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14-Jul-2009
A Smoker s Guide to New York City

It has been more than six years since a smoking ban descended upon New York City, though for aficionados it seems an eternity ago. The city ban went into effect in March of 2003, followed that July by a state smoking ban that took away even more places to smoke. The laws were a victory for the endless number of coalitions looking to extinguish the cigars, and the wills, of the city's smokers. New York fell without much of a fight-no shows of civil disobedience, no smoking rallies, no cigar riots in the street. Now, six years later, after tobacco exemptions have been denied, and Manhattan's steak houses and social clubs have been forced to turn their humidors into linen storage, what is left?

The Carnegie Club is dark and swank, with classic cocktails.

The answer: more than 20 great cigar sanctuaries situated all over Manhattan Island.

True, New York's cigar smokers were driven out into the streets quite ignominiously, but their counterrevolution did not come in the form of a violent mob, it came in the form of an industrious and driven entrepreneurship. Even in the current economic downturn, new cigar lounges have opened within the last few months, providing smoking asylums for the city's cigar enthusiasts.

One such story is that of Billy and Gus Fakih, proprietors of the Cigar Inn. Their first location has been a mainstay in the city's tony Upper East Side neighborhood for 15 years, providing an extensive inventory of cigars and a comfortable place to smoke them. But only a few months ago, when financial houses began falling like the Roman Empire, the Fakihs (joined by their brother, Bass) opened a stately second venue in Midtown, styled quite ambitiously from the ground up to be the type of room you'd expect to find cloistered in the distant wing of some Vanderbilt mansion. The Cigar Inn's major distinction is that it houses the first-ever Cigar Aficionado–branded lounge.

Creating the smoking lounge wasn't easy. "The city is very uptight about issuing permits," says Gus Fakih. "It used to be very easy, taking only a few weeks, but now there is actually an investigation by the FBI, and it takes months and months before you can get your building permits, tobacco license and distribution license. We were supposed to be open last June [2008]. There are just too many agencies."

Now that all the permissions have been granted, the Fakihs are delighted with the results and how all the design elements came together. During the day, solarium-style windows offer a tranquil view of courtyard gardens while bringing lots of natural light to the wood and leather surfaces throughout the space. By night, the lights cast subtle beams and the gas fireplace ignites, lending a warm atmosphere. These furnishings are a true homage to the historically clubby spaces and private libraries of Manhattan where cigar smoking was once prevalent. Consider the elegance of the herringbone-patterned masonry in the humidor, for example, or the long Persian runner that leads you away from Second Avenue, past the accessories, past the barber's chairs and into an ambience that makes you forget you're in a cigar shop. But let us not forget that it is the cigar shop that enables this kind of lounge to exist in the first place-New York City law prohibits opening a new cigar bar, or expanding an existing one-and it is the route many shops have taken to accommodate their clients.

Swiss company Davidoff of Geneva has two world-class branded shops in Midtown, one on Madison Avenue, the other on Manhattan's West Side, situated in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Both have lounges, and like most cigar-smoking establishments, they attract people from every walk of life, from contractor to media mogul.

"Stores that have existed for a long time before smoking bans never really dedicated a lot of space to a lounge, since there were often many more attractive options for places to enjoy a cigar rather than sitting in a store," says Michael Herklots, manager of both Davidoff shops. "Madison Avenue is built a bit in this style. We place chairs and welcome people to enjoy their cigars with us; and although it's still a comfortable experience, it's quite different than being in a separate lounge. The Columbus Circle store is laid out more in [the latter] style. Retail is separate from the lounge."

While the lounge at the Columbus Circle boutique is open to anyone who purchases a cigar there, the one on Madison Avenue-which is suspended in a loft above the spacious store-is generally restricted to members, though entry is granted upon discretion of the dapper management. In addition, there are a few seats on the ground level that are open to anyone.

"It's important as a retailer to be sure that you're generating enough revenue to support such a room. This is where tools like minimum purchases or small membership dues come in handy," says Herklots. "Every retailer wants their customers to enjoy their products, but now it is becoming the responsibility of the retailer to provide a place for them to do so."

Also keeping up the tradition of cigar hospitality is De La Concha, a business formerly owned by Lionel Melendi before Davidoff acquired it in 2006. (Ron Melendi, Lionel's son, runs the shop today.) De La Concha has a bustling lounge in the front of the store that provides a smoking bastion for the constant foot traffic of Sixth Avenue.

De La Concha is one of the many cigar lounges clustered in the 50s in midtown Manhattan, forming a "cigar belt," or "cigar band," of places to puff. (See map)Barclay-Rex (on Lexington Avenue) offers not only floor-to-ceiling cigars, but a series of humidified lockers and a lounge that is usually full at lunchtime. It's a cozy room with about a dozen chairs, magazines, a coffee machine and a television. Don't let the abrupt nature of the staff intimidate you, especially that of shop co-owner Billy Rella. He might have the no-nonsense demeanor of an old-world chophouse waiter, but he is very accommodating and knowledgeable. His rules are simple: don't argue about online prices and don't even think about smoking something in the lounge that you didn't buy at the shop. The latter is a simple code of conduct that applies, really, to every cigar shop with a lounge, and is part of the etiquette that should be followed if you're going to park yourself in a lounge's chair. You should just be thankful that a warm, dry place is being provided for you to enjoy your cigar.


Source: Cigar Aficionado