Cigar Aficionado

Cigar Friendly New York

The New York City smoking ban has been in full swing for more than three weeks, but the smoke has yet to settle. Many of the city's most storied smoking haunts are applying for an exemption to the law.

Cigar smokers have been confused since word of the ban broke, uncertain as to where they would be able to puff in peace. Bar owners were confused as well, with one even calling Cigar Aficionado looking for guidance. The confusion grew when New York State banned smoking soon after, closing some of the loopholes opened with the city ban.

According to both state and city smoking legislation, cigar bars, officially known as tobacco bars, are the exception to the rule banning indoor smoking. To find out where an aficionado can stilll go, we set out to find the last smoking havens in New York.

Smoking continues at two Bar & Books -- Hudson Bar & Books on 636 Hudson Street, and Lexington Bar & Books on 1020 Lexington Ave. Mark Grossich, former owner of the chain, has filed for cigar bar status for two of his bars, the Campbell Apartment, located in Grand Central Terminal, and the Carnegie Club, on West 56th Street. Although smoking will continue at these establishments, he is upset with the new law.

"A smoking policy should have been my right as an owner to make," said Grossich. "I resent the backdoor way the secondhand smoke issue was used. It's hurting to owners."

On an April visit to Angelo & Maxie's on Park Avenue South in Manhattan, patrons were still puffing in the restaurant's cigar lounge, which is called Havana Rick's, and has its own ventilation system. As of May 1, that has all screeched to a halt. A once popular spot among aficionados, Havana Rick's still occupies the rear of the restaurant, but no longer allows smoking. Some construction appeared to be taking place; a waiter explained that the restaurant may reconfigure its lounge with a separate entrance from the restaurant.

Club Macanudo, the quintessential cigar bar, seems to be operating just as before. Executives at owner General Cigar Holdings Inc. would not comment on whether the lounge (which, despite its name, is not a private club) had filed for a cigar bar exemption, but on a recent visit the bar was as smoker friendly as ever, with virtually everyone smoking a cigar or cigarette. (Click here for more on Club Macanudo.)

The smoking continues at Aubette, a hip bar on East 27th Street. People were smoking cigars on a visit last week, and a manager in the back room -- where cigars have long been sold -- said Aubette was planning on applying for an exemption. A manager at the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel said that management is not permitting smoking, due to the new law, but intends to apply for an exemption.

The private Grand Havana Room on Fifth Avenue seems a likely candidate for cigar bar exemption and is still catering to its clientele. Stan Shuster, president of Grand Havana applied for cigar bar exemption, and he's confident it will be granted, he said. The sister bar in Beverly Hills is still in operation despite the California State smoking ban. It stands to reason that New York's Grand Havana has a good chance of making it as well. New York's Rules for exemption do not discriminate between private and public cigar bars.

Matt Paratore, the owner of North West, an Upper West Side restaurant with a second-floor cigar-friendly lounge and bar, called the law silly. "Cigars bring in customers," he said, "so the law would impact us initially. [Our] whole lounge is built around cigars and the humidor." North West still caters to smokers and is applying for an exemption.

The Oak Bar in the Plaza Hotel has long embraced cigar smokers, and has also filed for an exemption. Gary Schwierkert, regional vice president for Fairmont Hotels and managing director of the hotel, is confident that the smoking will continue.

"People have enjoyed cigars in the Oak Bar for decades; people come here to experience a part of history. Places like the Oak Bar and '21' deserve exemption," he said, bringing up the name of the famed former speakeasy where the last cigars were smoked in March.

'21' was forced to stop the cigar smoke because it fails to qualify as a cigar bar. The requirements are strict.

Cigar bars must have been opened prior to December 31, 2001, which eliminates the possibility of anyone ever opening a new cigar bar in the city. (This restriction prohibited Grossich from filing for exemption for his newest creation, World Bar, because it opened in 2003.) Cigar bars must also derive a minimum of 10 percent of total annual gross sales from the sale of tobacco products, including the rental of humidified cigar lockers. Vending machine revenues cannot be counted toward this minimum. Also, the application states that the sale of food must be "incidental to the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages," accounting for less than 40 percent of the total annual gross sales.

Under the provisions of the New York City law, restaurant owners were allowed to create separate ventilated areas for smoking. Even though this loophole was going to exist for only three years, several restaurant owners began constructing such rooms -- only to have their investments rendered worthless when the state law was passed and shut that loophole on March 26.

The owners of F.illi Ponte, an Italian restaurant on Desbrosses Street in TriBeCa, have long encouraged cigar smokers to puff away in their spacious lounge and private party rooms. The owners were in the process of expanding one of their private party rooms into a smoking room to adhere to the city law when the state law was passed, and now have put construction on hold. However, the restaurant currently offers customers a place to smoke in their outdoor cafe.

"We could lose a $20,000 investment," said GianLuca Rizza, general manager of F.illi Ponte. "We began expanding the lounge but have to wait now on the status of our application for exemption before we can continue." (Click here for more on F.illi Ponte.)

Even before the state law eliminated the possibility, many restaurants had decided not to invest in a smoking room. "Between the price and the space a smoking room would take up, we decided it just wasn't worth it to convert our private catering room into a smoking room," said Bryan Reidy, general manager of Gallagher's Steakhouse, which long allowed cigar smoking in its bar area. "We couldn't afford to give up the 350 square feet of space for nothing more than smoking. And the cost would be up over $50,000 anyway."

Frank's Steakhouse, which built a separately ventilated smoking area for diners to comply with the city's 1995 Smoke-Free Air Act, will soon no longer be able to allow smoking under the state law. The same holds true at Torre di Pisa, a West 44th Street Italian restaurant with a small smoking room. The eatery no longer allows smoking, but a manager said the restaurant was considering applying for a cigar bar exemption.

New York City steak houses such as Frank's and Gallagher's were legendary for casting their blessing on cigar smokers. Under the new restrictions, most restaurants and steak houses with cigar bars may have to reconfigure their spaces, or have cigars go by the wayside where the sale of food outweighs the sale of tobacco. Del Frisco's, Sparks Steak House, Smith & Wollensky, Gallagher's, Morton's, Ruth's Chris and Michael Jordan's the Steakhouse no longer allow smoking.

Walter Kapovic, manager of Sparks, said he still sells many cigars but no longer allows smoking -- the restaurant previously allowed cigar smoking at the bar and at the tables in the bar. He's already noticed a difference due to the law. "The dining business will not be affected by the ban," he said, "but the late-night bar doesn't bring in as much. People used to hang out at the bar for a smoke with a Scotch or Cognac after dinner; now they take their smokes and go."

Chad Wheeler, a manager with Smith & Wollensky, said the restaurant just sold the last of its cigars and is not allowing smoking indoors. "We're waiting to see what happens," he said, "but the ban definitely will hurt."

The law has improved business at Uncle Jack's Steakhouse in Bayside, Queens, which is applying for a cigar bar exemption. General manager Andy Senese said Uncle Jack's can no longer allow smoking throughout the restaurant, but still offers smokers a spot at the bar, as well as humidor rentals. "We are getting more nonsmokers in the dining area since the ban, and more smokers at the bar," he said, adding that he's seen many new faces from Nassau County -- which has its own smoking ban -- and Manhattan.

Mark Weissenberger contributed to this article.

Photos by Mike Marsh.

This list is a work in progress, and we encourage you to contact us to make it grow.

"Things are definitely getting worse and worse in New York and other cities (Detroit is part of a Michigan-wide smoking ban that prohibits all cigar smoking except for in special cigar bars, Chicago is similar). Now with Bloomberg banning smoking in Central Park, I feel that it's only a matter of time before the city circles back and starts to clamp down on cigar friendly lounges in the city (more then they have already). I'm in the city fairly often, so I'm always trying to keep up with cigar bars that you can still smoke in. There's a fairly up-to-date list here - If there are any other resources out there, I'd love to hear about them." —October 22, 2010 09:15 AM