The cigar room at The May Fair Hotel in London is the antithesis of the stodgy, clubby, smoking rooms of the past, with vast leather chairs and stuffed animal heads on the wall. It has swinging chairs, chainmail and colourful ambient lighting. It is closer to Austin Powers than it is to Boodle's, London's storied private club. The question is whether the May Fair's fabulous cigar room represents the future of smoking or its last gasp.
Smoking bans hit London with a vengeance seven years ago. Until then, the thickest fog in London was usually found inside a pub. But all that changed in 2007, when Britain adopted some of the world's most stringent anti-smoking laws. The result has emptied pubs as masses of smokers instead have had to congregate outside their doors.
That is not an unreasonable hardship to impose on someone pulling a few quick drags from a cigarette, but cigars are a different matter. It takes an hour or more to burn through a 10-inch Presidente. You can't savour a Cuban standing cheek to jowl with a sodden throng milling about on the sidewalk.
Initially, cigar sales dropped precipitously – as bars and hotels removed their humidors. The tradition of an after-dinner cigar looked as if it had been effectively extinguished. But that trend has been reversed. Hotels and restaurants in London are introducing areas that are at once indoors and outdoors in order to adhere to the law's requirement that 48 per cent of the space be open air: In the past two years no fewer than seven cigar rooms have opened. A law intended to force people to butt out has, oddly, given rise to a new trend in smoking and some of the most fashionable gathering spots.
Of necessity, cigar rooms occupy whatever nooks and crannies are available, which in intensely developed London is to say it's a squeeze.
At the May Fair's cigar room, this is cleverly accomplished through the use of chainmail drapes and awnings, which lend the space atmosphere while at the same time obscuring large external ventilation ducts on nearby buildings and fending off pigeons.
Before closing for renovations in December, the nearby Lanesborough introduced the Garden Room smoking venue, located below grade and accessed through a basement corridor. It was sumptuous, with a decidedly clubby feel to it: leather armchairs, a fireplace with cherubim on the mantle, luxurious floral arrangements and a heated marble floor.
And last year, Dukes Hotel in St. James also opened a Cognac and Cigar Garden in an interior courtyard. Nestled under a white canopy, with lattice work, some greenery and wicker chairs and tables, it contrasts sharply with the Lanesborough. The room is upscale, but more relaxed and with less of a play for the connoisseur's connoisseur.
The May Fair is a different kind of posh hotel, in a city that is full of them. Dating from the 1920s, its exterior is understated, but its interior is flashy. Its substantial cocktail bar and highly rated restaurant, coupled with the Cigar Room, have made it a magnet for show-business types. And the Cigar Room matches the designer aesthetic perfectly. The furniture is stylish; the lighting, with hints of purple, orange and blue, gorgeous. It's easy to forget that you are (sort of) outside.
The menu features four pages of cigars, ranging in price from £12 ($21.68) to £45. The stogie is also fetishized with special "cigar-infused cocktails," like a Monte Cristo Daquiri, and master classes in which people are taught, among other things, how to use a cigar cutter without amputating a digit, and how to look sophisticated with something the same shape and size of a thumb in their mouth. Women make up a substantial and growing part of the clientele.
The explosion of cigar rooms shows no sign of abating. Perhaps it's partly a rebuke directed at the public-health authorities and anti-smoking zealots, or perhaps it's an elegant way to escape the inelegant "bus shelter" phenomenon adopted of necessity by cigarette smokers. Or, just maybe, it's because there is pleasure in being partly out in the elements, luxuriating in the company of friends and strangers.