Cigar Aficionado

Smoking Odds

Enjoying a Cigar in a Restrictive Vegas

The smiling Russian cocktail waitress keeps turning away to avoid cracking up at the sight me sliding off the velour upholstery of my bar stool in La Scena, the bar adjacent to the casino at The Venetian in Las Vegas. I think of saying to her, "Hey, I don't laugh at your ridiculous outfit, do I?" but I'm a little preoccupied with not hitting the floor and losing my Coronado by La Flor Double Corona. Besides, this smoking perch is too valuable to give up over some snide remark to a drink hustler. I've already considered the Center Bar, in the middle of casino, with barstools and ashtrays. It's just not me. I would have preferred a comfy chair at Delmonico's where a very large humidor still occupies part of a wall, but is little more than a tease. I walk in and ask if one can still smoke there and am told no. Bam!

This kind of ignominy is unfamiliar to me in my history of smoking in Las Vegas. Ten years ago, when I worked for a semi-startup holding company that had major offices in Las Vegas, I had to spend up to two weeks at a time there. This really was before there existed the large number of great restaurants bearing the names of celebrity chefs. Buffets were still the big thing. The Desert Inn was still around. During each of the first few trips, I would stay at a different hotel. New York, New York. The Rio. Caesar's. And I would be sure to take my new Ashton travel humidor and fill it with 25 or so of my favorite cigars.

Ten years ago, I could smoke anywhere in Vegas. Anywhere. And so could anyone -- sometimes everyone -- else. That was occasionally a problem because there were a lot more people smoking cigarettes on the casino floor, in the bars and in the restaurants than there were cigar smokers, even though 1997 was one of the "years of the cigar boom."

My favorite place to enjoy a double corona back then was the not-very-big sports book at the Desert Inn. I went to watch the games. All of them at once. I didn't bet. I just enjoyed the cigar, the free drinks (for which I tipped the servers heavily to have converted into slightly better pours) and the relative quiet.

In October of last year, at the Big Smoke at The Venetian in Vegas, I enjoyed seeing my friends in the business and sitting with them at Delmonico's bar while enjoying numerous libations and the latest shapes and sizes of the best Padróns, La Flor Dominicanas, Ashtons and Fuentes, among others. Then we would move over to Casa Fuente and I would realize that, even though I wasn't, perhaps the evening was still young.

Things have changed in Las Vegas.

The most noticeable thing related to smoking that has occurred in Vegas since last October is that voters passed a referendum in November that, without going into painful detail, prohibits smoking in a lot of places that previously allowed it. Mainly restaurants. The ramifications of this exercise of democracy was to create the "year of the no-smoking sign boom." At The Venetian, in the corridors where the mighty robusto once ruled, I am greeted by a placard: "This is a non-smoking environment. The Venetian thanks you for your cooperation." Same at Caesar's and the Rio and the MGM Grand.

Inside the Casa Fuente bar.
I did cooperate. And I smoked cigars. I smoked as many cigars as I wanted in many comfortable settings. As I smoked an Ashton ESG robusto and sipped a Montecristo 12-year old dark rum at Casa Fuente, Michael Frey and I watched the Duke Blue Devils succumb to the Virginia Commonwealth, um, Wahoos? Hokies? Red Storm? (We really pretty much just enjoyed watching Duke lose to anybody, irrespective of the nickname mainly because I'm a UNC fan and Michael had VCU moving forward in his bracket.) (Late word from Dick Vitale: "VCU Rams, baby!" Rams? Really?)

Michael is the proprietor of Casa Fuente. You can still smoke inside the cigar shop that has a bar behind its doors and a "patio" just as you enter. But Michael had to get a temporary restraining order to allow him to keep the patio, which is among the Forum Shops, open to cigar smoking. He has had to sue the city to keep it that way. He thinks he's got a good chance. The case will be heard late in March.

Casa Fuente, at least inside its doors, will remain a cigar sanctuary. There are still enough other places where you can smoke, but they are not quite as comfortable as those prior to "prohibition."

As far as I could observe, the Davidoff shops still do a brisk business as do the Frey Boy tobacco stores at the different hotels. Now, though, their wares are being enjoyed mostly on the casino floor and at the sports book like the one at the Rio where I watched four basketball games at the same time. I counted eight cigars being smoked in my immediate area that afternoon, not counting the Padrón 40th Anniversary I was savoring.

The dire predictions prompted by the anti-smoking law seem not to have come true for the cigar business. Yet. If you care to inquire, locals will tell you that the impact of the ban has been felt "off the Strip." Some restaurants "off the Strip" have converted themselves into bars to avoid the smoking restrictions by not serving food. People have been fired, I'm told. I surmise that most of the smokers in those venues "off the Strip" likely consume more cigarettes than premium cigars.

Vegas, for most of us who visit infrequently (or all too frequently) remains mostly The Strip. The casinos have gotten noticeably smokier in recent months since that's the easiest place to light up. Most of the smoke is still from cigarettes. All the more reason for me to avoid gambling.

All in all, I smoked four cigars during the three days I spent in Vegas in March. I didn't have trouble finding a place to smoke. I just didn't particularly have much of a choice.

Alejandro Benes writes and lives in Southern California. He actually drives to Vegas from there.