Dress code: Black tie. The room: Wood paneled with high ceilings. The food: shellfish stations and filet mignon for dinner. The drink: open bar and bottomless wine glasses at the meal. Sound like the good old days? It was. Maybe even better than the good old days. It's happening regularly at the Union League in Philadelphia, and the bow to the past was on full display there the last week of September.
There are nostalgic events that are melancholy remembrances of times past. And, then, there are moments that honor and glorify the past in a present day showcase, a reminder that what was, can be again and again and again. The event was the Union League Heritage Cigar Club's formal dinner; this year, they honored Robert Levin, owner of Holt's Cigar Co. and the Ashton cigar brands, with the club's "Cigar Industry Family Service Award." There are almost too many reasons why Robbie, as all his friends in the business know him, should be given an award like this: the Levin family's nearly 70 years in the cigar business in Philadelphia; Holt's dedication to Philadelphia's downtown; and the family's true devotion to creating some of the best cigars on the market today—Ashton, La Aroma de Cuba and San Cristobal. And those are just the obvious ones.
About 125 people gathered that night at the Union League. It reminded me of the great Ritz-Carlton smokers that were held through the early 1990s, all true tributes to the good life associated with a fine, hand-rolled cigar. The men, as noted, were decked out in formal attire, and the women were dressed to the nines, too. The aroma of fine cigars filled the cocktail hour, held in one of the club's great ballrooms. I had the honor of introducing Robbie, and took the opportunity to tell the crowd about the many wonderful families that dominate the hand-rolled cigar industry. Robbie's family was in the room: his wife, Suzanne, his son Sathya, and his daughter Meera. Members of the Fuente family were there, too: Carlos Fuente Jr. and his daughter Liana, Cynthia Fuente and her son Carlos.
It was a fantastic evening. The food was great. The camaraderie better. There were a few ribald jokes—all in good taste of course—and by the time the port arrived on the table, I was on my fourth cigar of the night.
While the dinner showcased the Heritage Cigar Club's appreciation of a great cigar, we should all be so lucky to have a place like the Union League in our hometowns. They have a stellar in-house restaurant staffed by a former Four Seasons hotel chef; on a Wednesday night, it was packed even though the rest of the club was bustling with other private events, too. And, they have a dedicated cigar lounge in the building, a monument to Pennsylvania's more flexible smoking laws, which still allow indoor smoking in certain circumstances.
If the good old days were better than this, I'm not remembering them correctly.