It was 10 years ago today that the smoking ban forever changed New York City nightlife, irrevocably killing the possibility of finding old-world romance by spotting an attractive stranger through a smoke-filled bar and coaxing them to a more private setting where you could both get out of your stinking smoke-infused clothes.
The Bloomberg administration celebrated this day with a cheery press release, touting statistics that include the prevention of roughly 10,000 premature smoking-related deaths, and a 6.7 percent decrease in New York City smokers between 2002 and 2011. In recent news, Bloomberg is currently trying to pass legislation that would keep cigarettes tucked safely out of sight and ensure that no package of cigarettes should ever be sold for less than $10.50.
But there's still at least one bar in the city where a person can light up without fear of Nanny Bloomberg slapping the thing right out of your mouth: Circa Tabac, a sultry SoHo jazz lounge that owner Lee Ringelheim said remains a smoking stronghold thanks to a legislative loophole.
According to Ringelheim, the bar, which opened in 1998 at 32 Watts Street, was given an exemption on the basis that 10 percent or more of its sales were comprised of tobacco or tobacco related products as of 2001. Though the law—known officially as the Smoke Free Air Act—did not go into effect until 2003, "tobacco bars" that existed prior to December 31, 2001, were pardoned—just as long as they ensured that that 10 percent tobacco quota was met.
A provision mandating a minimum sale of tobacco seems strange coming from an administration that loathes cigarettes so thoroughly that it managed to ban them outside. But Ringelheim said the law was a blessing for his bar, saying that "the world's first cigarette lounge"—a 1920s art deco-themed parlor that featuring low lights and sultry jazz music—wasn't exactly an instant hit.
"It was kinda a failure until the law happened," he admitted.
Ringelheim said he hasn't had any trouble meeting the requirement on tobacco sales.The place is just as popular with desperate smokers as it is with discerning cigar aficionados, who frequent Circa Tabac to sample its considerable selection. He added that he needs to sell around 40 or 50 drinks for every cigar, which has not been a problem.
Patrons are allowed to bring their own smokes, though Ringelheim does charge a $5 cutting fee for cigars. He sells all brands and types of cigarette (including Treasurers, which at $40 a pack are among the most costly in the world), but the privilege of not leaving the bar stool to make a mood-breaking run to the bodega comes with a cost: Even the cheapest pack will still set you back $15.
Ringelheim said that despite powerful ventilators and oft-open windows, Circa Tabac is not for everyone. "We do lose a lot of corporate parties, because if just one person doesn’t smoke they won't come here," he said. Still, he feels the occasional loss is nothing compared to the service the lounge provides to the city's smokers. "Ten years later, there's still a little pocket of old New York that’s still here."