While smoking is among the most heavily regulated elements of American private life, cigars are apparently still going strong among those who do the regulating: politicians, lobbyists and "Inside the Beltway" lawyers and advisers.
At least that's what the prevalence of several cigar shops within walking distance of Capitol Hill would suggest. But there is only one true cigar bar in the area where both smoke and drink are legally allowed to commingle, and it has been navigating the many anti-smoking roadblocks that have sprung up for a long time now.
Shelly's Back Room is a fabulous place to smoke—or drink, eat or watch sports. Or all of the above. Cool, dark, quiet and cozy, it's also just a great place to step out of the heat and humidity D.C. is famous for, an oasis of civility in the heart of the nation's capital. It's equally appealing after dinner, thanks to both its drink list and the fact that the earliest it ever closes is one in the morning—on Sundays. It's located just a block and a half from the White House, making it perfect for those doing business downtown as well as the many tourists who flock to see the inner workings of American democracy every year.
The green awnings over the front door are covered with words such as "Food," "Libations," and "Cigars," but the most telling is "Tavern," as Shelly's has that neighborhood hole-in-the-wall feel of welcoming familiarity and lack of pretense. It's clubby but in a well-worn way, as if nothing has been replaced in years.
Inside the door stands an imposingly tall wooden cigar store Indian, stacks of empty boxes and copies of Cigar Aficionado magazine. Beyond the place splits into two halves: the restaurant to the right and the main cigar lounge and tap room to the left. There is also outside seating in the form of several green wooden Adirondack chairs on the sidewalk within a railed area, each flanked by a yard-high standing ashtray. Passing tourists regularly stop in their tracks to ogle the group of happy smokers who like to sit outside.
This, in turn, serves as great advertising, and curious visitors wander through the doors surprised to find a cigar lounge in such a prime seat of power location. As a result, Shelly's has a colorful mix of regulars, many of them lawyers or other white-collar professionals with private humidors built into the wall of the main cigar room.
The interior has the feel of a living room in a log cabin crossed with a pub, stuffed with a mix of deep, comfy armchairs, leather couches and polished wooden tables, all outfitted with ashtrays and whirling ventilation units overhead. The bar itself, an old school affair with a few stools, is in the back, though there is waitress service throughout. While the small public humidor on display amidst the private lockers seems scantily stocked, the printed list goes on for 14 pages.
Shelly's typically carries more than 130 individual cigars. The phonebook style list is coded with one to three stars (mild, medium, full bodied) and covers brands big and small, including Fuente, Liga Privada, Rocky Patel, Davidoff, Montecristo, Padrón, La Flor Dominicana and Fratello.The cigar bar goes the extra mile each year by bringing in as many of the non-Cuban cigars that make Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 Cigars of the Year list, and they also offer Shelly's "Exclusive Cabinet Selections," several other theme collections as well as special offerings, such as a set of 22 Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars in a Prometheus humidor for $350.
The cuisine is bar food that fits the tavern aesthetic, like the signature house roasted chicken wings, nachos, burgers and entrée salads. While the food is simple and straightforward, the beverage menu is anything but and is given care and attention rivalling the cigar list. There are more than a dozen beers on tap, from Guinness to regional craft selections, and a solidly upscale wine and Champagne array.
It's the spirits, though, that are the most curated, with more than 70 single-malt Scotches, including a half dozen ages of The Macallan that go up to the rare 30 year old. There's also a good selection of hard-to-find Japanese whiskies such as Hibiki 18 and Yamazaki 18 and equally deep lists of Irish, Bourbon, and rye whiskies, as well as tequilas, aged rums and Cognacs.
There is even an impressive list of Port and sherry, classic matches for cigars but not easy to find in abundance. To make it more entertaining and educational, there are plenty of tasting flights, trios of ounce pours in diverse thematic categories such as "light and floral" whiskies, Jura single malts, cask-strength and single-barrel Bourbons, and so on.
The depth of both the drink and smoking lists belies the relaxed simplicity of the place, but upon stepping back out from the cool, dark interior into the city's concrete jungle, it's evident that what bills itself as "D.C.'s Civilized Cigar Bar" practices truth in advertising.
Shelly's Back Room
1331 F Street, NW
Monday through Thursday: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Saturday: Noon to 3 a.m.
Sunday: Noon to 1 a.m.