Smokeshop / July-August 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 government'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 the nation's capital.
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 memberships. 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 Gunterem. "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. Gunterem 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 Gunterem. "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."
Arguably, one of the most interesting people at GHR is Cuban-born Graciela Cabezas, who runs Grand Havana Room's retail store (see related story). Cabezas says the shop -- open to the public -- stocks over 50 brands of cigars from Honduras, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Among them are the best-selling Arturo Fuente Opus X, Partagas (150th anniversary), Zino Connoisseur (No. 100), Davidoff (Special R) and Felipe (Gregorio Sereno).
Gilio, who given cigars to President Clinton, tells us more GHR 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, Tokyo, Taipei and Manila over the next five years.
Yet despite GHR's growth, Gilio says his is 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."