Walk into Casablanca in Asheville, North Carolina, and you could find the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
First, though, you’ll likely walk into the bar part of Casablanca and will look for the door to the cigar shop. You have to enter that from the outside, as North Carolina law requires that no more than 30 percent of a drinking establishment’s sales derive from tobacco. The cigar store here is technically a separately incorporated business from the bar next door, which also has a small humidor and sells cigars, but not enough to exceed the limit. Together, the two make for a great cigar lounge experience.
To be clear, at Casablanca, no outside cigars are permitted. (Also, no cigarette smoking is allowed.) For this day’s adventure, an Avo Syncro South America Ritmo Long Torpedo, at about $17, will pair with a Basil Hayden Bourbon.
The best-selling cigar brands at Casablanca are Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story, My Father, Padrón and Ashton. The humidor is stocked with most of your favorites: Alec Bradley, Avo, Camacho, CAO, Cohiba, Davidoff, Diamond Crown, E.P. Carrillo, H. Upmann, Hoyo de Monterrey, La Aroma de Cuba, La Flor Dominicana, Liga Privada, Macanudo, Montecristo, Nat Sherman, Oliva, Partagas, Punch, Rocky Patel, Room101, San Cristobal and several others.
Lockers, 24 of them, can be rented for $600 a year each and include 10 percent off boxes of cigars, among other benefits. Before entering the bar, one first must pay the $2 per day or $5 per year membership required for this “private bar.” North Carolina does not allow “bars” to operate solely as drinking establishments, but requires that 30 percent of an establishment’s sales come from food. Casablanca does not sell food.
The seats at the bar face two TVs with sports on them. There are ample choices from the list of Bourbons and Scotches, including six Jefferson’s Bourbons, three versions of Glenfiddich, and three Macallan single-malts, among many other high-end spirits that are not on the menu. There are also Irish whiskies, ryes, rums, and Japanese varietals. Anything you like, including specialty seasonal cocktails, can be poured over a large square ice cube.
Casablanca has 49 seats, including 13 at the bar. Most of the seats are the familiar overstuffed leather chairs and sofas. The back of the bar is gray bricks, while the bar-top is leathered granite. The back bar has a bobblehead of Carlos Fuente Jr. sitting on it. Above the bar are hanging glass lamps with Edison bulbs. Proper cigar ashtrays abound.
Gray bricks also surround the fireplace at the end of the room. Behind that wall is a conference room that can be rented out, fully equipped with WiFi and a TV, along with snacks. Photos of the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway line the walls of the main room, along with images from a nearby river. Some from Chile are there, too.
Casablanca is the creation of Sam Souhail, who named the place after his hometown in Morocco. Souhail opened the cigar bar in January 2017 after taking two years to design and outfit the building he had bought. Souhail immigrated to North Carolina from Morocco in 2005.
“I wanted to go to culinary school,” Souhail explained, “and I worked in tobacco stores in Durham to put some money aside and later opened in Asheville because I saw there was a need.” The move to Asheville from Durham came in 2011 so Souhail’s wife could attend a well-regarded local culinary school. Souhail opened the cigar bar.
The bar at Casablanca is filling up before dinner. Still, the warm weather is not a big attraction.
“Winter is our busy season,” said bartender Josh Williamson. It gets plenty chilly, he allowed, and that makes Casablanca a refuge of sorts.
The cigar bar concept in Asheville’s Biltmore Village has worked. So much so that Souhail is planning a second one in Hendersonville, less than 30 miles south, to open in 2020.
That location will incorporate lessons learned from the first one. First, they’ll add a patio. Then they’re planning on a kitchen so they can serve food. Souhail’s wife will be in charge of the culinary.
In Asheville, as in many places, there are cigar stores where you can smoke a cigar. Casablanca Cigar Bar has raised the game in North Carolina’s artsy mountain city, and Souhail believes his philosophy has contributed to Casablanca’s success.
“Our rule is that you cannot make people have a bad day,” Souhail explained. “If they have had a bad day, we want to make sure they leave here happier than when they came in. If they came in happy, we want to help them celebrate with a cigar.”
Casablanca Cigar Bar
18 Lodge St.
Asheville, NC 28803
Open every day from 10 a.m. to midnight