The dude on the sax is working up a sweat and the smoke on the terrace is now so thick, it’s mushrooming under the awning. A cute broad wearing a string of pearls is giving me the eye and the waiter slips me a tumbler of whisky as he passes by with a nod and a wink. I’m no gumshoe or hard drinking, womanising Raymond Chandler figure; just your dishevelled correspondent, marvelling at the latest cigar-friendly venue to open in the capital. It’s Boisdale of Canary Wharf, where stepping into the rich maroon and burgundy interior makes you feel like you’ve been given a password to the best Speakeasy in town.
This is just one in a string of venues that have spilled out across London and beyond in recent months. When the smoking ban first came into force in 2007, many clubs, bars and restaurants – which had been previously cigar-friendly – packed away their crystal ashtrays, dismantled their humidors and retreated to anxiously twitch their lace curtains and wait for others to make the first move.
After a period of reflection, without much fuss and fanfare, a previously silent minority began to make its voice heard. This minority is well-heeled, well-connected and well behaved; it’s a group of people that asks only for somewhere comfortable to sit and enjoy a fine, hand-rolled cigar; one of life’s greatest pleasures. It appears their message is getting across. Quality cigar lounges, terraces and bars are springing up faster than a speeding belicoso all over the capital.
Entrepreneurs such as Ranald Macdonald, who runs the Boisdale group, are putting their money back into cigars and finding inventive ways around the tortuous smoking ban. Cigar smokers are starting to reap their just desserts with a choice of quality venues.
Number Ten Manchester Street, for instance, is a cracking hotel, bar and restaurant, but its piece de resistance is the intimate cigar terrace tucked discreetly out the back. With overhead cover from the elements, heat lamps to ward off chills and an extensive choice of Havanas from a lovely walk-in humidor, this little gem only five minutes walk from Baker Street tube is hard to beat. Get in early though, as it tends to get busy.
If more opulence floats your boat, splash out at The Garden Room at The Lanesborough, Hyde Park Corner. It’s a clubbable, outside smoking room that feels like a library, with leather armchairs, roaring fireplace and even underfloor heating. The humidor is massively stocked with rare and aged smokes, but expect to pay for them. Cheap this is not.
If a more realistically priced smoke is what’s required, why not try one of the cigar shops in the capital that have a chair or two from which you can ‘sample’ their wares? Although the smoking ban prohibits indoor smoking virtually everywhere else, cigar specialists have an exemption which allows for ‘sampling’ cigars on the premises in the same way one may ‘taste’ wine with your wine merchant.
So, on a pleasant day, you could take a trip to historic JJ Fox in St James, soak up the atmosphere, breathe in that same incredible aroma which so intoxicated Sir Winston Churchill and smoke a cigar in a little piece of heaven.
Or if you prefer trendy to traditional, nip along to the small but perfectly formed Whisky & Cigars shop in West Hampstead (4 Broadwell Parade, London NW6 2BE) where you’ll be assured of a friendly welcome and a tasty selection of cigars to enjoy on the premises.
That’s the beauty for today’s cigar lover; your custom is valued, desired and duly rewarded.
Tonight, Boisdale Canary Wharf is jumping to a live jazz band; there’s a throng of party people at the bar, eyes alight with the amber glow reflected from the hundreds of bottles of premium whisky on display; and on the terrace, men and women alike are puffing hedonistically on well-aged cigars.
It’s like Valhalla to an old romantic like me. In the early months of the smoking ban, the outlook had been depressing in the extreme. But now it’s time to pack your cigar cutter and head out in search of Havanas. London’s cigar scene is alive and kicking.
Nick Hammond, alias Monty Cristo, is a cigar writer and journalist who selflessly researches rare and aged Havanas, so you don’t have to.