Thank you for asking--and for waiting. You can smoke now."

As I said, judging by my conversations and interviews with other cigar smokers, I've been lucky. Many people who object to cigars do so as boorishly as that woman at Dodgers Stadium. Indeed, virtually every restaurateur I interviewed for this story told me that people who complain about cigars are almost invariably far more adamant--and far ruder--than cigar smokers themselves.

Carl Doumani, proprietor of Stag's Leap Winery, recalls a night a few years ago when he lit up on the terrace of a restaurant in Napa Valley only to have the waitress tell him another diner objected. Rather than putting out his cigar or arguing that smoking outdoors shouldn't bother anyone, Doumani left the restaurant; as he passed the complaining party's table, the man said, loudly, "Only assholes smoke cigars." When Doumani pointed out that he was leaving, the man repeated himself: "Only assholes smoke cigars."

On another occasion, in another Napa Valley restaurant, Doumani was startled to smell the potent perfume on a woman at a nearby table. It overpowered everything on his plate and everything on his guests' plates. But he didn't say anything until later, when both parties were through eating, and he took his cigar out and she complained to the waiter. Doumani then told the waiter, "Will you please tell the lady that when she gets rid of that perfume, I'll put my cigar out."

A few minutes later, the woman and her party left. As she passed Doumani's table, he says, "She smacked me in the side of the head with her purse." Doumani is six-foot, two-inches, 220 pounds, but she hit him so hard that he toppled off his chair, on to the floor, and his glasses went flying across the room.

I don't intend this to be an apologia for cigar smokers. Some cigar smokers are rude and inconsiderate. Often, they're rich and powerful and arrogant, and they're not used to having anyone question anything they do. They're their own--and our--worst enemy.

Like most cigar smokers, I can't help but smile secretly when I hear stories like the one about the prominent attorney in Philadelphia who listened to a woman's request that he put out his cigar, then refused, saying, "Madam, this cigar cost more than your entire meal." Or the man at Morton's restaurant in Chicago who was so chagrined when a woman told him to, "Go smoke that damn thing in the bathroom," that he said, "Go eat your dinner in the bathroom." But those small satisfactions won't help us win The Great Cigar War.

If cigar smokers would follow the basic rules of courtesy I outlined above, it might help disarm all but the most rabid cigar haters. I've come to believe--perhaps naively--that in most settings, despite the current fulmination's of so many tantrumical tobacco tyrants, you and I can enjoy our cigars, and people who don't like them don't have to see or smell them. All it takes is reason and goodwill.

A few restaurants--too few, in my opinion--are trying to deal sensibly with this sensitive issue; the best solution, as I suggested earlier, is to have smoking and non-smoking sections, and to permit cigars as well as cigarettes in the smoking section. Among the restaurants that do this are Anthony's Pier 4 in Boston, Yuca in Miami, Gene and Georgetti's in Chicago, Tony's in Houston, the Palace Arms in the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver and the Quilted Giraffe, Post House and The '21' Club in New York.

"If someone in the smoking area complains about a customer smoking a cigar, we move the complainer, not the smoker," says Ken Aretsky, the chairman, of '21.'

Lance Barbakow, manager at Boston's landmark restaurant, Locke-Ober, is even more cigar-friendly. Cigars are permitted throughout Locke-Ober, except in the private dining room on the third floor, and if someone complains, Barbakow says, "We explain that we're really not in a position to tell the cigar smoker to put his cigar out. We invite the person [who's complaining] to come into the lounge for dessert or an after-dinner drink."

Susan Wine, who runs the front of the house at the Quilted Giraffe while husband, Barry, is in the kitchen, creating some of the best and most original food in America, has an unusual solution to the cigar problem. Because of the strong Japanese influence in the restaurant's cuisine, it attracts many Japanese diners, and "If we need someone to sit between smokers and non-smokers, we often put Japanese there," she says. "So many of them smoke so much, they're used to smoking."

Most restaurants, however, are far more likely to move the smoker than they are to move the complainer or create a buffer table. Some restaurateurs--like Piero Selvaggio at Valentino in Santa Monica, just west of Los Angeles--do so graciously.

"I respect the pleasure some people take in the final taste of a Cognac and a cigar as a complement to a very special meal," Selvaggio says. "We have spaces that are detached [three separate dining rooms plus a nice bar/lounge area], so we can easily move someone with a cigar to a place where they can enjoy it, and no one else will he bothered."

Most restaurateurs tend to invite cigar smokers to adjourn to the bar or lounge. Many cigar smokers don't want to move--in part as a matter of principle, in part because they're comfortable in the dining room itself and in part because many bars, even in good restaurants, are not terribly pleasant.

"People would love to smoke their cigars in the dining room, not the bar," says Joachim Splichal, chef-proprietor of Patina in Los Angeles, "but it's impossible here. Someone tried to light up once, and it was like that Hitchcock movie--The Birds. Someone at every table in the dining room got up and ran to complain to the lady at reception in two seconds."

But some restaurants, like Patina, have bars and lounge areas, rooms in which a cigar and a Cognac or an Armagnac or a Port can be a decidedly pleasant experience.

At Palio in New York, the downstairs bar is dominated by a striking, wrap-around mural depicting the annual horse race in Siena, Italy, for which the restaurant is named; it may be the best single thing in the entire restaurant. At Ernie's in San Francisco, the bar "looks like a place where you would smoke a cigar," as Steve Morey, the sommelier, puts it. The bar has a classic Old English look about it, with high ceilings, mahogany walls and original Gibson prints. At Biba, which may be the best restaurant in Boston, the earthtones in the bar--forest-green chairs and banquettes and a brick-red, antique French tile floor--provide a muted backdrop for the anything-but-muted crowd that has made the bar there the noisiest and most frenetic chic-by-yowl scene in Boston. Best of all, the bar menu is as reasonable as it is varied, with prices substantially lower than in the restaurant upstairs.

Restaurants in good hotels also tend to have nice lounges in which cigar smokers can indulge their love of the leaf without fear of character (or actual) assassination. Hotel restaurants, in general, tend to be more accommodating to cigar smokers than do non-hotel restaurants, largely because hotel managers understand the importance of pleasing their guests.

"Guests come to think they can have whatever they want since they're paying quite a bit for their hotel rooms," says Christina Clifton, dining room manager at the French Room in the Four Seasons Clift Hotel in San Francisco. "Besides, we have more space, more rooms to move them to if anyone complains."

Sara Brewer, dining room manager and sommelier in the John Hay Room at the Hay Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., puts it a little differently: "We're an old, European-style hotel, and smoking a cigar is a part of the ambiance. We have some customers who've been coming here for 20 years and smoking a cigar in their favorite armchair in the corner of the lounge."

Some restaurants, both inside and outside hotels, now have special rooms for cigar smokers. Remi in Santa Monica has a small wine room where cigar smokers are invited to enjoy themselves and have a Cognac, grappa or Port after dinner. Chanterelle in New York has a "cigar and Cognac room"--complete with a sofa, comfortable chairs and a table--specifically included in the design for the restaurant because chef David Waltuck loves cigars. Like the wine room at Remi, this room holds about a dozen people--although as Waltuck's wife and partner, Karen, says, "People are so much more emotional about cigars than they were ten years ago that many cigar smokers don't think to use the room because they don't even carry their cigars with them any more."

Jivan Tabibian, managing partner of Remi, often goes outside to the patio of his restaurant to smoke a cigar, and even there, he's been harassed.

"People walking by will ask me to put out my cigar," he says in tones of wounded wonderment. Despite this experience--and despite the increasingly pervasive hostility most cigar smokers encounter--Tabibian is one of a growing number of restaurateurs and hoteliers nationwide who now host regular cigar dinners.

The format and the size of the crowd varies at these events. Some have a dozen people; some have more than 100. Some serve a set menu; some let diners choose from the regular menu. Some provide complimentary cigars, courtesy of local tobacconists; others expect guests to provide their own cigars. Prices range from $40 to $250 per person.

Tabibian had his first cigar dinner last fall and the event was so popular that he had one monthly, then bi-weekly and--starting this past June--weekly. Every Tuesday, 10 or 12 cigar smokers pay $75 a head--tax, tip and wine included--to gather in the wine room at Remi for a four-course dinner, with a different wine accompanying each course ... and cigars and Cognac after dinner (although at Remi, as at the other cigar dinners, some guests smoke a cigar before dinner and/or during dinner as well).

Two other Los Angeles restaurants--Ma Maison and Pierre's Los Feliz Inn--have similar events monthly. So does Yuca in Miami. And San Domenico in New York. Last January, Windows on the World, also in New York, had 85 guests for its first cigar dinner, complete with a master cigar roller from the Dominican Republic--and a different cigar after each course. (The barbecued baby striped bass on smoked corn and cilantro was followed by a Macanudo Baron de Rothschild; the honey- and coriander-glazed côte de boeuf, with fried sage and celery root, was followed by a Partagas No. 1.)

At Stars in San Francisco, chef Jeremiah Tower, executive chef Mark Franz and former general manager Tony Angotti--cigar smokers all--orchestrated a dinner in March that also matched each course with cigars as well as wines.

"We had 25 people, a waiting list of 20 more, and we could have sold out four times over," Angotti says. Now the event will be monthly.

Henry Schielein, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel, on the Pacific Coast about two hours south of Los Angeles, probably deserves credit for the renaissance of the cigar dinner. Schielein, whose proposal of marriage 29 years ago was contingent on his fiancée's acceptance of his cigars "for the rest of our lives," was annoyed one night in 1983 when he sensed people glaring at him as he lit up a cigar in the dining room at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. Schielein had just taken over as general manager of the hotel, and he made two quick decisions--he'd sponsor a cigar dinner and he'd turn the ladies' tearoom into a cigar room at night.

The cigar dinners have continued in Boston every year since, and when Schielein came to Laguna Niguel in 1989, he started them annually there, too. Ritz-Carltons in various other cities--Philadelphia, San Francisco, Marina del Rey (Los Angeles) and Washington, D.C. among them--have since followed suit.

In general, all follow the Schielein formula--black tie, multi-course, multi-wine dinners followed by cigars, Cognac, Armagnac and vintage Port. Cigar retailers and distributors often provide a large selection of complimentary cigars, and there are few sights more amusing than watching more than 100 tuxedo-clad men, most of them quite wealthy, scrambling greedily to stuff their pockets with as many free cigars as they can grab.

The sudden proliferation of special cigar dinners is evidence that cigars--at least premium cigars--are making a comeback. Premium cigars account for only about 5% of total cigar sales but 15% of total cigar dollars. As with premium wine, sales of premium cigars have been increasing in this country in recent years, while overall cigar sales (like overall wine sales) have been declining. Sales of cigars priced at more than $2.50 each almost tripled from 1987 to 1990, according to the Cigar Association of America.

Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. As in earlier generations, the cigar is, to many, a symbol of material success--"a baton of power," in the words of George Brightman, formerly the manager of the Davidoff store in New York. That may, in fact, account for the unbridled animosity so many women exhibit toward cigar smokers--and there is no question that "it's almost always women who complain--never men," as Susan Wine of the Quilted Giraffe puts it.


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