A Hazy Haven (Hack, Hack) of Legal Smoking

By Lois DeSocio

When people hang out at Hudson Bar and Books in Manhattan, they’re not flipping pages—they’re flicking ashes. It’s a place where the non-smokers are milling around outside the front door as they decide if a face-full of tobacco smoke is worth a step inside a place where smokers rule.

“Is this legal?” a passerby yells from the street outside the front door of this Greenwich Village cigar bar on a recent Saturday evening.

Six years after Mayor Bloomberg’s statewide anti-smoking law took effect, the patrons of Hudson Bar and Books puff away in a perpetual haze of toxic smoke. It’s one of a handful of cigar bars left in Manhattan under a “grandfather” clause that protected cigar bars that opened before December 31, 2001.

No new indoor smoking bars have been permitted to open in the city since then. The mayor has proclaimed the law a public-health success, cutting down on the risks of second-hand smoke for employees, and even cutting down the number of smokers in New York City.

“We have to pay a yearly fee and we were given a special permit,” says bartender Eladio Hultzll, who doesn’t smoke.

Hultzll has manned the bar on Saturday nights for two years now and says the smoke doesn’t bother him. He opens the door, which is steps away from the bar, on a cold night every hour or so to catch a breath of fresh air.

“Not for me,” he says. “For you.”

In addition to the special permit, the bar also has to pass a yearly test of the humidifiers that filter the air. The menu is limited and it sells more tobacco and alcohol than food.

“We only offer light fare,” says Hultzll. “But you can smoke anything you want.”

Except for a small pizza or two and an order of steamed dumplings for the two women sitting at the corner table, there’s not much food to be seen. The vibe is celebratory because this is a place to drink some major whiskey and to smoke a Cuban like an aficionado. The bar-full of sophisticated adults and the highbrow furnishings are tamed a bit by all the smoke.

Steve Hertzberg, 48, of Manhattan is pleased that he picked this unofficial anniversary to throw back a glass of Ben Nevis and toke on a $15 La Aroma de Cuba Robusto. Hultzll delivered the cigar on a silver platter, with a votive candle, a small glass filled with wooden sticks, another small glass of water and a cigar cutter. Hertzberg lights the sticks with the candle and lights his Robusto before putting the flame out in the water.

“Class,” he says.

There’s no way around the aroma of nutmeg, allspice and the occasional whiff of cedar that emanate from the high-end cigars. Crystal ashtrays dot the copper-topped bar and everyone is lighting, dipping and smoking.

“Bloomberg destroyed this city by stopping people from smoking in bars,” says Hertzberg. “So to have a place where you can come and smoke—it’s a great night.”

The whole place is about the size of two subway cars. A dark leather sectional sofa backs up against a wall of leather-bound books in the back of the room. But the sofa is empty. The bar is the place to be. There’s sense of camaraderie that borders on naughtiness as smokers inhale the forbidden leaf.

Top-notch whiskeys, rums and vodkas line the whole back of the bar with the serious stuff displayed in beveled glass cabinetry. Ceiling fans alternate with chandeliers on a painted tin ceiling that work together to illuminate and lift up the smoke. More shelves of books pull it all together in chic style.

But the fraternity of smokers that flock to cigar bars are a dying breed.  More than a quarter-million fewer New Yorkers smoked in 2007 than in 2003, when the ban took effect, according to the city Health Department.

In the first year of the ban, the number of smokers fell by 13 percent—the steepest decline of anywhere in the country, the agency said.  The number is based on a telephone survey of adults, who smoked every day and at least 100 cigarettes a year.  But, statistics aside, the power of the puff can weaken the best of them.

“I only smoke when I come here,” said Julie Seyler, 53, an ex-smoker from Manhattan. “It’s such a nice atmosphere and it is nice to come to a bar and have a drink and a cigarette.”

She lit another cigarette before the first one went out in the ashtray.