Cigar Aficionado

The Search for My All-Star Cigar Bar

Finding a Place to Puff in San Francisco

If you're going to hold the Major League Baseball All-Star Game somewhere, it's pretty obvious to me that one who is attending ought to be able to enjoy a cigar there. Maybe not at the game. That would be asking way too much these days. But how about before or after?

Face it: More and more places across the nation are becoming more and more like California when it comes to being able to smoke cigars in public. Some cities in the Golden State don't even allow you to smoke outside. Remarkably, given its bent for overregulation in so many areas, San Francisco is not one of those towns.

San Francisco doesn't really do anything extra to make it more difficult to smoke. The state laws pretty much dissuade any rational businessperson from opening an establishment for which, to allow cigar smoking indoors, you cannot hire any employees. Essentially, the only way to have a cigar bar inside of which one can smoke: the bar must be owned entirely and only by the people who work there. Allow me to introduce you to the Occidental Cigar Bar on Pine Street in the Financial District of the city.

The sign inside the Occidental, the one at the end of a long room, but one you see right when you enter, says, "SMOKING PROHIBITED EXCEPT IN DESIGNATED AREAS -- SUCH AS THE BAR -- WHERE WE INVITE YOU TO ENJOY A CIGAR WITHOUT FEAR OF IMPRISONMENT OR PUBLIC STONING." (Yes, the sign is all capital letters.)

Behind the bar this afternoon is Bob Lofroos, one of the partners in the seven-year-old business that moved from what used to be the Occidental restaurant in a building next door that is now a vacant lot.

"We got together and kept the bar open," Lofroos says of his partners and himself. "It's pretty busy from happy hour until we close at about two in the morning."

No mystery there. The Occidental is in the heart of the main business district. After lunch, the place is crowded. Maybe five to 10 of a day's patrons are women. Maximum occupancy is 49. As many patrons are drinking Scotch as are drinking wine or beer or Martinis. And they are smoking. Some have cigarettes, but most have cigars. If guests didn't bring their own sticks, they have chosen from the Occidental's limited, but select humidor. The ventilation system is new, but the sign on the front door will not be disputed by anyone: "Not a health club nor a restaurant."

No food here at the Occidental. At the bar, however, there is animated discussion about the virtues of different gins and why Martinis are now made automatically with vodka at most places (not here). Lofroos and I are talking about the Por Larrañaga he's smoking.

"We get our cigars from a local tobacco store and they sent this one over as a medium-strength one, but I think it's pretty mild," he says.

I compliment Lofroos on the selection of rums. He has all my favorites. I first order a Flor de Caña 12, but he's out. I take the younger one and am happy about how it plays with my torpedo. A half hour later, I'm into an Appleton 12 and my afternoon cigar is just about done.

My after-dinner cigar is a different experience altogether. A quiet drink at the bar has given way to a much louder and more crowded environment at the 850 Cigar Bar & Grill, also in the Financial District. The 850 is a place at which you can smoke a cigar not because it's owned by the people who work there -- though that used to be the case -- but because it's got a fairly substantial courtyard and you can light up outside.

On any given night, the 850 is jammed, live Latin music playing and a lot of patrons who are very interested in one another. The cover is $7 at the door, paid before you descend a short flight of stairs into the humanity. There's a long bar to the right, the courtyard to the left. You can eat in the courtyard, which is heated -- a good thing on those cold summer nights by the bay. Essentially, the 850 is a different place depending on when you're there.

"We get a great happy hour crowd that has a lot of cigar smokers coming in after work," explains Matt Kahn, one of the owners. "That demographic really changes as it gets later and especially on Thursday and Friday nights when we have salsa playing." Kahn says that Monday through Wednesday nights are filled with guests sent over by hotels.

Neil Rideout's menu at the 850 tends to the Latin, but is really pretty straightforward familiar fare. Quesadilla, ceviche, short ribs, rib eyes. Oh, and, yes, a Cuban sandwich. The bar is complete, including a good selection of rums and lots of specialty cocktails. A couple beside me and my friends are knocking back "Godfather Shots," an interesting combination of single malt and Amaretto. Sends a shiver down my spine.

I ask the bartender to pour me an Armagnac that he likes, but that is less than $20. He serves me a Dartigalongue 1985 20-year-old for a mere $14. Dartigalongue is one of my favorite Armagnacs. You can probably get a bottle of the 1985 at home for less than $80, but you could not do so and listen to a driving bass that pretty much shakes the room. Or crowded courtyard.

I light my double corona and take in the scene. Conversation is pointless and that's just fine. Plenty to look at and listen to. I sit back and puff and am satisfied that I have successfully researched options and that on All-Star Monday and Tuesday I'll have a reserved seat at the end of the bar or a little corner of a courtyard. Before or after the home-run derby. Before or after the game.

Alejandro Benes believes that good pitching beats good hitting and vice versa.

Occidental Cigar Club
471 Pine Street
(between Montgomery and Kearny)
San Francisco, CA 94104
Monday - Friday: 12 noon - 2 a.m.
Saturday: 7 p.m. - 12 midnight or 2 a.m., depending on business
Sunday: Closed

850 Cigar Bar & Grill
850 Montgomery Street
(Jackson Square)
San Francisco, CA 94133
Monday - Friday: 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.;4 p.m. - 2 a.m.
Saturday: 6 p.m. - 2 a.m.
Sunday: closed
See web site,, for cigar selections.