Cigar Aficionado

Can you still smoke a cigar in New York City?

The New Yorker lands in his usual after-work lounge looking for rest, a cigar and a cocktail. He strolls up to the bar and orders Bourbon on the rocks. The buxom blonde bartender says, "Sorry, only juice drinks and white wine spritzers." The man casts a suspicious glance around the room and notices that the dark suits and black jackets of the typical patrons have been replaced with linen sport coats, tropical print shirts and Okabashi sandals. Vertigo sets in. Shaking his head, he hastily retreats to the corner of the room and finds a designer chaise lounge where his overstuffed leather chair used to be. On the verge of an utter breakdown, he reaches into his breast pocket and slides a Churchill from his cigar case. The sitar music skips to a halt.

The bartender jogs over. "Sir," she says, "there's no smoking in here."

"Wait…" The New Yorker takes a breath, attempting to stabilize the spinning room. "Where am I?"

Once a West Coast phenomenon, the antismoking movement has spread across the country. In New York City, smokers have fallen victim to a comprehensive smoking ban. Many metropolitans never thought it could happen, but on March 31, smoking was prohibited in all of the city's restaurants, nearly every bar, and virtually every indoor building through legislation championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

California passed the nation's first smoking ban in 1998, and since then, states from Utah to Delaware, as well as several cities, including Boston and Dallas, have followed suit. Florida's statewide smoking ban will go into effect in July, and Chicago is considering its own ban.

New York cigar smokers have been confused since word of the ban broke, uncertain as to where they might 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 on March 26 (that law goes into effect in July), eliminating some of the exemptions to the city ban.

A ray of hope exists. Cigar bars, officially known as "tobacco bars," are the last remaining havens for New York smokers determined to puff indoors.

Many of the city's most storied smoking haunts are applying for a tobacco bar exemption. They have until July 25 to submit a formal application, but earning the tobacco bar label means meeting a host of strict requirements. As this issue went to press, many establishments had already applied for an exemption, or intended to do so. To clarify exactly where an aficionado can still go, we set out on a quest to find these last smoking havens in the city that never sleeps.

In the heart of Manhattan, Grand Central Terminal perpetually buzzes with commuters. With towering ceilings, intricate fixtures and Roman columns, it has enough space and Old-World style to be the perfect place to smoke a cigar. Although you no longer can swagger to your platform with smoke billowing from your robusto, there are still two places in the Terminal where you can smoke: The Campbell Apartment and the Oyster Bar.

Mark Grossich, owner of The Campbell Apartment, was a New York cigar bar pioneer. He opened the city's first, known as Beekman Bar and Books, in 1990, and now he has filed for cigar bar status for two bars: The Campbell Apartment, the restored former office of business tycoon John W. Campbell, and The Carnegie Club, a well-stocked cocktail and music lounge at West 56th Street and Fifth Avenue.

The Campbell Apartment seems made for cigars, with its ornate, almost overdone woodwork, inviting couches and chairs, and impossibly high ceilings. While the place seems to meet the requirements of having a cigar bar, the new law upsets Grossich.

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

Take a last pull on your cigar and hurry down two flights of stairs from The Campbell Apartment into the guts of Grand Central to the Oyster Bar. Light up again when you reach the lounge or the saloon, two areas that still allow smoking.

The vaulted stone ceilings give the main dining room and lounge a bright and airy feel, belying the fact that you're well underground. While smoking is permitted in the lounge, a cigar smoker would feel most at home in the back-room saloon.

Walk through the dining area, past the long counter where oyster-swallowing commuters and an eclectic crowd of New Yorkers sup on crustaceans, and push through the saloon's parlor doors. It's a boisterous scene, with Fifth Avenue cosmopolitans casually chattering around red-checked tablecloths, amidst bustling waitresses carrying piles of seafood. The smoke comes mainly from cigarettes, but there is the occasional cigar smoker, picking from the room's decent wine list and savoring arguably the best selection of oysters in town.

As with many back-room cigar bars, especially these days, the saloon has a speak-easy feel. One could almost picture the tables changing into roulette wheels, and bars turning over for an on-the-sly game of craps.

Grossich no longer owns the Bar and Books lounges, but two are left. Hudson Bar and Books, located at 636 Hudson Street, and Lexington Bar and Books, located at 1020 Lexington Avenue, provide the subdued ambience of a library with menus of fine spirits and cigars in place of the Dewey decimal system. Bar and Books owner Raju Mirchandani said the bars remain cigar-friendly and are applying for tobacco bar status.

Getting the exemption "shouldn't be much of a problem for us," says Mirchandani. "Our only care is that [the city and state] want us to show that our business is cigar-driven when we never really pushed the sale of cigars. [But] cigars are the driving forces of my bars. Much of our sales is from cigar smokers who get a drink but bring their own cigars." The two Bar and Books cigar bars remain from the original chain of four, which included Beekman Bar and Books and Carnegie Bar and Books, which is now The Carnegie Club.

The smoking also continues at Aubette, a hip bar on East 27th Street, though you may not know it when first walking in. The rear smoking area is separate from the main bar area, sectioned off by ceiling-high velvety curtains. People in the know relax in sunk-back leather loungers around coffee tables and iron pedestal ashtrays. It has a small bar with a cigar display; fine spirits line the wall. On a visit in April, a manager in the back room -- where cigars have long been sold -- said Aubette was planning on applying for an exemption to the ban.

North West seems like a typical Upper West Side restaurant, but a haven for cigar smokers awaits upstairs. The entire second floor is a cigar-friendly lounge and bar, complete with humidified lockers and cigars for sale. The thick slats are drawn and a large steel door closes off the upstairs area from the stairway. We checked for the eye slot -- there wasn't one.

Matt Paratore, owner of North West, calls the law silly. "Cigars bring in customers," he says, "so the law would impact us initially. [Our] whole lounge is built around cigars and the humidor." Paratore is applying for an exemption. (Even without an exemption, North West can accommodate smokers in its outdoor seating area, although only 25 percent of those seats can be open to smokers.)

While these back-room gems remain cigar friendly, at least one hallowed spot for cigars is reserving judgment. A manager at the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel says that management is no longer permitting smoking. The bar has not yet decided whether to seek an exemption. (The Cognac Room, a plush, private lounge at the St. Regis, has also been rendered smokeless.)

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. It would appear to be the perfect candidate for such status, and when we visited in late April, the East 63rd Street bar was as smoker friendly as ever. Virtually everyone in the room was smoking a cigar or cigarette. A bartender, when asked permission to light up a cigar, responded, "You can do anything you want."

Midtown's elegant Grand Havana Room remains cigar friendly. "It's all about the cigar smoking," says president Stan Shuster, who opened the private aerie atop 666 5th Avenue in 1996. "We've always been a cigar bar providing a place for smokers to go." The club offers a panorama of Manhattan, in addition to 600 humidor lockers caring for the smokes of members who include politicians, celebrities and Wall Street executives.

Shuster has applied for exemption, and he says he's confident it will be granted. The sister bar in Beverly Hills is still in operation despite the California smoking ban. It stands to reason that New York's Grand Havana has a good chance of making it as well, although New York's rules for exemption do not discriminate between private and public cigar bars.

The Oak Bar in the Plaza Hotel had long been a haven for well-heeled cigar smokers. The wood-paneled lounge seemed set to apply for a tobacco bar exemption and remained smoky until late May, when it was fined by the city and forced to comply with the law.

"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 ë21' deserve exemption," Gary Schweirkert, managing director of the Plaza, told Cigar Aficionado in April. During the same interview, he added that the Oak Bar would apply for cigar-bar exemption. It never did, and attorneys for the Oak Bar were informed by city health officials in May that it would not have qualified after all.

To qualify as a tobacco bar, an establishment 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 annual revenues from the sale of tobacco products, which can include revenues from 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.

The provisions of the city law allow restaurant owners to create separate ventilated areas for smoking. Even though this exemption has a three-year limit, several restaurant owners began constructing such rooms. Their investments were rendered worthless when the state law was passed on March 26, superceding the city's exemption.

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 expanding one of those rooms into a smoking area to adhere to the city law when the state law was passed, and now have put construction on hold, relegating smokers to seats in the restaurant's outdoor cafe.

"Our revenue has dropped 35 percent since we lost the lounge as a smoking area," says Gianluca Rizza, general manager of F.illi Ponte. "A lot of our guests would go into the lounge for a cigar and brandy, but that's not happening anymore."

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," says Bryan Reidy, general manager of Gallagher's Steak House, 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.

Havana Rick's, the cigar lounge at Angelo & Maxie's steak house on Park Avenue South, is applying for an exemption, according to an assistant manager, but smoking is not currently allowed.

Walter Kapovic, manager of Sparks Steak House, says he still sells many cigars, even though his patrons can no longer smoke them in his restaurant. He's already noticed a drop in business. "The dining business will not be affected by the ban," he says, "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, says the restaurant just sold the last of its cigars and is not allowing smoking indoors. "We're waiting to see what happens," he says, "but the ban definitely will hurt."

The ban has actually helped some places. Swan's Bar & Grill, located on Pearl Street, not far from Ground Zero, suffered greatly in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Food revenues had dropped "about 40 percent," says co-owner Shay Leavy, who had to lay off his employees and close the kitchen four days after the ban took effect.

Laying off the staff now allows Swan's to permit smoking. As the city law was crafted as an employee protection law, the rare bar that doesn't have employees, such as Swan's, can permit smoking.

"It's horrible timing," says Leavy, "but we are seeing new faces. People that have been coming in for a long time are spreading the word."

The boom at Swan's could be short-lived. When the state law goes into effect in July, the loophole for bars without employees will be yanked shut. The only exemption under the state law is for tobacco bars; Swan's hopes its sales of cigarettes will be enough to make it a tobacco bar. The owners have applied for an exemption.

The ban has also improved business at Uncle Jack's Steakhouse in Bayside, Queens, which is applying for a cigar bar exemption. Director of Operations Andy Senese says 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 says, adding that he's seen many new faces from Nassau County -- which has its own smoking ban -- and Manhattan.

Bennett Breen, a manager at Aubette, says, "Business now is as good as it ever was." The establishment, which opened in 1996, is now a relative old-timer in its Gramercy neighborhood. Locals who have frequented the place for years are now mixing with newcomers
who are visiting because they hear they can smoke. Some are cigar smokers, others are cigarette smokers.

Cigarette and cigar smokers historically haven't meshed well, but today they stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of dwindling venue choices. At Merchants NY, a posh restaurant and cigar bar on the Upper East Side, cigarettes are as evident as cigars in the cigar bar downstairs, which is packed with a hip 25-and-up crowd. Reinforcing the idea that New York has something for everyone is Soho's Circa Tabac. Dubbed as a cigarette lounge with a 1920s flair, Circa Tabac has a cigarette menu, with 200 types from which to choose, plus an eight-cigar menu, with brands such as Partagas and Macanudo. Business is booming, and cigar and cigarette smokers share the space. "The same people who were calling me a moron are calling me a visionary," says co-owner Lee Ringelheim.

You might even sample a smoke with rapper Jay Z at his new venture the 40/40 club, which was slated for a June 18 opening as this issue went to press. Despite the prohibition on new cigar bars, co-owner Desiree Gonzalez claimed that the club already had the city exemption in hand, and had applied for state exemption.

"Jay calls it a cigar club," says Gonzalez, who owns 40/40 with Jay Z and Juan Perez. "It's a cigar bar, sports bar and a hip lounge."

40/40 will consist of 8,000 square feet of plasma screens, crushed suede and slate paneling, reflecting the extravagant taste of the cigar-loving, hip-hop superstar, who is often seen puffing on a cigar in his music videos. The cigar room will feature two cabinet humidors stocked with an assortment of high-end smokes.

One of the more unusual places that is applying for an exemption is Scores, a topless bar and nightclub on the Upper East Side that still allows smoking. Scores could most likely survive the resurgence of Prohibition, so it's no surprise that it may come out of the smoking ban unscathed. Scores spokesman Lonnie Hanover says the gentlemen's club has been a cigar bar for 10 years, and has humidor lockers belonging to many high rollers. "Scores loves cigars and the gentlemen that smoke them," says Hanover. Smoking in the main room and at the bar is still permitted, though your smokes are not allowed in the restaurant.

Ah, but that's the way New York works. Smoking has been cut back all over, but there's still something for everybody.

 

Mark Weissenberger contributed to this article. For more on the New York City and other smoking bans around the country, visit www.cigaraficionado.com.