Are you here for the Big Smoke?” asks the hostess at the door of the Porter House Steak House & Cigar Bar in Montvale.
The Big Smoke? The words startle me, as if I have been swept out of our world of gruesome government warnings and outright bans and deposited in the Mad Men era. But the Big Smoke is indeed what I have come for, so she ushers me back to the Cottage Room, where some 30 people—members of the restaurant’s Montecristo Club and their guests—are listening to a charming Irishman named Peter O’Connor hold forth on the history and art of blending Irish whiskey.
Most of the audience are men, about half of whom—along with a few women—are puffing contemplatively on cigars. Plumes of smoke rise lazily toward the ceiling, where they are whisked away by unseen fans. To me—someone who smokes a cigar about as often as I buy a new car—it feels luxurious, privileged and wonderfully transgressive.
In fact, it is all perfectly legal. The Porter House is one of a handful of Garden State bars and restaurants grandfathered in as a “cigar bar or lounge” following passage of the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act of 2006. To protect employees and nonsmokers from secondhand smoke, the act essentially banned smoking in all enclosed workplaces. To qualify for the exemption, bars and restaurants had to show that, prior to December 31, 2004, at least 15 percent of their annual gross income had come from tobacco or tobacco-related products. Because those applications were processed locally, there is no central record of how many made the cut. But certainly, the Porter House is one of a happy few.
Named for perhaps the most famous brand of Cuban cigars, the Montecristo Club provides members a small suite of ventilated rooms attached to the Porter House. On the menu this evening are not just a tasting of whiskey and cigars, but a fine five-course meal and good conversation. Still, what members treasure most is the opportunity to savor fine cigars in comfortable quarters without inviting angry looks or jeopardizing anyone’s health but their own. For an annual fee of $300 (up to $1200 for discounts and additional privileges), Montecristo members get an engraved, personalized, temperature- and humidity-controlled locker in which to store their stash—their own cigars or some of the 150 different shapes, sizes and strengths sold at the club.
They then ease into leather armchairs, light up, and as they love to say, relax. Nonmembers can partake as well if they buy a cigar or pay a $10 smoking fee to light up their own.
For men, a cigar is a widely understood symbol of contentment, power and success. “There is a certain mystique about it,” says Irish émigré Fintan Seeley, owner of the Porter House, which opened in 1998. Indeed, for self-assertion it’s hard to top robust puffers such as Winston Churchill, Fidel Castro, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward G. Robinson, a cigar man in life as well as in gangster movies like Little Caesar. Yet cigar lovers come in other flavors, too. Has there been a wittier trio than Groucho Marx, George Burns and Mark Twain?
Cigar smokers see themselves as connoisseurs of one of life’s great pleasures, comparable to wine or whiskey in its rich culture and history. As Twain put it, “Eating and sleeping are the only activities that should be allowed to interrupt a man’s enjoyment of his cigar.” In their minds, they are not like cigarette smokers, whom they see as slaves to a nasty habit. (Can you imagine a magazine called Cigarette Aficionado?)
“The difference is huge,” says Nick Vazquez, who owns Azucar, the stylish Cuban restaurant and cigar lounge in Jersey City. “A cigarette smoker is more volatile, compulsive. [He or she] picks one up, puts one down. A cigar smoker and a pipe smoker are more relaxed. Like myself: I will not smoke if I have something to do—only if the time is right.”
When that time arrives, few places are more inviting than the upstairs cigar lounge at Azucar. For one thing, it is open to any restaurant customer. “When I built this restaurant, the first thing I built was this room,” says Vazquez, a big, amiable man who splits most weeks between New Jersey and Miami, where he is opening another restaurant. “I asked myself, ‘If I were a customer, how would I want to feel?’ I built it the way I would want it, to relax.”
The room has two clusters of deep, comfortable couches and armchairs separated by a small bar in the middle. A flat-screen TV is mounted at one end. Cuban flags are draped over windows that look down on the dining room. The lights are always low.
“People fall asleep in here,” says Vazquez. Azucar is one of the grandfathered few, having opened in 1995, during a period Vazquez regards as a golden age of American cigar culture. “Those were powerhouse years [for the economy]. Marvin Shanken [who began publishing Cigar Aficionado in 1992] made cigars cool and accessible to the masses.”
Vazquez himself was not at first a cigar smoker, even though he was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, and his grandfather made cigars for Quintero, a brand treasured by connoisseurs. He came to the United States at age five, competed in track and field at North Bergen High, and became a top shot-putter at Brown University, where an admiring shot-put official handed him a Davidoff to celebrate a big win. That started his appreciation of cigars as smoke as well as symbol. These days he likes to light up after breakfast, though like many devotees he takes pains to point out that he doesn’t smoke every day.
Vazquez is also a font of advice on getting the most out of a cigar. “You should never smoke a good cigar outside because the wind will hurt it, make it burn hotter. It won’t burn that beautiful ash,” he tells me, explaining that a cigar burns cooler if the ash stays on. “A good cigar smoker will never knock it off.” From his grandfather—who liked to dip the head, or closed end, in cappuccino, espresso or cognac—he learned never to relight one that has gone out. The taste will be bitter.
Vazquez is delighted to school a neophyte like me. Flavor, he explains, is carried mostly in the wrapper, the part of the cigar that touches the lips. “Usually the darker the leaf,” he says, “the stronger, or bolder, the flavor.” Azucar carries about 20 different imported cigars, including a full-bodied number custom-blended to his own taste. Its filler is grown in Santo Domingo from Cuban seed. “The earth there,” he tells me, “resembles Cuba’s fertile Pinar del Rio area, where most Cuban cigars are grown.”
For my own good, Vazquez selects a mild Dominican smoke, an Arturo Fuente El Encanto. I struggle to keep it lit. “A cigar is round,” he says gently. “That should tell you that you want to turn it so you get an even burn.” It works, and I puff away quite contentedly. When I stand up, though, I’m slightly lightheaded. I guess I need more practice.
The antismoking crusade has taken its toll. “At my level there’s not much money to be made in selling cigars,” he says. Complying with ventilation requirements is costly. At the Porter House, Seeley spends $1,400 to replace his carbon filters every six months. On top of that, retailers pay a 30 percent tax on their tobacco purchases.
Some sellers pass on these costs to customers. For his part, Vazquez says, “I eat it, because I want my customer who wants to smoke after dinner not to feel we are price gouging.”
That gets at something fundamental: the fraternity of the faithful. “You can go anywhere in the world,” Vazquez tells me, “and if you’re smoking a good cigar and find other people who do, they’ll come right up to you, greet you like they’ve known you all their lives, and reach in and give you one of their cigars. It’s amazing.”
George Koodray, another longtime enthusiast, compares the brotherhood of cigar smokers to that of motorcycle riders. “It’s a maligned activity where people from all walks of life come together,” he says, “and the bond between them is remarkably strong.”
That certainly is true at the Metropolitan Society, which Koodray serves as president. Founded by a circle of friends in 1994, it calls itself America’s oldest private cigar club, and no one has disputed that claim yet. The Metropolitan did not need grandfathering because it has no employees—officers like Koodray volunteer—and does not sell tobacco products. It sells memberships and rents lockers with humidors. It easily obtained a variance for its suite of rooms in a nondescript commercial complex in Fairfield.
The 140 members—at the moment, all men—pay dues and door fees, or a flat $75 a month for unlimited 24/7 access. There’s Wi-Fi, a TV lounge with armchairs, a gaming room, a dining room and a room with 196 built-in lockers ($75 a year, including plaque emblazoned with the member’s name or nickname). On the first Wednesday of the month, the club hosts a guest speaker including cigar luminaries like former Hollywood lawyer Rocky Patel, who started his own luxury brand. Every week concludes with Three-Guest Saturday, when each member can bring his significant other and another couple without incurring door fees. The Metropolitan holds an annual golf outing and runs field trips to cigar factories in Miami and Honduras.
The club regularly sends cigars to U.S. troops. During the Iraq War, Koodray says, one group of soldiers sent back a photo, taken on the roof of a Baghdad building, showing some chairs next to a sign proclaiming, “Metropolitan Society Iraq.”
Under its local waiver, the Metropolitan cannot sell liquor or prepare food on site, though members can bring in food. Those restrictions also apply to any Tobacco Retail Establishment, or TRE, another category created by the Smoke-Free Air Act. To qualify as a TRE, a business has to prove that 51 percent of its trade comes from tobacco products. Customers are allowed to sample their cigars on premises.
That’s where things get a little murky.
“The law is very vague,” says Jonnette Kraft, owner of the Smoking Dog, a popular retail shop in Maple Shade that sells about 350 varieties of cigars. Customers are invited to try out their purchases in the enclosed lounge in back.
Karen Blumenfeld, a lawyer who is executive director of GASP, the anti-smoking lobby, argues that the law clearly states that cigars sold at TREs are meant to be consumed off-premises.
“You can smoke in them, but only to sample the product,” she says. “If you enjoy it like a lounge, it’s no longer a retail store.” Fortunately for Kraft, local officials have let sleeping dogs—or at least Smoking Dog’s back room—lie.
The Cigar Boxx, a well-stocked retail establishment in Northfield, has three filtering machines (known as smoke eaters) fastened to the ceiling of its lounge, plus a built-in exhaust fan. Temperature and humidity are kept at the optimum “70-70,” as manager Jerry Eget puts it. The lounge has the de rigueur leather sofas and armchairs, cigar lockers, five flat-screens, cigar-related wall art, soft drinks and coffee. It comfortably seats about 19, Eget says, and on Friday afternoons it can come close to that as members begin to trickle in as early as 2 or 3 pm, before heading home.
At other times, what draws them are special events. In business about 20 years, the Cigar Boxx is adept at these, which also attract new members. (People can join, with escalating privileges, for $5 a day, $50 a month or $500 a year.)
“We’ll hold cigar tastings, where a vendor brings in new or old product, and we make a party out of it,” Eget says. “We’ll order some pizza, even steaks, depending on the event. We do a lot of pig roasts with Spankys [BBQ Catering in Cape May]. He brings his grill here and fires it up for us.”
But it’s hard to top the Boxx’s anytime offer. Eget has an auto mechanic and a detailer on call. For a fee, members can arrange to have their car repaired or spiffed up while they kick back and blow languid rings at the smoke eaters.
A distance runner as a Princeton undergrad, freelancer Merrell Noden has never been a smoker, and despite finding the cigar men charming, is unlikely to start.
Click here to read a story about rolling handmade cigars.