The Cigar Dinner Boom

| By Gordon Mott | From Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

Huddled in a dark corner of a deserted public park, a man pulls a long, dark, thin object from his jacket pocket. He flicks the flint on his lighter, brings the flame to the tip of the oblong object and, shielding it from a momentary breeze, carefully sucks in, slowly rolling the end across the flame. In a few seconds, he extinguishes the flame, takes a deep puff and luxuriates in the sweet, mouth-filling flavors of a cigar of the finest origins; one which has been carefully preserved in a personal humidor. He savors the aromas swirling around him, but in a few minutes, before any passersby complain, he stubs out the cigar, throws it into a nearby drain and goes on his way.

This Orwellian isolation of cigar smokers was not only common just a few years ago, but parks, balconies, patios, and private offices seemed destined to become the only places where people could smoke in peace. Cigar smokers were slowly but surely being relegated to the modern version of the leper colony. In the past 18 months, however, an unusual phenomenon has swept the country--men, and a few women, smoking cigars in public places set aside for the occasion and finding support in a fellowship of cigar smokers. The events go by various names: cigar nights, smokers, the Big Smoke (see sidebar ), or cigar dinners. Some are casual with business suits perfectly acceptable. Others have created another stage for infrequently donned tuxedos, adding to the short list of proms, weddings and occasional charity dinners that require black tie.

And it's not just a New York-Los Angeles phenomenon. In Minneapolis, Manny's restaurant holds a regular smoker. In Miami, the Doral Beach Resort Hotel and Hotel Sofitel both hold cigar nights. Then there are the smokers at the American Zenith Cafe in Denver; the Mansion Hill Inn in Albany, New York; Stars in San Francisco; Biba in Boston, and the Senator in Toronto. New York and Los Angeles have their fair share of cigar dinners, too. Schatzi and Remi in Los Angeles started up smoker nights this year as did the Biltmore Hotel. In New York, The Plaza Hotel, San Domenico restaurant, the Water Club, and, before the bombing of the World Trade Center, Windows On The World, have all held successful cigar nights. In fact, the list is too long to print.

Of course, there's the granddaddy of them all, the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. The hotel's manager, Henry Schielein, revived the whole idea about ten years ago, one of the first of the new generation of smoker nights that sought to counter the antismoking climate. He then continued smoker nights at his next assignment for Ritz-Carlton, in Laguna Niguel, California. In addition, Ritz-Carltons in St. Louis, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Palm Beach and Dearborn, Michigan, have held or will hold smoker nights.

Taken by themselves, the smoker nights are an amazing development; just a few years ago, you could count the total smoker dinners in any given year in North America on one hand. By the end of this year, there will have been more than 400 dinners held, many of them sold out with waiting lists.

While Schielein resurrected the cigar night institution, it's not as easy to pinpoint the smoker's sudden resurgence in popularity. The launch of CIGAR AFICIONADO is cited by many as the formal announcement that smokers have rights, too. Certainly, the magazine's "Big Smoke" event in New York City last May, which attracted more than 1,500 cigar lovers, highlighted the pent-up desire for a smoker's rebellion. Or maybe the smoker night's revival is a natural turn of the evolutionary wheel, a belated backlash against politically correct behavior.

Why the attraction? To fully appreciate the answer to that question, you should imagine a typical cigar dinner. First, there's the precise ritual of getting ready for a formal gathering. A tuxedo, worn for a proper occasion, automatically elevates an evening to a higher plane. Once you are at a smoker night, the shared interest in cigars opens conversational doors, and instead of quiet, staid, even awkward cocktail hour moments, the chatter in a room filled with cigar lovers quickly rises to a clamor. By dinner time the libations have been poured freely, and table mates are becoming soul mates. For everyone present, the evening is transformed into a shared celebration of the good life.

If anything, the allure of the good life obscures the real reason many cigar lovers flock to cigar smoker events. Review the answers to the question "Why are you here?" and you'll find little variation. "I wanted to smoke without any hassle." "I didn't want my wife nagging me about my cigars." "I wanted a night out with my friends doing something that we love to do." Sift through the details, and the bottom line is quite simple and straightforward--everyone wants to enjoy his cigars the way they are supposed to be enjoyed: in a relaxed atmosphere, where the best food and wine are available, where the camaraderie is irresistible and the night is always young. Says Ted Herget, an insurance company executive who attended a smoker in Baltimore, "It was a man's night out. I put on a black tie to get the full flavor and mood."

Getting into the mood sounded about right for Henry Schielein back in 1983. He had finished dinner with the outgoing general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, and he lit up a cigar to enjoy with his Cognac. He recalls the visual darts flying across the room from other diners, and while his predecessor encouraged him to smoke, it was clear that he had aroused the ire of others present. It didn't take long for Schielein to figure out that there was a real need for a place to smoke cigars in Boston. A tea room at the Ritz, usually busy in the afternoon, was empty in the evening. Schielein put out the word about the possibility of opening up a smoking lounge at the hotel. "In a couple of days, I had 60 names of guys who wanted to come," says Schielein. "We kicked it off with a black-tie gala dinner."

For the uninitiated, the Boston smoker is, was, and will always be the standard used to judge other cigar nights. The reception rooms are plush, and many guests are veterans of all ten smokers. In a round of introductions at the single table for about 65 people, each person stands up, says his name and usually gives a tally of his attendance--seven, eight, nine times are not uncommon. The air of continuity and the black-tie atmosphere suggest an institution that is every bit as somber and satisfied with itself as it should be. But above all else, this smoker exudes the image of civilized behavior.

Schielein left Boston in 1986, on to warmer pastures at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel. "As soon as I arrived, people started asking when I was going to do one [a smoker] here," says Schielein. "It was unbelievable." He says his list of hopeful attendees exceeds 400 every year, each willing to pay the $300 if he is privileged to be invited. Schielein says he limited this year's event to 100 people, after the one last year turned into a raucous night with nearly 200 attendees. "It's an elegant evening. Black tie. You don't find that many events where people dress up. It's a throwback to the good old days, and there's a certain romance to it." There's no word whether Schielein will carry along the tradition to his latest stop in his hotel career, the Grand Wailea in Hawaii.

CIGAR AFICIONADO held two cigar dinners in the first year of the magazine's existence: the launch party in New York City, and a $1,000-a-head charity dinner, also in the Big Apple, called "A Night to Remember." The first, by invitation only, drew nearly 250 people to the St. Regis Hotel rooftop for a night of smoking and drinking. The second, also by invitation, was held at the "21" Club; CIGAR AFICIONADO editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken and the restaurant's president, Ken Aretsky, were co-chairmen for the event, which let guests specify one of six charities to which they wanted to donate their money. Pre-Castro Cuban cigars were part of the attraction as were the magnums of 1961 Château Margaux served with the strip steak imported from Chile.

"We need this. We want this," says Gregory Hines, the Broadway actor and film star, who took nights off from his role in the smash hit Jelly's Last Jam to attend both of the CIGAR AFICIONADO smokers. "It's been a great evening." Nearly 100 people attended the "21" Club dinner, including author Gay Talese, Edgar Cullman Sr., of Culbro; Leonard Riggio, CEO of Barnes & Noble; Gene Pressman of Barneys department stores; and Jonathan Linen, president and CEO of American Express Travel Related Services Company.

Later, after coffee and drinks in a downstairs lounge, the conversation turned to one of the bigger issues about cigar nights and smokers and dinners: Should women be included? Talese at first argued that it was a man's terrain and should be preserved as such, but then, taking a contrary position, suggested, "If we're trying to expand the audience of cigar smokers, shouldn't women be included?" Aretsky was more adamant: "I feel crowded when women are invited to these things. This should be an evening of fraternity." Shanken agreed and said the presence of women at a black-tie smoker completely altered the evening, making it "more difficult to openly express yourself."

The atmosphere at the smoker held by the Doral Ocean Beach Resort in Miami illustrates what's different about a mixed crowd. "Where There's Smoke There's Fire" was held in late January at the Starlight Roof, a grand old cabaret room from Miami's golden era, which has a sweeping vista of Miami Beach and the downtown Miami skyline. More than 250 people, including 50 women, attended the event hosted by Chris Perks, the hotel manager. Some smoked cigars for the first time, but others were already avid smokers who took their place right alongside the male guests. "These were all civilized people enjoying the craftsmanship of these stimulants to body and soul," said Perks.

The event sold out within three weeks after it was announced, with a ticket price of $125, and, in fact, was expanded from the initial estimate of 150 to 250 because of the huge response. The event will become an annual ritual with a gala dinner next year on January 27, and it will be linked with one of CIGAR AFICIONADO's Big Smokes. As it did last year, the dinner will kick off the South Florida Food and Wine Festival.

But imagine a window back on the 1950s. Beautiful women in long gowns. The soft jazz of the George Tandy trio. Hundreds of small white lights twinkling from the Starlight Roof ceiling. Add to this picture food prepared by seven of Miami's hottest chefs including Norman Van Aken, formerly of A Mano; Douglas Rodriguez of Yuca; Allen Susser of Chef Allen, and Mark Militello of Mark's Place; Oliver Saucy of Cafe Max; Robbin Haas of the Veranda at Turnberry Isle, and Matteo Giuffrida of Alfredo's the Original of Rome. Finally, include in this scene thin wisps of premium cigar smoke drifting toward the ceiling. "The spirit was flowing," said Perks. "The evening pulled together all the ingredients that celebrate civilization. All the senses were touched. It was a celebration of sensuality."

Bill Fader is one of the most respected retailers in the cigar business and the current president of the Retail Tobacconist Distributors Association. He put on a smoker at Baltimore's Center Club in March, the first one he's ever done. About 60 people were expected, but 90 persons bought the $90 ticket, a mixed bag of people from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., including lawyers, doctors and other professionals. "They came to enjoy their cigars in an environment where everyone else was doing the same thing," said Fader.

Robert Levin of Holt's Cigars in Philadelphia has been holding cigar dinners for several years now. But he had 300 at his most recent one in October 1992 for $50 a person at the Warwick Hotel, and he noted there was a lot more interest for that one. "We turned away a lot of people," says Levin. The camaraderie factor, Levin says, is the most important reason behind people's desire to come to cigar dinners. "They can smoke without anybody telling them to put it out. And what's not to like? They get a great meal, wine, Port and great cigars. People don't care about the cost. They want to smoke cigars and not get hassled," says Levin.

Some smoker nights have special attractions to bring people in. In Toronto, Tom Hines, the owner of Havana House, one of Canada's top retailers, hosted a charity event at the Founder's Club in the Toronto Skydome Stadium in early June. The hook was simple: an auction of pre-Castro Cuban Cigars. Seventy-five people paid $300 each to attend, and more than $18,000 was raised for an AIDS hospice in Toronto and for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation of Ontario. "We got people from all walks of Canadian business life," said Alex Mangiola of Havana House, who helped put the event together.

If you're searching for the perfect cigar dinner, what do you look for? Should it be primarily a night for smoking? Should there be great food and wine? Should it be formal or informal? There are a variety of different things to take into account.

Some people don't like the formal attire; they prefer plain business suits. That sets a specific tone for a smoker night that is less formal and, for some people, more comfortable. But that misses the point. Black tie reinforces the elegance and importance of the night. Therefore, a request for formal attire, some say, is one of the "musts" for a great cigar night.

How to serve the meal seems to be the biggest bone of contention. Some people prefer to sit down and eat without having a cigar during the meal. Other dinners are set tip so that each course ends with a cigar; some chefs try to match the cigar to the previous course. In the latter set-up, you can expect spicy food since that is the only kind that marries well with cigars.

The postdinner period is perhaps the most enjoyable and relaxing. It's best to look for a variety of after-dinner drinks: Port, Cognac, even single-malt Scotches. This gives you a selection, depending on how you're feeling that night, and if you're up to it, an opportunity to try several different libations with your favorite cigar.

Cigar smoker nights are not without risks. Don't expect to have trouble keeping a seat to yourself if you stumble onto a late-night commuter train home. If you're in a limousine or car-service vehicle or taxi, don't be offended if the driver opens his window a crack. And don't leave your tuxedo or suit in a closed closet unless you want every piece of clothing to acquire a smoky scent. In fact, it's probably good to put it next to the front door and get it ready for the dry cleaner the very next morning. That way, when you want your tuxedo for the next event, it won't be a reminder of six-week-old cigar smoke.

There's also the issue of your next day's productivity. The general ambience at cigar dinners is not conducive to moderation. Nor does it usually promise an early evening. Some of the Boston smokers run well past 1 A.M. Hangers-on could be found around the rooftop bar at the Doral Ocean/Beach Resort Hotel until it closed at 2 A.M. CIGAR AFICIONADO'S launch dinner at the St. Regis Hotel in New York carried on around the piano at the bar downstairs until nearly 3 A.M. So don't plan an early meeting, or a jog, unless you are possessed of an inordinate amount of willpower.

A spouse's sensibilities may be the most important factor to take into account. At least one executive made a deal with his wife before attending the "21" Club charity smoker; he had to remove his tuxedo and take a shower before he entered the bedroom,

Another reveler wished that he had taken a shower. Returning home to a sleeping household after one particularly smoky evening, he climbed gingerly into bed, taking care not to wake his wife. Slowly drifting off, letting the day's trials and tribulations slip away, the smoker night veteran was suddenly jerked back awake by his wife pounding on his arm. "Get up, there's a fire in the house!" Without moving, he stared up at the ceiling and quietly said: "I think it's me, honey." Not totally awake, she leaned over, stuck her nose into his chest, took a deep breath and said, "You're right." She plopped back onto her pillow and fell asleep instantly. He smiled, but the only concession was to make a note about a shower next time before hitting the bed--and take heart in the fact that for an entire evening no one had objected to his cigar.

A Big Smoke

Fifteen minutes before the doors would open, the line of eager cigar smokers stretched across the giant foyer outside the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott Marquis. They each had paid $100 for the privilege of attending CIGAR AFICIONADO's Big Smoke in New York. The clamor grew as the 6:30 P.M. start approached, and when the doors swung wide, the crowd surged in. By 7 P.M., nearly all the 1,500 ticket holders had arrived and were smoking to their hearts' content.

The men and women--about 50 women attended--sampled cigars, ogled the multi million-dollar jewelry displays of Harry Winston; the upscale leather, silver, and wood pieces of Osprey and Louis Vuitton; the watches of Cartier, Kriëger, and Breitling; and the pens of Montblanc, and ordered expensive custom-made humidors from D. Marshall. Al Cooper, a pharmacist who flew in from Grenada, Mississippi, kept wandering around saying, "I can't believe it. I can't believe it." And Karen Weiss, apparently alone at the edge of the commotion, responded with a sly grin when asked why she'd come to the Big Smoke: "I came to see what kind of men smoke cigars." Above all, that's what the guests did--smoke cigars.

Three hours later one Big Smoke reveler encountered three other guys puffing away on cigars on the corner of Broadway and 45th Street. Like long-lost fraternity brothers, they exchanged greetings, and as the partygoer recounts, one of the men said it all: "This was one of the greatest nights of my life."

Maybe one of the greatest parties for 1,500 people anywhere, anytime. The partygoers smoked or took home 45,000 cigars. They drank 360 bottles of Moët & Chandon Champagne, 72 bottles of Stolichnaya, 36 bottles of Absolut, 42 bottles of Martell, and 36 bottles of Hine Cognac. Pouring every bottle they had, Cuvaison winery, the only wine served, ran out before the party was over--this has never happened before, according to a Cuvaison official. This was not a crowd that favors moderation.

Why did people come? John Clements, a marketing executive, said he was attracted by the possibility of finding a new cigar to smoke. But his story quickly came out. "I wanted to be with a bunch of guys from work without our wives tagging along." Peter Clifford, a New York businessman, sat smoking contentedly. "I believe in cigars. I believe in America. I believe in my civil rights to smoke. That's why I'm here." Ken Vose, a writer living in New York City, said simply, "I wouldn't miss it. This is a chance to smoke without my wife hounding me."

Like all first-time events, there were some minor glitches. For a time it was so crowded that moving through the aisles felt like a preholiday weekend at a suburban supermarket. Some manufacturers ran out of cigars a half hour before closing time. And there were only two espresso machines for the gathering. But no one complained about the smoke.

For the event's creator, CIGAR AFICIONADO editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken, the Big Smoke was an overwhelming success. It started out as a way of testing whether CIGAR AFICIONADO subscribers were interested in getting together to smoke cigars and have fun. The event quickly swelled because of the deluge of ticket requests. Shanken had to approach Marriott Marquis officials to ask for a bigger room. "Once we saw the demand for tickets, we had to go to the hotel to get all the side rooms in addition to the Grand Ballroom, and it still wasn't big enough. Nearly a month before the event, we sent a postcard to subscribers asking them not to send in their checks, and saying that there would be no ticket sales at the door. It was totally sold out." The Big Smoke was so successful that Shanken is planning a series of events around the country in the next 12 months. The schedule so far includes New York again, on Monday, November 29 (a cigar seminar will be held the same day), and next year in Miami on Thursday, January 27, and Friday, May 20 at the Four Seasons in Chicago. Other events are planned for several other cities, including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and again in New York. But dates haven't been set yet.

While the event catered to cigar smokers, the cigar makers were bowled over, too. Long stigmatized by the antismoking fervor in the United States, and in many aspects, hunkered down in their corporate bunkers for the past 20 years, the men of cigars couldn't stop pinching themselves. Edgar Cullman Jr., the president of Culbro Corporation, which owns General Cigar, the makers of Macanudo and Partagas, stayed behind his booth until he ran out of cigars--Cullman and his employees handed out more than 5,000. Dick DiMeola, the executive vice-president of Consolidated Cigar, the maker of H. Upmann, Dunhill, and Te-Amo cigars, said in all his years in the cigar industry he'd never seen anything like it.

The enthusiasm was highlighted by Ernesto Carrillo of Miami's La Gloria Cubana. He brought along one of his senior rollers, Armando Moray, who set up shop in the booth and rolled the night away. At 9:30 P.M., when event coordinator Lynn Rittenband announced that the evening was over, there was a line of guys waiting for their own hand-rolled cigar. If the doors hadn't closed, they might still be there, waiting for their chance to take home a freshly made La Gloria Cubana.

These men clearly shared the thoughts of one of the guests, Howard Lewis: "It was like being a kid in a candy store."