If Sheldon Jacobs has his way, the "civilized cigar parlor" he created will soon undergo a metamorphosis. Jacobs, a world-renowned cigar connoisseur, will reposition Shelly's Back Room as "the American tavern." This nominal change seems aimed mostly at communicating that the restaurant is not just a cigar bar.
At lunch, the idea of catering to nonsmokers is working. Several of the tables consistently accommodate people who "don't do cigars." The $140,000 Kleen-Aire Fresh Indoor Purification System, which is based on a principle called "thermal displacement ventilation" (ask Britt Meyer, the manager, to explain it to you), is replacing the air in the room every two minutes.
"We wanted to create a club feeling for the common man," says Jacobs, the chairman and chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based Woodroast Systems Inc., parent to the Back Room concept, which began as an adjunct to its full-size restaurant in suburban Maryland. Jacobs sees a further difference between his cigar-friendly establishment and the image of many cigar bars. "Some of these places are pretentious," Jacobs says. "They're uppity. So, I wanted to have an upscale feeling for people who hadn't experienced a club before. A place where a guy who owns a gas station can meet the elite of Washington."
Shelly's Back Room succeeds. A former chairman of a presidential commission on physical fitness shares a table with lobbyists from U.S. Tobacco. The former press secretary of a former president enjoys a cigar after work. Others are just there to have a light dinner before attending a show at the nearby Warner or National theaters.
The menu is ample and reasonably varied for a kitchen run by two people. Start with one of the three sausages--preferably the one called Fire--if you have been smoking a cigar before you eat. It goes well with Shelly's own Birch Bay microbrewed beer. The smoked oysters are perfection and the campfire chicken wings are prepared in the restaurant's patented slow-roaster--not fried like most--which locks in the chicken flavor under a deceptively spicy jerk seasoning. The double chicken breast sandwich can be garnished with swaths of sweetly smoked bacon worthy of its own EKG and topped with a roasted red pepper mayo.
In general, the food is accessible. Nothing fancy. Very comforting. Yeah, yeah, they have salads and steaks, too. And lots of cigars. Thirty different makes, starting at $4.50. Standouts among the list are four sizes of La Gloria Cubana, Ashton, 8-9-8, enough Arturo Fuente Hemingways to merit a second drink, and five from Paul Garmirian, who lives in nearby McLean, Virginia. Shelly's also carries 10 cigars from Punch, including the Vintage No. 40 Natural, a selection made exclusively for Philadelphia's Holt's Cigars.
As impressive as anything else about Shelly's Back Room is that at 9:30 on a school night--Washington is an early burg--the place is hopping. People are smoking and drinking and eating in an area of downtown that used to empty out hours earlier and from which some of the less knowledgeable commuters flee for fear of their safety. But now with Shelly's Back Room, there's a better place than the long ride home to enjoy a cigar. --Alejandro Benes
Alejandro Benes is a writer and business executive in Washington, D.C.
Shelly's Back Room
1331 F Street, NW
Phone (202) 737-3003
Dinner Entrées from $6.95