Philadelphia is one of my favorite cities in the world. I could not have said that even five years ago, but now Center City, the revitalized and constantly improving downtown area, is a beehive of activity virtually all day. There's good reason for that. People are moving back in. New restaurants with chefs who have grown up locally and some who have returned to open their own places make for a culinary wonderland. The musical and live theater offerings have generally been strong, not to mention the excellent art museums and top-ranked universities.
If the Philadelphia that a cigar lover could enjoy was missing anything, it was cigar bars, and the purported brotherly love. Up until 2007, there might have been a few restaurants and patios where one could enjoy a cigar. The antismoking law took effect that year and basically banned smoking everywhere indoors, and a lot of the outdoors. One exception was always the bar above Holt's Cigar Co., the city's preeminent cigar store owned by Robert Levin, the same man who established the Ashton cigar brand.
Until last year, the bar was called Mahogany on Walnut. That's now gone. In the same space, but expanded, above Holt's (which has its own area for smokers) now is the Ashton Cigar Bar. The bar (as well as the building) is owned by Holt's and is a galactic improvement over what was there before.
"It was a natural," says Levin. "People need a place to smoke. The people before weren't doing the job, so we took it over. We want this to be the signature for our brand."
The space is now sleek, modern and warm at the same time. Floors and walls of different exotic woods complement distressed brick walls. Get to the top of the stairs and you'll see a bar topped with Venetian Carrara marble (the one with the veins). What's behind the bar is even more alluring: 200 whiskies, 300 spirits, 20 specialty craft cocktails, 6 draught beers, 20 bottled beers and more than 50 wines. And so little time!
The best-selling cocktail so far is the Ashton Martini. This is a signature concoction of "Grey Goose Vodka or Bombay Sapphire Gin served ice-cold, seasoned with Balvenie 12-Year Old Doublewood Scotch and garnished with sharp provolone stuffed olives." Yes, now bring me my cheesesteak, please.
The food menu is a work in progress, presently offering only cold dishes like a cheese and salumi plate and mixed nuts. The bar will not get a full kitchen, but there's talk of partnering with local restaurants to get food delivered should a guest want.
In the back is one of the most complete and impressive humidors in any cigar bar in the world with more than 200 different smokes. As you might imagine, there's a lot of Ashton, San Cristobal and La Aroma de Cuba. Further, some of the free world's finest are available, from Alec Bradley to Tatuaje; with La Flor Dominicana, My Father and Padrón in between. Prices are only slightly more than in retail stores. (See the current list and prices at www.ashtoncigarbar.com)
"We act like a private club," Levin says, "but we're open to the public."
You probably won't have the chance to see the roof, but if you did, you'd see the technology that makes the air in the lounge clear. Nearly the entire roof is covered with huge air exchangers.
Levin is a stickler for details. As he shows off the humidor, he notes the need for more light on a couple of shelves so that patrons can see the cigars. Levin explains that building the Ashton Cigar Bar was a labor of love, but labor it was.
"This took a year to build after we got all the permits," Levin says, "and it took a year for the city to sign off."
The décor is simple, but elegant. Black leather with red accents is featured in the lounge's comfortable chairs and sofas, with Ashton cigar ashtrays on every coffee table. The stools at the bar are red leather and comfortable enough to watch the entire game on the two TVs on the wall. Dress is business casual, a little more casual during the day than on the weekends. The bar is most crowded from Thursday through the weekend.
The Ashton Cigar Bar accomplishes more than you could expect in a city that is so unfriendly to smokers. It's right downtown and easy to get to after a night out to dinner or a show. The best thing about the bar, though, is that you're going to feel the love that went into making this a state-of-the art destination for that moment you have available to relax and enjoy that spectacular cigar you might not even have met yet.
Ashton Cigar Bar
1522 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19102
Monday through Friday: 4 p.m. - 2 a.m.
Saturday through Sunday: 12 p.m. - 2 a.m.