A Smoker's Guide to New York City
It has been more than six years since a smoking ban descended upon New York City, though for aficionados it seems an eternity ago. The city ban went into effect in March of 2003, followed that July by a state smoking ban that took away even more places to smoke. The laws were a victory for the endless number of coalitions looking to extinguish the cigars, and the wills, of the city's smokers. New York fell without much of a fight—no shows of civil disobedience, no smoking rallies, no cigar riots in the street. Now, six years later, after tobacco exemptions have been denied, and Manhattan's steak houses and social clubs have been forced to turn their humidors into linen storage, what is left?
The answer: more than 20 great cigar sanctuaries situated all over Manhattan Island.
True, New York's cigar smokers were driven out into the streets quite ignominiously, but their counterrevolution did not come in the form of a violent mob, it came in the form of an industrious and driven entrepreneurship. Even in the current economic downturn, new cigar lounges have opened within the last few months, providing smoking asylums for the city's cigar enthusiasts.
One such story is that of Billy and Gus Fakih, proprietors of the Cigar Inn. Their first location has been a mainstay in the city's tony Upper East Side neighborhood for 15 years, providing an extensive inventory of cigars and a comfortable place to smoke them. But only a few months ago, when financial houses began falling like the Roman Empire, the Fakihs (joined by their brother, Bass) opened a stately second venue in Midtown, styled quite ambitiously from the ground up to be the type of room you'd expect to find cloistered in the distant wing of some Vanderbilt mansion. The Cigar Inn's major distinction is that it houses the first-ever Cigar Aficionado—branded lounge.
Creating the smoking lounge wasn't easy. "The city is very uptight about issuing permits," says Gus Fakih. "It used to be very easy, taking only a few weeks, but now there is actually an investigation by the FBI, and it takes months and months before you can get your building permits, tobacco license and distribution license. We were supposed to be open last June . There are just too many agencies."
Now that all the permissions have been granted, the Fakihs are delighted with the results and how all the design elements came together. During the day, solarium-style windows offer a tranquil view of courtyard gardens while bringing lots of natural light to the wood and leather surfaces throughout the space. By night, the lights cast subtle beams and the gas fireplace ignites, lending a warm atmosphere. These furnishings are a true homage to the historically clubby spaces and private libraries of Manhattan where cigar smoking was once prevalent. Consider the elegance of the herringbone-patterned masonry in the humidor, for example, or the long Persian runner that leads you away from Second Avenue, past the accessories, past the barber's chairs and into an ambience that makes you forget you're in a cigar shop. But let us not forget that it is the cigar shop that enables this kind of lounge to exist in the first place—New York City law prohibits opening a new cigar bar, or expanding an existing one—and it is the route many shops have taken to accommodate their clients.
Swiss company Davidoff of Geneva has two world-class branded shops in Midtown, one on Madison Avenue, the other on Manhattan's West Side, situated in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Both have lounges, and like most cigar-smoking establishments, they attract people from every walk of life, from contractor to media mogul.
"Stores that have existed for a long time before smoking bans never really dedicated a lot of space to a lounge, since there were often many more attractive options for places to enjoy a cigar rather than sitting in a store," says Michael Herklots, manager of both Davidoff shops. "Madison Avenue is built a bit in this style. We place chairs and welcome people to enjoy their cigars with us; and although it's still a comfortable experience, it's quite different than being in a separate lounge. The Columbus Circle store is laid out more in [the latter] style. Retail is separate from the lounge."
While the lounge at the Columbus Circle boutique is open to anyone who purchases a cigar there, the one on Madison Avenue—which is suspended in a loft above the spacious store—is generally restricted to members, though entry is granted upon discretion of the dapper management. In addition, there are a few seats on the ground level that are open to anyone.
"It's important as a retailer to be sure that you're generating enough revenue to support such a room. This is where tools like minimum purchases or small membership dues come in handy," says Herklots. "Every retailer wants their customers to enjoy their products, but now it is becoming the responsibility of the retailer to provide a place for them to do so."
Also keeping up the tradition of cigar hospitality is De La Concha, a business formerly owned by Lionel Melendi before Davidoff acquired it in 2006. (Ron Melendi, Lionel's son, runs the shop today.) De La Concha has a bustling lounge in the front of the store that provides a smoking bastion for the constant foot traffic of Sixth Avenue.
De La Concha is one of the many cigar lounges clustered in the 50s in midtown Manhattan, forming a "cigar belt," or "cigar band," of places to puff. Barclay-Rex (on Lexington Avenue) offers not only floor-to-ceiling cigars, but a series of humidified lockers and a lounge that is usually full at lunchtime. It's a cozy room with about a dozen chairs, magazines, a coffee machine and a television. Don't let the abrupt nature of the staff intimidate you, especially that of shop co-owner Billy Rella. He might have the no-nonsense demeanor of an old-world chophouse waiter, but he is very accommodating and knowledgeable. His rules are simple: don't argue about online prices and don't even think about smoking something in the lounge that you didn't buy at the shop. The latter is a simple code of conduct that applies, really, to every cigar shop with a lounge, and is part of the etiquette that should be followed if you're going to park yourself in a lounge's chair. You should just be thankful that a warm, dry place is being provided for you to enjoy your cigar.
If New York's cigar shops have gone out of their way to provide comfortable smoking environments, then the venerable Nat Sherman has turned this business model into a full-fledged production. The new three-tiered smoking landmark, formerly located across the street, resides in its own freestanding building on East 42nd Street, in between the New York Public Library and Grand Central Station, with an Edwardian-era, Londonesque façade that is both out of place and fascinating. When you pass under the shop's trademark bronze beacon clock mounted over the front door, you feel as though you've just walked onto an elaborate Broadway set. This was by design—Hollywood set designer Charles McMarry was commissioned to make each customer feel like a cast member. There are seats in the vault-like cigar-locker room, but the main attraction is one flight down where you'll find the underground Johnson Club Room, the shop's inner-sanctum cigar lounge. It is a swanky, fully furnished membership club with limited access to nonmembers.
Walking out of Nat Sherman only a few steps puts the smoker squarely in front of Grand Central Station, which, in a way, is a sad reminder of all the previously smoke-friendly sanctuaries that did not survive New York's twin smoking bans. The Campbell Apartment is a wainscoted hideaway above the station's marble halls and used to be an elegant space for enjoying fine cigars. Hospitality Holdings Group saw to it that all the historical architectural details of the space remained intact, but could not restore cigar smoking as a practice. It did not, however, abandon it as an institution. The company added a cigar bar to its portfolio of cocktail lounges when it carved The Carnegie Club out of the back of Carnegie Hall in 1996, bringing theater- and concertgoers the luxury of a pre- or postshow cigar. The Club has a voluminous variety of spirits behind the bar and a creative cocktail list. There's also a cigar menu, and a cutting fee if you bring your own. Like wine, the cigars are marked up anywhere from 100 to 200 percent from suggested retail price—typical for a New York City cigar bar—but this is how a place like The Carnegie Club ensures that the requisite 10 percent of its revenues comes from tobacco sales or humidor rental fees, a requirement to qualify as a cigar bar in New York City.
One new destination, Beekman Bar And Books, found a clever way to get around the smoking laws, bringing a much needed spirits bar and cigar lounge to the east side of midtown Manhattan. The bar is part of the international Bar And Books chain and satisfies the city's statute by sealing off its cigar-smoking room from the rest of the space, forming a well-ventilated lounge within a lounge. Waitstaff are forbidden to enter, and smoking is prohibited outside the room. "It was very challenging," says managing partner Ben Scorah. "Our attorneys spent a lot of time investigating New York's smoking laws before we came to this arrangement, and it was very expensive."
According to Scorah, the community did not at first understand Bar And Books's mission, nor did the city. "They opposed everything. Our building license, our liquor license. The tenants in the building were opposed to us opening in the first place, but now that we're here and we've proven to be a respectable place, I haven't heard a peep, and the people really like it. But like I've said before, it's a privilege to smoke and that's what we're trying to bring."
Scorah does not allow cigarette smoking in his cigar lounge. "With the room being so small, we want to keep it to cigar smoking," he says. "Of course, if there's a group of people smoking cigars and one person is smoking a cigarette, we'll turn a blind eye, but I don't want that room full of cigarette smokers." Bar And Books has two other cigar bars in Manhattan, which were open before the smoking bans and continue as places where smoking is allowed. Downtown on the fringes of the Meatpacking District, Hudson Bar And Books has all the personality of quintessential Old New York: cracked mosaic floors, tin stamp ceiling and not a lot of elbow room. Lexington Bar And Books, on Lexington Avenue at East 73rd Street, attracts the professional crowd and has a jacket requirement. All Bar And Books locations employ talented bartenders and a fairly solid cigar menu with the expected markups. Each has an extensive Scotch list, innovative cocktails, book-lined walls and a constant showing of any given James Bond movie on the television. At the Beekman location, the small monkey lamps are an interesting nod to the days of colonial trading before poaching laws were put in place.
While Bar And Books and Hospitality Holdings have made sure that the city's smokers have a place to enjoy cocktails and spirits with their cigars, what of the lost practice of dining and smoking? The idea of steaks and cigars seems as archaic as bare-knuckle boxing, but a few establishments bring this luxury to Manhattan by elevating cigar smoking to the grandiose club level. Club Macanudo, located not far from the cigar belt on East 63rd Street, between Park and Madison avenues, has been offering the dining-and-smoking experience since 1997, before the activity could earn you scofflaw status.
The opulent club, owned by General Cigar Co., one of the world's largest makers of handmade cigars, comprises a large, cavernous series of pilastered rooms, sculpted ceilings, leather couches and subdued lighting. In the back of the club (which is open to the public, despite its name), opposite the wall of humidified cigar lockers, is the restaurant, whose straightforward menu offers lunch, dinner or small snacks, but the draw isn't the food itself so much as it is the freedom to eat and smoke simultaneously. Club Macanudo has managed to preserve the city's age-old practice of smoking a cigar before, during and after your meal, which is not even permitted in Las Vegas anymore. The cigar menu is quite extensive, offering a large portfolio of General's cigars, as well as a few third-party brands. It is a club in name only, but a dress code is enforced and service is delivered at the private club—quality level, drawing some of the city's most urbane cigar smokers, including many female aficionados, as the sophisticated decor makes this destination very female-friendly. Once you walk through the first set of exterior double doors, a small travertine foyer holds both the inviting smell of sweet cigar smoke and the anticipation of a transporting evening.
There is one smoking space in New York that boasts perhaps the most exclusive, private cigar-smoking experience in the country. At 666 Fifth Avenue, an express elevator rapidly transports a very few select smokers to the top floor of the building, transcending the smoking bans, the rudely indignant pedestrians and the frequent adverse weather conditions found on the ground level. At the "Top of the Sixes," as its predecessor was once known, resides the Grand Havana Room, the allegorical ivory tower of the cigar elite. It is a private club, and membership, which is often closed, is by invitation only. In addition to being the most exclusive cigar club, Grand Havana is also the largest, occupying 17,000 square feet of the 39th floor with 180-degree views of the metropolis facing south and east. A long, windowed hall leads to the bar and then opens up to a grand room where it is not unusual to see a celebrity. The dining room is farther in and is well partitioned. Beyond the dining room is the salon, a separate chamber for private events, serving as a club within a club. Every room has a view. The servers are some of the most attractive in the city, and will gladly bring you anything from Grand Havana's bar or humidor—but be warned, the cigar markup is quite steep.
If the sensation of smoking from the top floor of a building sounds enticing, you can take the experience one step further by moving to the roof. In the warmer months, many New York City rooftops are transformed into some of the city's most stunning smoking areas, but you typically have to bring your own smokes. The lush and lively rooftop garden of 230 Fifth is a fantastic place to light up and watch the setting sun glint off the gilded spires of the New York Life Building, or, once night has fallen, the luminescent upper reaches of the Empire State Building. The Pen-Top Bar & Terrace at The Peninsula New York is a rooftop bar with a dual personality—half the bar is for smokers, the other half for nonsmokers. Cigars are permitted. Perhaps the finest aerie for Manhattan smokers is the rooftop at Aretsky's Patroon, on 46th Street, owned by cigar lover Ken Aretsky. The posh spot not only has light fare and specialty cocktails, but a cigar menu as well.
One does not need to smoke atop a skyscraper to have a fine smoking experience. There are plenty of cigar bars that offer an intimate, convivial air. Merchants NY Cigar Bar, located on First Avenue at East 62nd Street, hides a cigar lounge on the lower level of its restaurant and is another example of a cigar establishment that has had to stave off the city's bureaucracy. Not too long ago, the board of health tried to shut down Merchants on account of the cigar bar serving food, but after a court hearing, the judge threw out the case, so the dark cozy space remains cigar friendly. Cigarette and cocktail bar Circa Tabac, located in the SoHo section of the city, also welcomes cigar smokers into its European-inspired venue, assuming the cigar smoker can withstand the cigarette smoke.
The cigar-smoking sports enthusiast may find himself at a bit of a loss. While some Manhattan cigar haunts might air sporting events from time to time, a dedicated cigar sports bar is even more rarified than the cigar bar itself. In the Flatiron section of Manhattan, on West 25th Street, is a bar and lounge owned by hip-hop artist and cigar smoker Jay-Z called the 40/40 Club. Named for the rare baseball achievement when a player hits 40 home runs and steals 40 bases in a single season, 40/40 is basically a sleek, streamlined sports bar where framed jerseys and signed boxing gloves go hand in hand with ultra-mod furniture and flat-panel plasma televisions. There are many private rooms, and it wouldn't be unusual to find an NBA player in one shooting pool, or a channel-surfing R&B star reclining on a leather sofa in another. One room in particular, which also happens to be the most understated, holds two towers of high-end Cognacs and a pair of armoire-style humidors full of cigars catalogued by a cigar menu. Although not a sanctioned cigar bar by the city, 40/40's smoking policy is somewhat ambiguous—show up in the cigar room on the right night at the right hour, and you just might be able to light up.
Not every neighborhood-type cigar lounge wishes to continually wrestle with the New York political machine, so some have abandoned hopes of obtaining a liquor license and opened lounges with BYOB policies. Two Manhattan cigar shops, Fumée in Washington Heights and Velvet Cigar Lounge in the East Village, which is actually one part mini—cigar factory, allow visitors to bring their own liquor. Each is a perfect example of quaint, inviting BYOB cigar lounges that bring this gentlemanly pastime to the residents of transforming neighborhoods throughout the city.
Or not in a neighborhood at all. Larry Flynt's Hustler Club New York, a gentlemen's club on the far west side of nonresidential Manhattan, features a heated rooftop deck where cigars are sold and cigar smoking is encouraged. While the deck features full drink service, there is no topless dancing allowed in that particular area, due to the intricacies of the law, although they have nothing to do with the smoking ban. The club is licensed for only 10,000 square feet of "topless activity," every inch of which is used inside the building. Of course, clothed dancers will make their rounds upstairs in hopes of enticing the patrons to return downstairs when finished with their cigars. The rooftop is open from April to October.
Respect should be shown to all of these establishments. Their owners have chosen a politically incorrect vocation and learned to adapt to the city's draconian smoking laws. But most importantly, the cigar-smoking establishments have learned to fight back, battling for their livelihood and our lifestyle choice. A cutting fee is a small price to pay to ensure that places like this stay in business. There are still many forces who want to see every last cigar bar shut down, who see you lighting up in the window of a cigar store and seethe with anger at the very sight of your private pleasure. New Yorkers have not allowed legislation to ban their cigar bars into oblivion. To the contrary, they keep opening, guaranteeing that Manhattan not only remains a smoking city, but also a world-class cigar-smoking destination.
For a video on the best places to smoke in New York City, click here.