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San Francisco

The Best Places to Smoke Cigars in San Francisco

Dachterrasse des Wingtip

Photo: Simon Lundh | Thomas Brock und Grace Cabezas on the rooftop at the Wingtrip

“No.” The reply is quick and unanimous when I ask Grace Cabezas, Davidoff’s area sales manager in San Francisco, and Thomas Brock of Telford’s Pipe & Cigar in Mill Valley if San Francisco is a good cigar city. “But it has the potential to be,” Cabezas continues. “Considering how beautiful it is, with the hills, the views, and all the fantastic food.” “There should just be more places in a city like this,” Brock adds. “If you know where to go, however, it’s not bad at all.” The “this” that Brock is referring to is the rooftop of the Wingtip, an upscale clothing store in the middle of the Financial District with its own private club on the top floor.

Occidental Club San Francisco

Photo: Simon Lundh | The Occidental is the only walk-in cigar bar left in the city where you can smoke

A couple of blocks away lies the Occidental Cigar Club, almost the only place in San Fran- cisco where you can legally smoke inside, of which Brock is part-owner. In fact, with the ever-more stringent city smoking laws, the only reason the Occidental is still in business is because it was established before 2003, combined with the fact that everybody who worked there was a part-owner.

“The laws here are draconian,” Brock says. “And the city laws are worse than the state laws. The state laws are built around smoking being a working-environment issue, but the city of San Francisco has made it a public health issue, which means you can’t have any employees being subjected to secondhand smoke. But it works if your business is owner-operated.” You’re not even allowed to smoke in parks. “It’s not as bad as the city of Los Gatos (just south of San José), where you can get a fine if you smoke in your car, driving down the main street, or Berkeley, where they made it illegal to smoke on the sidewalks in commercial zones. But you can’t smoke in city parks or on city beaches. Federal parks, like the Presidio, are ok, but not the ones owned by the city.

California is not worse than most states in the US, though.” “Really? You can’t compare it to Florida,” Cabezas counters. In Miami Beach you only have half a dozen places where you can light up.” “Well, Florida is special,” Brock replies. The Wingtip is located in an old bank building, in which a humidor was installed in its former safe. Right outside that, among shirts, ties, belt buckles, cuff links and even razors; headphones, whiskey, special golf umbrellas, and an authentic model sextant, Davidoff has its own cigar display. The rooftop patio is a perfect example of the potential that Cabezas is talking about. The view of the city’s highrises is fantastic, and San Francisco, with all its sometimes annoyingly steep hills, is indeed one of the most beautiful cities in the United States, not to mention one of the most interesting. Its cultural history exceeds that of most cities.

Not far from the Wingtip is the area of North Beach, where almost everyone famous has once hung out and performed, from the beatnik writers and poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to musicians like Barbra Streisand and The Kingston Trio, and comedians, including Robin Williams and Bill Cosby. This is where writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou worked as a folk singer and dancer before she became famous. Almost every block harbors a vast amount of cultural and political history.

Telford's Cigar Shop

Photo: Simon Lundh | At Telford’s in ill Valley right on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, you can get just about anything you want

Since everything is within walking distance in San Francisco, you’re also not far from the city’s other very characteristic neighborhoods. Next to North Beach is the world’s biggest Chinatown. Further west lies the old hippie district, Haight-Ashbury, which, in its heyday, was home to the likes of Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and many more. South of that, you have the Castro, the biggest gay neighborhood in the world, where rainbow flags are almost more common than the windowsills they hang from. East of that, there’s the Mission, a formerly Irish, now Latin, district, turned hipster heaven, with the best Mexican food in the state.

All in all, San Francisco might be one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, and the food selection is nothing short of ridiculous. Walking through the city, from the Mission to Fisherman’s Wharf, from Richmond to Embarcadero, you will pass more than one restaurant from every corner of the earth – there’s Nicaraguan, Mexican, Brazilian, Eritrean, Moroccan, Senegalese, Scandinavian, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and of course, American cuisine. You name it, San Francisco has it. 

We move to the Occidental, a cozy, small Cheers-like bar with a familiar feeling to it, though it’s surrounded by highrises. Or maybe that’s just why. It’s a neighborhood bar amid the stress of everyday life, a smoker’s retreat from traffic, noise, and strict smoking laws. “What’s nice about this place is that you have people talking to each other that normally wouldn’t interact,” Brock says. “Here you have bankers, plumbers and lawyers, and they all find a common interest. It’s a very leveling pastime.” One of these customers is 25-year-old investment advisor Brian Mauck. “You’re never going to be bored here,” Brian says. “I come here for the people. You get some who are 75 and others who are 22, and that’s part of why it’s interesting. There’s always some conversation you can be a part of. I wish there were more places like this one.” Unfortunately, the prospect of seeing more places like this pop up in San Francisco is more than bleak.

“They’re not handing out any more retail tobacco licenses, so nobody can open up a new shop,” Brock says. “They would have to go through the public health department.” This, of course, raises the question, what would happen if the owners of the Occidental decided to sell? Would they be able to pass on their license? “I honestly don’t know,” is Brock’s reply.

850 Cigar Club SF

Photo: Simon Lundh | Customers at the 850 Cigar Club enjoying conversation and smoke on the patio

At the 850 Cigar Club, I meet up with Tom Horak, cigar broker for Quesada Cigars and JMG. He’s been in the business since the Seventies, and he elaborates on the situation. “In the late Eighties or early Nineties, the taxes on cigars increased from 0 to 65 percent, which made it very hard for the smoke shops to stay in business. So they started selling other stuff, like paraphernalia, coffee, chocolate, and things like that. At the same time, the liquor stores started to sell cigars, taking over more and more of the market. Sometimes smokers don’t want to go all the way to a smoke shop when they’re already picking up a six-pack or something. So many shops closed down or focused more on selling other things.”

As everywhere else, the early Nineties cigar boom meant an upswing, but after that it went down again.
“Overall it’s been more or less the same for some time now. Since there are very few places where you can smoke inside, you notice a bigger difference between seasons instead. There are actually a few more owner-operated bars where you can smoke, but the Occidental is the only cigar bar.”

We’re sitting on the patio of the 850 Cigar Club. In the corner, a jazz band is playing; inside, you can play pool, and it’s an overall cozy atmosphere with mixed clientele, not only cigar smokers. Here you can’t smoke inside, but there are other places, if you want to go outside the city limits, such as Telford’s in Mill Valley, which may have the area’s biggest cigar selection.

“The Cigar Loft in San Mateo is also good, with its open lounge,” Horak adds. “In San José, there’s Mission Pipe that has been around for more than 30 years, and in the Fremont, you have Ohlone Cigar Club.” 

ruce Rothenburgs Prä-Embargo-Zigarren

Photo: Simon Lundh | Bruce Rothenburgs pre-embargo cigars at the Vendetta in the Fairmont Hotel

There is one more cigar club in the city, open to anyone, where you can smoke inside. It’s the Vendetta at the Fairmont Hotel. The indoor smoking area is very small. It’s more or less just a couch in the back of a men’s clothing store, but it has a great view and something no other place in the US has: legal Cuban cigars. “About 25 years ago I had a small store with a cigar club, and one day this woman came in with her husband’s old Cuban cigars,” the owner, Bruce Rothenberg, tells me. “He couldn’t smoke anymore and she asked me if I wanted to buy them. As far as I know, I have the only store in the US where you can buy preembargo cigars today. But back then, there was another store on the East Coast. The owner used to help me buy from collectors, and when he retired, he sold his collection to me.” The cigars are more than 65 years old, so don’t expect regular Cubans.

“They definitely become smoother,” says Rothenberg. “There’s no harshness, no bite and no aftertaste, but a lot of flavor. I think they’re delicious.” They go for between USD 140 and 300, and he’s not running out anytime soon. “I’ve bought from the same people for 20 to 25 years, and I’m expecting another couple of 100 in the next few weeks. So far, I’ve got enough.” 

 

Clubs

The Occidental Cigar Club

471 Pine Street
San Francisco, CA 94104
T: +1 415 834 0485 
www.occidentalcigarclub.com 

850 Cigar 

Bar & Grill 
850 Montgomery St
San Francisco, CA 94133
T: +1 415 398 0850
www.cigarbarandgrill.com 

The Wingtip 

550 Montgomery St
San Francisco, CA 94111
T: + 1 415 765 0993
www.wingtip.club

Vendetta at the Fairmont Hotel

950 Mason Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
T: +1 415 397 7755
www.vendettablu.com

The Cigar Loft

106 W 25th AveSan Mateo, CA 94403
T: +1 650 312 1141
www.cigarloft.net

Ohlone Cigar Lounge

Mowry Ave
Fremont, CA 94538
T: +1 510 972 4373
www.ohlonecigarlounge.com

 

Shops

The Humidor

Embarcadero Center, 1108 San Francisco, CA 94111
T: + 1 415 362 1405

Dean’s Fine Cigars

715 Market St
San Francisco, CA 94103
T: +1 415 957 1110

California Tobacco Center

1501 Polk St
San Francisco, CA 94109
T: +1 415 885 5479

Telford’s Pipe & Cigar

664 Redwood Hwy
Mill Valley, CA 94941
T: +1 415 388 0440
www.telfordspipeandcigar.com

Mission Pipe Shop

1205 The Alameda
San José, CA 95126
T: +1 408 293 5144
www.missionpipe.com

The Piedmont Tobacconist

Glen Ave Oakland, CA 94611  
T: +1 510 652 7473

Burlingame Tobacconists

1404 Burlingame Ave Burlingame, CA 94010
T: +1 650 343 3300
www.burlingametobacconists.com

 

This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2018. Read more

Simon Lundh

Since graduating with an engineering degree in surveying in 2005, Simon Lundh has preferred to follow a profession in journalism. He stumbled upon the cigar world while working for a non-governmental organization in Estelí, Nicaragua, and is now mainly making a living writing about cigars, metal music, tattoos, and travel.


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