Cigar Hunter: Washington tobaccophiles rejoice! A new cigar lounge is born

David Martosko | Executive Editor

Editor’s note: The next Cigar Hunter prize giveaway is upon us. Make sure you’re at least 18 years old and sign up here to win a 10-cigar travel humidor from Corona Cigar Co. And we’ll start you off with six of Corona’s 10th Anniversary Double Phatty Habano cigars. These are 7″ x 60 monsters, and they’re all Dominican. Prize drawing will be January 17th at 5:00 p.m. EST.

I can count on one hand the number of decent cigar-friendly places in Washington, D.C., making the biggest U.S. tourist city with no tobacco tax one of the worst places to smoke. When I’m in Denver, there are about two dozen decent places to light up a cigar, and only a few are out to gouge you or hassle you. Not so in the nation’s capital, but the District is edging its way back to stogie respectability inch by inch.

Credit John Anderson and Matt Krimm, the entrepreneurs at the helm of the legendary W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist locations in D.C. and Bethesda, Md. When they rolled out the red carpet for the media Tuesday night at their newest property in Washington, I was champing at the bit.

It’s called “Civil,” and boy, is it ever.

Picture a cigar-lounge-meets-upscale-bar-meets-social-club with 93 seats and valet parking, and then put it in a shopping galleria next door to a high-end restaurant that serves a reduced menu while you smoke.

I’m impressed. The only downside is that for people who work downtown, Civil is a bit of a hike. It’s all the way in the northwest corner of Washington, a block from the Maryland line. Maybe the message is that the further away you get from Capitol Hill, the more civilized everything becomes. (RELATED: Yes, grown-ups write these laws)

But there’s lots to like there, and lots to emulate for cigar entrepreneurs who crave an upscale clientele.

The prices, for one. Civil shares Draper’s volume buying power, so the outrageous markup that often accompanies leather seating is not in evidence anywhere. They stock everything from a $5.50 Punch to a $33.00 La Palina. It’s not the grandest selection in the world, but they’ve “curated” a collection of 125 cigars with something for every taste.

And with no tobacco tax in D.C. — compared with 15 percent in Virginia — the prices were actually less than at my neighborhood shop in the suburbs. If you’ve never lived in Washington, take my word for it: Everything is more expensive downtown, so this was a shock. (RELATED: Post-election short smokes)

Undercrown corona vivas for $8. Padron 1964 anniversary exclusivos for less than $12. La Flor Dominicana double ligero chisels for under $9.50. I bought two Fuente Opus X cigars — a No. 2 and a super bellicoso — and paid $34.50 for both.

The retail floor is arranged so that every cigar is visible in glass-encased racks, nestled in cedar trays reminiscent of blackboard chalk trays, row-on-row. One of the proprietors lifted the idea from a tobacconist in Amsterdam. I’ve never seen one like it.

The staff is knowledgeable, including a cigar steward who patrols the lounge offering pairings to go with whatever you might be drinking. (Nice touch.)

That goes for food, too. Bryan Voltaggio’s RANGE restaurant is adjacent to Civil, and they serve directly in the lounge and at the bar. On the press preview night, reporters noshed on brick oven pizzas, cheese plates, carpaccios and flatbreads. “The menu utilizes all of RANGE’s nine kitchens,” a news release reads, “including the rotisserie, wood hearth, pasta station and bakery to bring guests unique dishes available only at Civil.”

The booze was comped — and wasted on me, alas — but Civil was also offering complimentary Ashton 898 Connecticut lonsdales for guests. Very few in the room were smoking, but then again these were reporters who are used to a culture that shames tobacco and encourages furtive puffs in hidden places. This was out in the open, in your face, and in one of Washignton’s trendiest neighborhoods.

But even the anti-fun finger-waggers needn’t worry about the secondhand smoke. Civil has installed a monster of an air circulation system that completely replaces the air every two minutes. For a 5,000 square foot space with high ceilings, that’s an achievement.

While you won’t pay a lot for cigars at Civil, the locker rental is another story. A cube the size of a milk crate goes for $1,000 per year, with a $250 discount if you pay in advance for two years. The rental does come with a box of private label cigars made by Tatuaje’s Pete Johnson, but for that kind of money Pete had better come over and light the cigar for me. (RELATED SLIDESHOW: Smoking hot famous women smoking cigars)

(Truth be told, I’m confident the lockers will sell out. This is a status-symbol town.)

Civil is in many ways the opposite of my local man-cave cigar shop. The TV was tuned to news, not sports. The clientele is likelly to be yuppies and their lawyers, not Redskins fans and Marines. And I don’t see Civil as a place where “regulars” will hang out: It’s more like a destination for serious aficionados and social scenesters looking for try something new.

But that describes most of Washington, so Civil will fit right in.

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