At Hookah Bars, Things Go Better With Smoke

Clouds of smoke billow. Some watch a backgammon game intently, as though it were the unveiling of a new military strategy, while others do victory dances and clap their hands emphatically when they win at cards. Most of them have shapely, colorful hookahs beside them like flirtatious mistresses. The tobacco the men smoke comes in flavors like grape, green apple and mint. A glowing coal appears through the smoke as the “fahamji,” the waiter in charge of the coal, replaces the blackened with the red hot.

Instead of going to a French bistro the way they would before smoking was banned in New York City in July 2003, Olivia Gimeno took 15 of her friends to Layali Beirut, a hookah bar in Astoria, Queens, on a Thursday night. Her Colombian and American friends shared tables — hookahs too, if they could agree on a tobacco flavor to try.

“It’s nice for me to take some of my friends to a new area of New York that they haven’t seen before so they can try Arabic food and, most importantly, smoke argileh,” says 26-year-old Gimeno, who is of Spanish descent, has lived in Manhattan for years and freely throws around the Arabic word for hookah in casual conversation. “It’s definitely worth the subway ride over.”

Around Gimeno’s party was a cross section of the ethnic population that has always supported this tradition. A dozen Middle Eastern men played games and talked global politics, holding prayer beads in one hand and the winding, beige hoses of their hookahs in the other.

“Years ago, hookah bars had this exclusive vibe that made some people scared to walk into one,” said Ramzi Jaber, manager of Layali Beirut. “Now they are packed on weekends with people from all over the place, and you can’t go inside if you wanted to. If you want to smoke, this is where you’ll come.”

As smoking bans rolled out across the states, hookah bars have become among the few places left where people let loose and smoke freely. In New York, the city’s department of health says that no restaurant or bar can get a tobacco permit unless it has been operating since 2001. In Los Angeles, a new regulation will be in place in February 2011 to prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from being in a hookah bar — or else nobody else can smoke there. In North Carolina, successful hookah bar owners are fighting to maintain smoking rights.

Places like Layali Beirut, which has been around for nearly 15 years, still have tobacco privileges. Today, a clientele traditionally composed of men of Arab and Mediterranean descent has given way to a younger market. Partly because of the smoking ban, a hookah bar now shows an unlikely mix of the original, ethnic population and college-age “foreigners” happily coexisting — and the hookah bars are profiting from the shift.

Mohamed Mohamed, who has been running El Rawsheh restaurant in Astoria for more than a decade, runs a hand through his graying curly hair as he describes the dramatic shift over the past two years — and how great it is for business.

“It’s the hookah bars that keep this street going these days,” he said, seated at a white table, waving a hand toward the bustling street. His back is to the counter, with a menu printed on the wall behind it offering tabbouleh, hummus and baklava. “If they made us stop, this area would collapse.” Mohamed explained that there is a patient quality to smoking hookah, unlike the ephemeral experience offered by a cigarette, that encourages customers to linger for hours – and order more. Mohamed had been struggling to keep his business afloat for years. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, he was worried that losses would mount and considered closing down his shop last December. Yet thanks in part to the smoking ban and generally more affordable offerings in Astoria compared with Manhattan, business is booming. Last fall, he hired four temporary employees to keep up with orders and will probably keep them on as permanent staff.

Layali Beirut, down the block from El Rawsheh, is doing so well that it bought the grocery store next door to convert it into a second hookah bar. The new bar will open by summer on Steinway Street, which has at least five other hookah joints. The manager, Jaber, pegs the success largely to the smoking ban that restricts hookah bars in Manhattan more than those in Queens. In Manhattan, Quick Lite is used rather than real charcoal, and hookahs often serve herbal alternatives such as dagga and valerian rather than tobacco. His bar draws people from all over the world — and usually half are women.

“People used to ask, ‘What do you mean you run a hooker bar?’” he said, sinking into the plush, beige couch and propping his elbows on maroon and gold pillows. “Now people know about us. And we’ve got packs of women who are into it too, not just men.”

By the 1980s, hookah bars had sprouted in major cities that had dominant Middle Eastern communities, including Los Angeles, Detroit and New York. Shop signs on Steinway Street in Astoria are mainly in Arabic in what is now a Middle Eastern part of town. Advertisements for tobacco flavors seem like a formality, as each hookah bar seems to have its regular clients, who are served without ordering. And then there are the outsiders who mull the hookah menu, trying to imagine how grape-flavored tobacco tastes.

In a hookah bar in Wilmington, N.C., manager Danny Best added entertainment to the tobacco mix to keep younger clients happy. He opened his place, the Juggling Gypsy, six years ago on Valentine’s Day. Since then, he has also seen his clientele give way to college-age students.

Nearly half the hookah bars in North Carolina shut down last year because of stringent anti-smoking regulations, but Best has been able to keep his bar running by adding the performance element. A loophole in the smoking ban suggests that during live shows, smoking is allowed. So at the Juggling Gypsy, younger, bohemian patrons can smoke hookah while watching belly dancing, bands and other acts. He is still in discussions with the state’s health department to maintain the same smoking rights that cigar lounges enjoy without the performance element. “We’re going fight it all the way,” he said.