Last October's Cigar Aficionado Big Smoke in Los Angeles took place under the stern governance of California's new law that bans smoking in most places of employment. From the get-go, zealous local regulators covered the cigar extravaganza at the Century Plaza Hotel like a wet blanket, determined at all cost to prevent smoking in a dining area. It seemed as if every time I turned around I faced a no-smoking sign--this at a cigar event!
As the festivities drew to a close, I left the downstairs function rooms and took an escalator up to the lobby, ascending, to my amusement, into a swirling miasma of cigar smoke. There, several dozen contented gentlemen and ladies were openly--and legally--enjoying their stogies, along with adult beverages, in the lobby bar, without a sign or regulator in sight. (Areas of hotel lobbies, bars and clubs are currently exempt from the new law.)
Such are the contradictions one finds in Southern California, where a sweeping no-smoking regulation would seem to have utterly outlawed enjoyment of cigars--only it hasn't.
L.A. is smokin'. Just try to get a last-minute reservation at Hamilton's, the cigar bar next to the Wine Merchant of Beverly Hills. Or drive down the coast, pull into the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey and follow the faint scent of Dominican leaf to the hotel's Library bar, where local cigar lovers like to hold court. On a warm summer night, reserve an outdoor table at Schatzi on Main in Santa Monica and light up with impunity. If anybody beefs, tell 'em Ah-nold (as in Schwarzenegger, who owns the joint) said it was OK.
The long arm of the law notwithstanding, entrepreneurs in the L.A. hospitality industry have figured out a number of legal ways to accommodate cigar smoking patrons. One method is to put dining tables outdoors. In Southern California, dining alfresco is an option many months of the year. Just remember it's not tropical here and evening temperatures often dip down to chilly levels. Although most outdoor dining areas in L.A. are protected or semi-protected by wind breaks, and most also have propane heaters, a jacket or wrap is often needed.
Following is a sampling of some of the most popular places in the Los Angeles area to enjoy a fine cigar, ranging from tobacconists to nightclubs and private clubs, to hotel and restaurant bars. Many additional L.A.-area restaurant, hotel and club bars, as well as tobacconists, accommodate cigar smokers, so it's best to call and check, particularly since an establishment's cigar policy can depend on who's on duty.
A final, sobering note: All this could change as of Jan. 1. Unless other preemptive legislation passes, the new antismoking law's other shoe will drop on New Year's Day, banning smoking in California bars.
The Beverly Hills Pipe & Tobacco Co.
218 North Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills
The TV is nearly always on in this old-fashioned shop that sells more than 70 brands of cigars. Mornings, customers pop in for a smoke and monitor their investments on the business channel; in the afternoon, customers watch sporting events over a cigar or two.
The Big Easy
12604 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City
(818) 762-EASY (3279)
A large neon sign above this Ventura Boulevard storefront proclaims CIGARS; in the window, a smaller neon display spells out "Fine Cigars--Smoking Room--Private Humidors--Sanctuary." The latter is indeed found at the Big Easy, a comfortable, low-key lounge decorated with funky vintage furnishings. Technically, this is a cigar store; there's no liquor license or food service, but patrons hang out here for hours chewing the fat and enjoying their smokes.
Century City Tobacco Shoppe
10250 Santa Monica Boulevard (Century City Shopping Center), Los Angeles
Century City Tobacco Shoppe offers a full line of cigars and accessories, including humidors, cutters, lighters and cigar books.
Davidoff of Geneva
232 Via Rodeo/North Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills
This sleek boutique offers an array of luxury merchandise, from sterling cigar ashtrays to Montecristi Fino Panama hats. Davidoff is renovating an upstairs smoking club, the Keep, set to reopen in late spring.
Alfred Dunhill of London
201B North Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills
Take a break from having your Dunhill suit tailored and settle into an armchair in the upper level humidor of this London-based establishment. Dunhill offers a full line of cigars, humidors and accessories and also maintains private lockers in the humidor.
Gus's Smoke Shop
13420 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks
A Valley institution since 1927, this shop has an adjacent 800-square-foot private smoking club with overstuffed chairs, a pool table and poker tables; the membership fee is $500 a year and members receive a 20 percent store discount.
Thomas Hinds Tobacconist
9632 South Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills
This attractive storefront just steps from Rodeo Drive houses a lounge area with comfortable chairs and plenty of magazines, and a spacious walk-in humidor with a wide selection of cigars. Humidors, cigar cutters and cases, lighters and a wealth of other necessary paraphernalia are available.
The Tinder Box
2729 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica
This tobacco shop offers a wide array of cigars and accessories and has a walk-in humidor. While smoking is permitted in the store, it has no lounge area.
CIGAR BARS AND CLUBS
Grand Havana Room
301 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills
You have to cultivate a current member to get into the Grand Havana Room. This exclusive private club, operated by United Restaurants Inc. (which owns On Canon, the restaurant downstairs), was closed to new members last year after admitting 400 who were willing to pony up the $2,000 initiation and $150 monthly membership fees. Once inside the elegantly furnished domed room, you may admire the vast, glass-walled walk-in humidor (with 340 private lockers rented to members, including Tony Danza, Mel Gibson, Joe Mantegna and Milton Berle), sip a cocktail at the bar, lounge in a leather-upholstered armchair or dine on an outdoor balcony. Look for Grand Havana Rooms opening in New York, Miami and Washington, D.C.
9713 South Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills
Sumptuously overdecorated with antiques and memorabilia from actor George Hamilton's personal collection (note the red, GSH-monogrammed horse blanket that is casually thrown over a sofa arm), Hamilton's is the consummate Beverly Hills cigar bar. Hamilton and wine-purveyor-to-the-stars Dennis Overstreet (of the Wine Merchant of Beverly Hills) collaborated on this establishment, which boasts a humidor and several private rooms. Hamilton's has a full bar; you can also bring your bottles purchased from the adjacent Wine Merchant's stock for a corkage fee. Appetizers and light snacks are served. Reservations are suggested; jackets for men are preferred in the bar and required in the Raj Room, where entertainment is offered after 8:30 p.m.
245 East Olive Avenue, Suite 100, Burbank
Downtown Burbank may seem like an unlikely place for a cigar club, but Havana Studios draws an eclectic crowd from nearby television, film and recording studios. Owned by Nick Nikkah of Red Carpet Wines & Spirits of Glendale, Havana Studios offers a spacious clubroom, a comprehensive list of fine wines, beers and spirits, a cigar boutique and a walk-in humidor with lockers. Memberships are $750 for the initiation fee and $100 a month, which includes a $50 monthly credit toward cigar and accessory purchases.
Philip Dane's Cigar Lounge
9669 South Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills
Just up the street from Hamilton's, this redwood-paneled, retro-themed lounge attracts a crowd of young, unpretentious folk who like to select their cigars from the walk-in humidor and to place their drink orders with one of Philip Dane's comely cigar girls. Dane, 29, explains, "I wanted a place where I felt comfortable at any hour of the day or night, whether I was wearing ripped jeans or an Armani suit." Dane has a beer and wine license and has applied for a full liquor license; a catered buffet is offered nightly. VIP memberships are available for $800 annually, which includes a $50 monthly merchandise credit.
CIGAR FRIENDLY RESTAURANTS AND BARS
3835 Cross Creek Road, Malibu
Bambu permits smoking at tables on its spacious patio. Owner Jeanette Farr holds frequent cigar nights on the patio; call for the schedule.
624 South La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles
Last year, Campanile installed a glassed-in humidor just past the maitre d' stand, and the restaurant's bar is now a favored evening spot for cigar loving devotees of great Italian food and wine. You've enjoyed cigars with single malt Scotch and Cognac; now, try a fine smoke with one of Campanile's 70 grappas.
144 Pine Avenue, Long Beach
Upstairs from Mum's restaurant, this nightclub is open, with a cover charge, on Friday and Saturday evenings for dancing and live music. There's a full bar and, in the billiard room, a spacious humidor with a wide selection of smokes.
8800 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood
One of the hottest see-and-be-seen places in town is also cigar friendly. Owner Bernard Erpicum has placed the 60-seat patio dining area under a tent and, rain or shine, the outdoor tables are now politely fought over by Eclipse's cigar loving patrons. Eclipse holds regular cigar dinners; call for the schedule.
2930 Bristol Boulevard, Costa Mesa
"Pre-Castro Cuba" is the theme of this new restaurant--need we say more? Opened last year in the Lab, an Orange County shopping mall, Habana has quickly become a favorite for its authentic Cuban cuisine and retro decor. The restaurant maintains a humidor, and after 10 p.m. cigar smoking is permitted at the bar and at tables on the patio.
McCormick & Schmick's
206 North Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills
633 West Fifth Street, 4th Floor, Los Angeles
111 North Los Robles, Pasadena
The Beverly Hills branch of this upscale Portland, Oregon-based seafood chain boasts outdoor tables in a sheltered courtyard in the Via Rodeo development, where cigar smoking is permitted. The outdoor dining area is just steps away from the Davidoff store, but the restaurant also offers a selection of cigars from its own humidor. The downtown L.A. location permits cigar smoking in the main bar after 8 p.m. and on the patio. The Pasadena branch permits cigar smoking in the bar.
1147 Third Street, Santa Monica
Michael's offers a well-stocked humidor and permits cigar smoking in the bar and, late in the evening, at tables in the garden.
Arnie Morton's of Chicago
435 South La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles
This popular steakhouse permits cigar smoking in the bar and runs cigar events throughout the year.
1451 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica
Remi's owner, Jivan Tabibian, is a cigar buff; this popular Italian restaurant has outdoor tables where cigar smoking is permitted. A private room can also be reserved.
2435 Main Street, Santa Monica
Röckenwagner has a few outdoor tables where cigar smoking is permitted; tables may be reserved on warm evenings.
Schatzi on Main
3110 Main Street, Santa Monica
Feel free to light up in the bar or at a table in the well-sheltered, and heated, courtyard. The Schatzi humidor offers about 10 selections. A four-course cigar dinner is held on the first Monday of each month ($75 per person, reservations required).
The Viper Room
8852 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood
Thursday nights, this nightspot (Johnny Depp is a co-owner) becomes Mr. Phat's Royal Martini Club under the stewardship of host/promoter Dean R. Miller, who by day is a mild-mannered sales associate at Davidoff of Geneva. Stop by after 10 p.m. to jive to live swing music, sip an icy Martini and enjoy a fine cigar.
CIGAR FRIENDLY HOTEL BARS
701 Stone Canyon Road, Los Angeles
After picking your way through the circuitous, hilly streets that snake through this exclusive residential neighborhood, the bar at the Hotel Bel-Air seems particularly welcoming. This intimate lounge draws lots of cigar lovers who appreciate the cozy atmosphere, expert bartending and the recently installed and very powerful air filtration system. On nice evenings, the Bel-Air Restaurant's sheltered outdoor terrace is a great place for dining and a fine cigar.
506 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles
The Biltmore's splendid Gallery Bar is cigar friendly, and Davidoff cigars are sold there and in the hotel's gift shop. You may also smoke in the Rendezvous Court, where cocktail tables are set up outside the hotel's fine restaurant, Bernard's.
The Four Seasons
300 South Doheny Drive, Los Angeles
The highly civilized Windows Bar at the Four Seasons bustles with a lively, diverse crowd--young and old, male and female, modish and conservative. An extensive appetizer menu (sushi, fried calamari, caviar, thin-crust pizza) prompts many guests to use the bar as a dining alternative to the more formal Gardens restaurant next door. Smokers are welcome; the bar maintains a humidor stocked with Davidoff cigars, including the Davidoff 2000, the Special R and "a very thin one for the ladies," says bar manager Philippe Larrieu, who possesses a devastatingly charming French accent. "We are getting more and more ladies smoking in here. It's very trendy. It's amazing!"
Peninsula Beverly Hills
9882 Little Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills
Although the Peninsula Beverly Hills turns a venerable five years old in August, the Club Bar is still on the short list of L.A.'s hot bars for grownups. This intimate lounge maintains a humidor and offers live piano music nightly after 6 p.m. If you want to look like you're in the know, the drink of the moment here is Ketel One vodka.
The Regent Beverly Wilshire
9500 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills
The clubby, very traditional Main Bar in The Regent Beverly Wilshire maintains a humidor and offers professional cigar service, with a silver scissors cutter and oversized crystal ashtrays. Beverage manager John Strauss offers a wide selection of tipples that complement a fine cigar, including vintage Port and single malt Scotch. The bartenders mix a four-ounce Martini that is practically legendary.
The Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel
1401 South Oak Knoll Avenue, Pasadena
The traditionally furnished Bar in The Ritz-Carlton Huntington offers a choice of four cigars, with an additional 10 or so available from the gift shop. This spacious room's clubby atmosphere makes it a great place to relax with a smoke. Ask about the hotel's Martini Club, which gives special dividends to dedicated souls who try (over time, one hopes) each of the 24 selections from the Martini menu.
The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
1 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Dana Point
Under the direction of cigar maven and former general manager Henry Schielein, The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, was an early proponent of the civilized art of cigar smoking. The hotel's wood-paneled Library remains a hospitable refuge for cigar aficionados, and, of course, it offers a well-stocked humidor. The Ritz also holds quarterly special cigar evenings in the Library; the remaining 1996 engagements are June 15, Aug. 9 and Oct. 11. There's also an annual Gentlemen's Smoker ($350) held each March.
The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey
4375 Admiralty Way, Marina del Rey
The hotel's elegantly appointed Library Bar is a luxurious setting in which to retreat from the cares of the day and enjoy a precisely mixed cocktail and a cigar from the hotel's capacious humidor, which is supplied by Alfred Dunhill. The Ritz also holds quarterly special cigar evenings in the Library; the next dates are Aug. 21 and Nov. 20 (reservations required).
Jean T. Barrett is a Los Angeles-based writer on wine, spirits, food and travel and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator.