The first thing you'll notice when you enter the 200-year-old brick building that houses Club Habana, Charleston's only full-scale cigar bar, is that you have to walk through a cigar store. Funny, that! Yet they're two totally separate enterprises. Tinder Box Internationale is a two-room shop bordered entirely with humidified glass cases. There's no walk-in humidor, but the cases are packed with smokes of all stripes from most major premium brands.
You wouldn't describe Tinder Box's prices as cheap ($4 for a Padron 3000, $6.50 for a Macanudo Duke of Devon, $8.25 for an Avo No. 3), but even so, the store's presence is a blessing. It means you won't have to pay cigar-bar markup if you forget to bring smokes to Club Habana--until 11 p.m., at least, when Tinder Box closes. (Club Habana does have a small bar-top humidor for late-night emergencies.) Far from fostering competition, this symbiotic relationship seems to satisfy all concerned. Says Club Habana's general manager, Barbara Rice, "Certainly we benefit from each other. They sell to all of our customers, and the people downstairs point us out to shoppers."
As if at the entrance to a Southern-style mansion, a wide set of U-shaped stairs leads dramatically from the Tinder Box to a balcony overlooking the staircase. Here's where Brandy Culbreth, Club Habana's beautiful head bartender, works a 10-stool bar. Have her make you one of the bar's 16 specialty Martinis. Some of the best I tried were the Habana Lemonade (Ketel One, passion fruit, shaken with lemon, $6.25), the Lowcountry Martini (Di Saronno Amaretto, Piper Sonoma Brut and a splash of cranberry juice, $7.25) and the best of them all, the Espresso Martini (Kahlua, Ketel One and a shot of espresso, $11.50). Don't freak about the price of this last one--it's a two-person cocktail.
On either side of the bar are rooms adorned with plush velvet club chairs, comfortable chenille couches, original Charleston fireplaces, wood-paneled walls and floor-to-ceiling windows. The color scheme sings local tradition--forest greens, deep maroons, sedate plaids and stripes. It's enough to conjure up the full range of a Yankee's conflicted feelings about the South, or at least inspire an affected drawl. The three cozy rooms really do give Club Habana the feeling that you're drinking and smoking in a historic Battery estate on Charleston's famous waterfront. It's also the perfect setting for a single-malt, such as a Glenlivet on the rocks ($6.75) or an 18-year Macallan ($18.95), if you've come to toast a fat business deal.
It was 10 p.m. on a Friday when my fiancee and I arrived, and we had to wait for a table. The music of the Counting Crows cut the din of conversation emanating from the diverse crowd. A group of 30-ish men in tuxedos and women in low-cut cocktail dresses hovered over the bar, munching on bacon-wrapped scallops ($9) and mini Beef Wellingtons ($9). A blue jean-clad party of five reclined on couches around a table, smoking cigarettes and nibbling on a Stilton plate ($10) piled high with cheese, fruit and French bread. Couples sat at smaller, more private tables in the corners, sampling deserts like the out-of-this-world peanut butter silk pie ($3.95). Most of the appetizers and desserts are tasty, but steer clear of the chicken cashew spring rolls ($8)--they were dry and flavorless. A full dinner menu is not available. "We have most of our desserts and finger foods catered," says Rice. "Our desserts, which are made locally by the Pampered Palate, change by the week."
The mostly American wine list is serviceable, if not extensive, with highlights including a Ridge Zinfandel ($42) and a Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc ($27). No vintage dates are listed for the table wines, but that may be because the offerings change monthly. "I think people get tired of coming in and seeing the same thing all the time," says Rice. "Change keeps people interested, keeps them coming back."
There's also a range of Ports, Madeiras and Sherries. The star of the Port list is the Warres Vintage 1977, but you can get it only by the bottle ($225). A nice selection of other vintage and tawny Ports are available by the glass.
Spend more than a few minutes in Club Habana and you'll notice something unique for a cigar bar--the place is rich with females. Not only are there almost as many women as men dragging on Dominicans, but also women who neither smoke nor seem bothered by the atmosphere. Rice gives a reason: "Altogether we have six air filtration systems. This makes the bar comfortable for women who don't enjoy cigars." It's true. My fiancee seemed pleasantly surprised that she could breath in a small room stuffed with 20 smokers.
And the women aren't just customers. All eight employees are female, from Rice the manager to Culbreth the bartender to the other bartenders and waitresses. They're all nice as hell, wonderfully bubbly and damn good at what they do. If you're going to sit at a table, request Alisha O'Neill's section. She'll make you feel like one should feel while smoking a cigar and sipping a $16.95 glass of Martell Cordon Bleu Cognac--rich. "Men are so blown away that women can have so much knowledge about cigars and Ports," Rice says. "I also think it makes women feel more comfortable frequenting the bar."
So if you find yourself in Charleston, you must hit Club Habana. Summer brings live music, usually every Wednesday and Friday night. Right now the club is featuring cool jazz, but as the season heats up, so will the beats. Rice says she's looking to diversify the music over the next couple months.
Nelson Taylor is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.
177 Meeting Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
Monday - Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Friday, 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Sunday, 8 p.m. to midnight