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Washington's Grand Havana Room So Hot It Smokes
The Washington Diplomat / July 1997

By Larry Luxner

Tobacco leaves are displayed under glass countertops, while cigar-smoking bar patrons enjoy CDs of world-famous Cuban musicians Celia Cruz and Tito Puente performing "El Mejor de Dos Mundos" -- The Best of Both Worlds.

Indeed, for well-heeled American cigar lovers who, because of their own govern-ment's restrictive policies, can only dream about visiting Cuba, the new Grand Havana Room is the best of both worlds. Located at the site of the once-famous Nineteenth Street Grill, it's the snazziest and most exclusive cigar club in Washington.

Just to get in the front door and have access to GHR's personalized humidors, individual members must fork up a $2,000 initiation fee, plus $150 a month -- not including the cigars themselves. Corporate memberships cost an initial $5,000 plus $300 a month, which gives carte blanche to four company officials and three guests at a time.

The club, inaugurated Mar. 17, is similar to the first Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills, and a second GHR that opened earlier this year at New York's former "Top of the Sixes" at 666 Fifth Avenue. Representing a $1 million investment, the 8,000-square-foot club boasts lounge chairs richly appointed in leather and velvet, a private conference and party room, two large-screen satellite TV sets and a business center offer a low-key atmosphere in which to dine, meet with friends, play backgammon and discuss the intracacies of Capitol Hill politics.

Stan Shuster, executive vice-president of GHR, calls his growing concept the "polo club of the 90s."

"It's about serious cigar smoking -- the tastes, the smells, the rituals, the camaraderie," he gloated in a press release accompanying the grand opening. "We want to create an exclusive hideaway for men and women who appreciate the pleasures of fine cigars and the company of those who share this and other lifestyle interests."

Many view this as nothing more than snob appeal, and indeed it may very well be. But so far, more than 130 Washingtonians have signed up for the 480 available member-ships. And unlike the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills -- whose patrons include the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, James Belushi and Danny DeVito -- the new Washington club is attracting mainly doctors, attorneys, lobbyists and a few foreign embassy officials.

"We are targeting anybody who smokes cigars and who can afford to be here, and who likes this kind of atmosphere," says 34-year-old general manager Ali Gunertem. "There are other clubs like Club Macanudo, but this is the only one that's exclusive."

The Grand Havana Room has a distinctively international flavor, partly due to the fact that its 25 employees include Salvadorans, Turks, Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Gunertem himself was a professional basketball player in Istanbul before immigrating to the United States and getting into the restaurant business; prior to joining GHR, he was general manager of Cities Restaurant in Washington's Adams Morgan district.

"This is not a dance club, it's a cigar club. Members have a key to the front door, which is always locked," says Gunertem. "All the liquor is top-shelf -- vintage wines, champagne, liqueurs, aged ports and rare cognacs." At $95 for a glass of Remy Martin "Louis XIII" cognac, this place is certainly not for everyone.

In the same vein, GHR's cuisine -- featuring menu selections that accent the flavors of cigars -- was developed by chef David Ivey-Soto, a 1997 nominee for the prestigious Washington, DC Chef of the Year Award. Selections include grilled salmon spaghetti ($14.95), lemon chicken ($14.95) and sautéed bison with seared oysters ($19.95).

Modeled after the Beverly Hills club, the Grand Havana Room also has a lighting system imported from England that regulates the amount of heat yielded by lamps, in order to maintain cigar quality. In addition, it has a $150,000 ventilation system featuring 12 smoke-eaters for maximum smoke extraction; indeed, for a club filled with over 100 cigar-smoking executives, the place is surprisingly smoke-free.

George Gilio is operations manager for GHR, a public company whose shares are traded on the Nasdaq, and which was originally known as United Restaurants. The company's senior vice-president is actor Joe Pantoliano, who's appeared in dozens of Hollywood productions ranging from Risky Business to The Fugitive. Gilio says the Beverly Hills location sold out at 342 members shortly after its July 1995 inauguration.

"We wanted to capitalize on America. New York and Beverly Hills were always a consideration, but we needed something in the middle," says Gilio. "Our uniqueness is to bring in the synergy of money, privacy against all odds. There are lots of private clubs, and everyone in politics wants to prove you wrong."

One of the most interesting people at GHR is Cuban-born Graciela Cabezas, who runs Grand Havana Room's retail store. When this 28-year-old woman talks about cigars, nostalgia seems to sweep over her like the warm Caribbean breezes that bathe Havana's seaside Malecón.

Cabezas fled her native Cuba in 1970 -- just 11 years after the Communist revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and cut U.S. trade with the island. A former law student, she now manages the Grand Havana Room retail outlet, and is also the cigar buyer for GHR's New York and Washington locations.

"I'm one of only two women who knows the merchandise, and I think that's crucial," said Cabezas. "My grandfather rolled his own cigars in Cuba, and I was raised with this knowledge. Growing up in Miami, it was an aroma I knew extremely well -- along with Cuban politics, certain little secrets and costumbres (customs) you don't learn in books. When I feel and smell a good Cuban cigar, it takes me back to my youth."

That knowledge has served Cabezas well in her current job, which requires her to travel regularly to every Central American and Caribbean cigar-producing nation except her native Cuba. At present, the store stocks over 50 brands of cigars. The best-selling stogie, she says, is Sirena Gran Reserva of the Dominican Republic ($12.75 for a single, $425 per box), and Nicaragua's Padrón Aniversario ($6.80 each). "We don't sell that one by the box, because they're too hard to get."

The cheapest cigar in GHR's store is a Honduran Charles the Great ($3 each); the most expensive is Partagas 150 Aniversario AA ($36 each). Apparently, the high prices don't dissuade too many people. "I have a person who comes in every week and buys at least eight of them," she says.

Cabezas says all the cigars in her store are maintained at 72° F. and between 70% and 72% humidity, in order to duplicate climatic conditions found in Cuba. Besides cigars, the store stocks dozens of luxury goods such as a $220 blue glass-blown cigar ashtray, and an Elie Bleu cedar-wood lacquered cigar box that holds 300 cigars and costs $4,000.

Interestingly, the cigar expert's favorite brand isn't a hard-to-find Cuban but a Dominican brand -- Hemingway Short Story.

"I had saved two of them for when the day Cuba would be free, but my cousin smoked them without knowing. One day, I was telling [cigar executive] Cynthia Fuentes the story, and she told me it was her favorite brand too. She pulled out one from her pocketbook and said she wanted me to have the last one."

To be sure, Cabezas has mixed feelings about whether the United States should lift its 35-year-old trade embargo against her homeland.

"You can't duplicate the soil Cuba produces a great cigar, but look at the condi-tions they work under. They don't have music, they go to work with empty stomachs. If you don't have an incentive to produce, you'll feel it in the cigar -- it's like a dead soul."

Ending the blockade, she added, "would enhance our industry, because it would weed out companies whose cigars weren't that good and can't stand up to a Cuban cigar. Lots of U.S. cigar companies are benefiting from Cuba not being able to sell their cigars. If the embargo were lifted, they'd be out of business in a couple of months."

In the meantime, the Grand Havana Room isn't shy about capitalizing on its name.

Gilio, GHR's operations manager, tells us more lounges are planned in Las Vegas, with Miami, Dallas and Chicago following. A few months ago, the company signed an agreement to inaugurate Grand Havana Rooms in 10 of Asia's most prosperous cities including Singapore, Manila, Tokyo and Taipei over the next five years.

Despite GHR's growth, Gilio says his cigar clubs are anything but a franchise operation.

"Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe are about tourism," he says. "This is about exclusivity, high-profile people who want privacy and a place to eat and drink."

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