- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

In the post-happy-hour of early evening, a young couple settles comfortably on the sofa at the downtown lounge. They eye one another, then their cigars. Hers looks disproportionately large in a delicate hand.At tall cocktail tables in front of the bar, pairs of young men, in their 20s to 30s, and men and women of similar ages sit and stand around huge square ashtrays with built-in ledges wide enough to cradle even the largest ring-sized cigars.

And at a small, eight-stool bar to the rear of the place, a solitary, suited man clips the end of a Churchill-sized smoke and prepares to light up.

At Shelly’s Back Room on F Street NW — of all Washington’s cigar bars perhaps the one most made for smoke and smoking — it’s the beginning of what will be another busy Friday night.

• • •

In an era when almost every puff is policed, these aficionados of the weed may appear to be relics of a time long gone. Indeed, as the ban on smoking in restaurants and bars grips Montgomery County and looms ever larger in the politics of Maryland and the District, smokers almost certainly will soon take their last indoor lungful.

Montgomery County’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, in all communities except municipalities — Rockville, Gaithersburg, Kensington, Poolesville and Takoma Park — went into effect Oct. 9. Since then a push for expansion within the county has led officials in Rockville to propose their own smoking ban, while city leaders in Gaithersburg and Takoma Park have scheduled meetings to consider one. District activists have introduced smoke-free legislation to be considered by the D.C. Council in the coming months.

But that’s tomorrow. For now, smokers in Washington and Baltimore can still indulge with reckless abandon, and they can do it in some of the swankiest locales.

Shelly’s, which dubs itself “A Civilized Cigar Bar and Tavern,” is a multi-purpose bar and restaurant divided into three distinct areas:

To the left of the green-awninged entrance is the front parlor, an indoor patio facing F Street through large floor-to-ceiling windows.

The middle section is a dining room and lounge containing an assortment of tables, booths, overstuffed chairs and sofas. One wall resembles the inside of a log cabin; the other is a stack of 96 private humidors available to members at an annual fee. A centrally located display case contains some of the more than 100 different cigars available at Shelly’s.

And at the back is the small bar with eight stools. This is the real “back room.”

While the heady aroma of cigar smoke permeates the air, it is not near as smoky as one would expect it to be, due in large part to an expensive and sophisticated ventilation system..

Smoking a large Punch brand cigar is Greg Smith, a lobbyist and locker holder at Shelly’s, who comes in alone or with friends.

“It’s a great place to hang out and have a good time,” says Mr. Smith, who is openly opposed to proposed smoking bans. “I hate stuff like that. If I couldn’t come here I guess I would have to smoke on my patio at home.”

From the other side of the bar, Shelly’s manager Tony Rubbo echoes those sentiments.

“I hope they don’t do it [ban smoking]. I don’t think it would be good for business. I have people calling me from Montgomery County asking about job openings because the smoking ban has killed business where they work.”

While actual cigar-theme bars like Shelly’s are few, traditional bastions of high living such as hotel lobby bars and steakhouses remain among the ranks of cigar-friendly establishments.

With soaring mahogany walls, deep plush carpeting, soft-cushioned sofas and love seats, as well as a state-of-the-art ventilation system, the Lobby Lounge in the Ritz Carlton Hotel on 22nd Street NW is so luxurious that the only difficulty one encounters is getting up to leave.

Bar manager Jason Brauer says the Lobby Lounge sells a steady number of cigars, offering 20 different types, and that smoking-related activity accounts for approximately 20 percent of the lounge’s business.

“We don’t rely on it to keep us open but we do expect it to be a very used amenity,” says Mr. Brauer. He does not feel threatened by proposed smoking legislation.

“The people I speak to feel that D.C. will not turn,” says Mr. Brauer.

On a recent Friday night, actor-director George Clooney occupied a stool at the end of the bar, while not far way sat Stephanie Sheridan, a communications and public relations associate for the Corporate Council on Africa. An infrequent cigar smoker, on this occasion Ms. Sheridan puffed lightly on a small Arturo Fuente Chateau.

“There’s a certain atmosphere about a cigar bar where you feel more relaxed. You feel comfortable in a place like this,” says Ms. Sheridan.

Even though she only smokes in cigar bars a couple of times a year, she has an opinion on the prospect of a smoking ban.

“I would be upset. I’m upset about the laws anyway, but I suppose it’s appropriate in some situations, where there’s poor ventilation. I think there should be both smoking and non-smoking places,” says Ms. Sheridan. “It would be sad because it’s a social experience that would be lost.”

They’re still living large at Smith and Wollensky on 19th Street NW, where overindulgence goes unremarked. Like the sofas at the Ritz and the chairs at Shelly’s, at Smith and Wollensky it’s the steaks and the wine list that are oversized. This huge Washington institution has an expansive floor plan that includes two full-sized dining rooms and two full-sized bars for smokers and non-smokers.

Restaurant manager Keith Garver says smokers, and cigar smokers in particular, account for a significant portion of Smith and Wollensky’s business.

“About 30 percent of our clientele ask to be seated on the smoking side. We also have private rooms they can smoke in,” says Mr. Garver. “We host a lot of bachelor parties and men’s groups and we sell a lot of cigars.”

Smith and Wollensky offers 15 premium cigars, among them Cohiba, Arturo Fuente, Ashton, Cao, Davidoff, Hoya de Nicaragua, Macanudo, Onyx, Punch and Romeo y Julieta, ranging in price from $10 to $23. Mr. Garver says the most popular cigar is the Fuente.

Smith and Wollensky does not actively promote the cigar part of its business or actively pursue cigar-smoking customers, but smokers are certainly welcome.

“We don’t advertise it but it’s definitely available for them. We pick up smokers from other restaurants that don’t sell cigars or have smoking sections, so they come to our place after they eat somewhere else,” says Mr. Garver.

The manager sees no good in a smoking ban.

“For the 30 percent of customers we have who smoke, obviously it would affect us for the worse. We don’t want to lose any customers,” Mr. Garver says.

Kozmo’s Lounge and Cigar Bar at the Marriott Waterfront in Baltimore opened for business nearly three years ago,and has since developed a reputation as a destination for the cigar-and-martini set. Cherry wood walls climb to a dramatically high vaulted ceiling containing a sophisticated ventilation system that sucks floor-level smoke to a dizzying height. A free beverage tasting with gourmet happy hour fare is offered every Friday from 5 to 7 p.m.

In addition to the regular convention crowds that pass through, lead bartender John Thompson says at least one group of weekend regulars comes in just to smoke.

“There’s about 10 or 15 guys that come in together almost every Friday, just to smoke cigars. They don’t drink at all and usually bring their own cigars,” says Mr. Thompson.

Of course Kozmo’s does offer a variety of cigars, visible in an attractive curio-cabinet-type humidor in the middle of the room.

“Over the past couple of months I’ve been selling more cigars — Hoya De Monterey, Excalibur and Dark Sumatra, Ashton, Monte Cristo, Robusto, Punch Grand Puro, Dunhill, Davidoff, La Gloria Cubana, Cao, and Cohiba,” says Mr. Thompson.

While most of his customers are thirtysomething businessmen attending conventions, he says, women also inquire about cigars. If they are beginners, he recommends Macanudo Coronas or Ashton.

Mr. Thompson regards smoking customers as an essential part of his job and livelihood and doesn’t believe that appeals to “protecting the health of employees” contained in the many proposals to ban smoking in places of business are necessarily in his best interest.

“I’m very concerned about it. I’m a bartender. Working in a smoking environment was a risk I was willing to take. For the government to say they’re doing it for my health is one thing, but it’s going to reduce my income. I think it should be left up to the establishment to decide if they want to be a smoking lounge. They can let people know and they can enter at own risk,” says Mr. Thompson.

On a late Sunday night, 37-year-old Warren Norris lights up his Punch Grand Cru. A chef at nearby Fleming’s restaurant, Mr. Norris walks across the parking lot for his after-work smoke in large part because smoking is not allowed at Fleming’s. Mr. Norris recommends Kozmo’s to guests at Fleming’s looking for a place to light up.

“It’s nice to come here and unwind. This is a great room for it,” says Mr. Norris, who’s been a cigar smoker for more than 15 years. On vacation, he says, he smokes as many as six cigars a day.

“It relaxes me. I’m always courteous. If someone next to me is eating I try to be considerate and ask them if they’re bothered by it or I move to another place in the room,” says Mr. Norris, who doesn’t see the need for a law on smoking.

“I don’t like the idea of the government getting involved. If you don’t like smoke, don’t go into a smoking environment. There’s enough for the government to do and worry about besides smoking,” he says.

Welcome to smokers

Hounded by the puff police? Try these smoker-friendly lounges. But do it soon. Who knows how long they’ll last?

Butlers at the Grand Hyatt, 10th and H streets NW. 202/637-4765

Kozmo’s Lounge and Cigar Bar at the Mariott Waterfront, 700 Aliceanna Ave., Baltimore. 410/385-3000

The Ritz Carlton Washington D.C., 1150 22nd ST. NW. 202/835-0500

Shelly’s Back Room, 1331 F Street, NW. 202/737-3003

Smith and Wollensky, 1112 19th St. NW. 202/466-1100

Town and Country Lounge, The Mayflower Hotel, 1122 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/347-3000

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