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In between deep puffs on a thick Padron 1926 cigar at Shelly’s Back Room, a lounge and restaurant a stone’s throw from the White House, lobbyist Ron Phillips muses on his status as an oppressed minority. “I’m a white Republican male living on Capitol Hill,” he says of his minority status in a town overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats. “It doesn’t get worse than that.” Or so he thought. Soon, Phillips will be able to add cigar smoking to his list. “The terrorists of the Heart Association, they try to lump all tobacco into one ball of wax,” he says. “Cigars know no politics. Communists make cigars, democratic governments make cigars. And politics intrudes on cigars,” says Phillips, his words floating through a plume of smoke that rises into loosely formed swirls from his $15 difficult-to-come-by stogie. Washington’s smoking ban went into effect this past April, but the legislation’s “limited exemption” for restaurants and bars will end Jan. 1. For lobbyists and other power brokers like Phillips, “the world ends on Dec. 31,” when one of the reigning icons of power, influence, and, to a slightly lesser extent, social status is formally exiled from the District’s elite gathering places, such as Charlie Palmer Steak and Capital Grille. The smoke-filled rooms of the likes of the historic landmark Round Robin Bar — with its hallmark Emerald City-green walls — at the Willard InterContinental Washington on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy routinely gathered for a steak and cigar during their days in the U.S. Senate, will soon be a thing of the past. And it is that news that has the old-guard elite musing about their predicament. “The character of some places will be forever altered,” says cigar smoker and new restaurateur Danny Boylen, who is opening PS7 on 7th Street Northwest this fall. “I can’t imagine going to the Capital Grille and not being able to smoke a cigar,” says Matt Krimm, co-owner of W. Curtis Draper Tobacco on 14th Street Northwest, of the legendary power scene at 601 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. For many, their indelible image of Washington revolves around the idea of decisions made in smoke-filled rooms. For better or worse, that’s about to change. A BYGONE AGE At the Willard, the term “lobbyists” was coined by President Ulysses Grant in 1877; Grant proclaimed he merely wanted to enjoy a good cigar away from political wrangling. Grant, whose wife refused to allow him to “defile” the White House with his cigar smoke, was fond of absconding to the Willard for cigars and brandy. When word caught on that the president was taking refuge in the hotel’s grand lobby, influence peddlers repeatedly accosted him, thus prompting Grant to refer to the would-be power brokers as “these damn lobbyists,” says Jim Hewes, the bar manager at the Round Robin for the past 20 years. Cigars have become emblems of power over the years in the nation’s capital, even throughout the 20th century. Before President Kennedy imposed a trade embargo against the communist government in Cuba in 1962, he ordered his press secretary on the eve of the sanction to acquire 1,000 Petit H Upmanns. Forty-four years into the embargo, Cuban cigars remain the most sought after among aficionados. And former President Bill Clinton was fond of chomping on a good stogie during golf outings. “A cigar is a symbol of success, celebration, and power, and I think Washington is also a symbol of success, celebration, and power,” says Gary Pesh, owner of the Old Virginia Tobacco Co., which has seven stores in the Virginia area. For cigar smokers it’s a status thing — a passion, like playing golf. Or, as Phillips says, a chance for time travel. “When you have a cigar you think of the Gilded Age of business history in this country,” he says. “It’s instant sophistication when you smoke a cigar. It’s a chance to go back in time, to take part in this nostalgic history of government.” And it’s part of doing business in Washington. “It’s another level of influence in our business,” says Phillips. “Our job when we talk about legislation and things like that is, we want to make sure that whomever we are talking to is comfortable,” referring to fine dining, fine liquor, and a fine cigar. A WAY OF LIFE Cigar smoking had a rebirth in the United States in the mid- to late 1990s, a pushback from the health-conscious craze of the 1980s. The last decade of the 20th century saw the birth of the sleek and movie star-touting Cigar Aficionado magazine and a boom in cigar parties in major metropolitan areas including Washington. Linda Roth Conte, who does publicity for Morton’s, the Steakhouse, recalls a women’s cigar dinner she helped put together in February 1996. “Oh, my God, what a party,” she says. “There were a lot of businesswomen there who realized if you want to do business in a nontraditional atmosphere, you play golf or smoke cigars with the guys. A cigar allows for a longer lingering time. You are enjoying something that’s going to take awhile. And that means more business can be discussed.” According to Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America, an estimated 5.1 billion cigars were sold in this country in 2005, up 3 percent from 2004. Of those cigars sold, an estimated 319.4 million were premium, handmade cigars. Cigar sales have increased 9.5 percent from 2004, generating more than $2.3 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 13.7 million people, or 5.5 percent of adults, smoked cigars in 2004, the last year for which data are available. Many cigar smokers see stogies as a safe alternative to cigarettes, health officials say. Sharp and Janelle Rosenfeld, vice president of advertising at cigar manufacturer Altadis USA, say there are no accurate numbers showing how many cigars are distributed in the D.C. area, as they are primarily sold to retailers and wholesalers. Sharp adds that cigars are specifically sold to distributors in other states, such as Maryland and Virginia, who may have accounts in the District. Krimm’s store supplies cigars to Capital Grille, Charlie Palmer Steak, Morton’s, Sam and Harry’s, the Caucus Room, Old Ebbitt Grill, Shelly’s, and Ceiba Restaurant, among others. One of Curtis Draper’s more popular brands of cigars among customers and restaurants is Davidoff, which has the cachet of being the first of the real premium cigars. The Davidoff Special R retails for $14, and restaurants sell it for $22 to $30. Krimm says he has to have eight boxes on hand, never knowing when someone will request them. He estimates he will lose 18 percent of his business, the percentage represented by his cigar sales to area restaurants. “And that [figure] doesn’t include the guy who goes to the Grille after having bought cigars from me.” In all, he says, “I will lose a quarter of my business overnight, and no one has given any consideration because everyone has to save the kids.” It’s not uncommon for Krimm and eight of his friends to go out once a week and drop several hundred dollars individually at hot spots like Charlie Palmer’s, where a porterhouse for two costs $68 a la carte. “Everyone has a few drinks, a few bottles of wine, and then we eat family-style,” says Krimm. “Three or four steaks, a couple of chickens, and a few sides, and eat off each other’s plates. We are very much like the HBO show �Entourage’ but without millions of dollars. That’s how we go, and then most everyone will have a cigar and will sit and shoot the shit. Whatever strikes our fancy.” THE NEW BABYLON? Shelly’s has long been rumored to be the only cigar-friendly restaurant exempted from the indoor smoking ban because it derives 10 percent or more of its revenue from tobacco sales. Phillips rents one of the restaurant’s 100 private cigar humidor lockers (for a hefty fee of $500 per year), where he squirrels away his prized rolls, including Opus X ($8 to $30) and Hemingway cigars ($5 to $12). “I’ve already got a condo on the beach,” Phillips jokes, pointing backward with his thumb at Shelly’s wall of humidor lockers. “I’m right there. I have a feeling I’ll be subleasing soon!” Shelly’s owner Bob Materazzi says he projects that his business will do $1.7 million in overall sales this year, with 15 percent of that figure coming from cigar sales alone. “I will buy all my cigars from there just to keep them exempted,” says Boylen, the restaurateur, adding that his new venture will include a patio where patrons may smoke their cigars. Whether Shelly’s becomes the new parlor of influence remains to be seen. Materazzi says that during a recent D.C. Health Department inspection of his establishment, monitors were clueless over what action will be taken. A spokesperson for the department said that as of yet, no businesses have been granted an exemption from the smoking ban. While Materazzi says locker-rental figures are running above last year’s (he currently has five or six available), he hasn’t seen a dramatic increase in customers despite spending money on a three-month radio advertising campaign. That could be because many of the area’s high-end cigar smokers are accustomed to linen tablecloths and button-down service. Shelly’s sports a lodgelike atmosphere and roasted chicken wings; the bar is well stocked with premium scotches. But cigar smokers seeking to replicate their experience at the Capital Grille better brace themselves for an appetizer of fried mozzarella sticks versus steak tartare. “The cigar smoker is a spendy kind of person,” says Pesh, the owner of Old Virginia Tobacco Co. “They like fine wines; they have sensitive palates. You will see them order single-malt scotches, rather than rum and Cokes.” But cigar smokers say they will seek out places where they will be accommodated, and Materazzi is banking on that. “Everyone says I’m going to get a windfall, but I don’t think that’s a fact,” he says, noting that the ban will reduce the appeal of the District as a destination for late-night bar and restaurant goers. “Over time, I’m hoping the cigar smokers will find me again, but I certainly don’t believe that this will be the case.” TAKE IT OUTSIDE Fourteen states have passed outright bans on smoking in restaurants and bars, including California, Colorado, New Jersey, and New York. According to Smoke Free Maryland, an advocacy group seeking a ban on smoking in public places, Maryland’s Montgomery, Prince George’s, Talbot, and Howard counties all have smoking bans for restaurants and bars. Earlier this year, Maryland and Virginia rejected statewide bans on smoking. Despite an economic-hardship waiver for businesses demonstrating a “significant negative impact” due to the ban, the prohibition will send many D.C. cigar smokers across the river to Virginia, predicts John Anderson, who co-owns W. Curtis Draper with Krimm. “It’s just a short drive away, a Metro stop away,” says Anderson. And Pesh, who does 50 golf tournaments a year in Virginia and Maryland, has directed his energies toward the Virginia hospitality industry. “There’s no point of establishing relations in D.C. only to have the rug pulled on you,” he says. The Capitol Grille and Charlie Palmer Steak did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. But cigar suppliers to these restaurants say that while all vigorously oppose the ban, many have grown to accept it, particularly Morton’s, which already has locations in states where smoking in restaurants is banned. Buzz Beler, owner of the Prime Rib on K Street Northwest, installed an air ventilation system in his bar three or four years ago. Several restaurants and hotels did the same. Beler’s VisionAir unit cost about $10,000, and customers, notably D.C. City Council members Phil Mendelson and Vincent Gray (both of whom voted for the smoking ban), “couldn’t smell a whiff of smoke,” the restaurateur says. “Politics trumps everything,” he says, referring to anti-smoking advocates as “Nicotine Nazis.” “Look, I have a very particular clientele. Jackets and ties are required for dinner. But at lunch time, business executives come in here, eat their lunch, and want a cigar or two.” Beler says council member Carol Schwartz, a former smoker who was the only member to vote against the ban, still comes into the Prime Rib. Other establishments in the area have also looked ahead and are planning tobacco-themed parties for the rest of the year. Kevin Robinson, director of food and beverage at the Jefferson Hotel (which currently allows smoking in its lounge), is planning such a party for New Year’s Eve, the night before the ban goes into effect. Though the affair is still in the planning stages, Robinson says every item served will be tied to tobacco — smoked meats, fish, and smoky scotches will be among the highlights. For an establishment like the Round Robin Bar at the Willard, the ban represents the death of part of its identity, though bar manager Hewes hopes to hold on to a little of it by creating “clubby little smoking areas” outside on the bar’s terrace. “While the bar has always been a central hub of activity, you see few politicians here these days with big cigars and a glass of bourbon,” says Hewes. “They are very conscious of it. Fund-raisers are held away from public scrutiny. Where is that open door?”
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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