Luxe Club Macanudo
Where can a refined fellow mingle with like-minded gentlemen in a place that's as exclusive as it is comfortable?

The speak-easies of old oozed charm, but those pesky Mafia affiliations didn't scream "genteel." Today, men bond over football and beer in sports bars, where male camaraderie is potent -- but so is the Axe body spray and the truck driver next to you.

Weathering the storm of smoking bans sweeping the country, cigar lounges have emerged as the new clubs, offering their discerning clientele a way to mingle with the best society while holding up against tough cigar connoisseurs (no underground crime record required).

Haven Away From Havana

Victoria McKee, spokeswoman for Club Macanudo in New York City's Upper East Side, calls cigar clubs the antithesis of metrosexual.

" The customers say, 'I'm going to be a man's man and go with my buddies after work to have a cigar, a glass of red wine and a steak,'" says McKee.

But this is no girls-keep-out establishment: Females make up 25% of the clientele who are willing to dare the fragrant smoke, McKee claims, for quality cigars paired with quality men.

"If I was a single woman in the city, I would be at Club Macanudo," says McKee. "It's a wonderful class of people. We should get Jennifer Aniston in here."

Aniston would be right at home with the celebrities and, surprisingly, the star athletes who prefer a respite from the spotlight or the protein-shake lifestyle.

Even the younger hedge-fund crowd has been puffing Punches and Cohibas next to seasoned CEOs.

While not a private establishment, mentioning Club Macanudo conjures membership and exclusivity.

The inside looks like a gentlemen's club from London. Warm ambers and soft leather furniture amid walls of humidors evoke a welcoming living-room sensation, enhanced just a little by whichever single-malt scotch is in one's snifter.

Attention to detail is key: If you look closely, you'll see that the design on the walls is actually thousands of tobacco leaf prints.

Like all renowned cigar lounges, Macanudo is discerning about whom it lets in the door, with a strict (albeit recently relaxed) dress code.

Those who lease private humidors receive special privileges such as priority seating and are included in a VIP fraternity of celebrities and business tycoons who frequent the club.

General Cigar Company, a subsidiary of Swedish Match ( SWMAF), opened the club in 1996 as an embodiment of Macanudo, the No. 1 premium handcrafted cigar brand in the U.S.

The 63rd St. Martini

"Cigars can be the great equalizer," McKee explains, who says that the spot serves as a social club where a mutual appreciation for tobacco and the finer things provides an alternative to boring conversations about wind chill and precipitation.

As the cigar industry enjoys an increase in popularity, McKee notes, people are most likely pulled to cigar clubs by the forbidden-fruit phenomenon in the midst of a smoke-free city.

"This is a haven ... to come and smoke cigars without apology," she says. Here, you can enjoy a small-sized Macanudo for $10 or a Partagas 160 for $60.

Of course, all Macanudo's staff can talk shop with any enthusiast and assure that someone green in cigar knowledge doesn't assume a similarly tinted complexion. More often, questions revolve around what cigars and drinks make the most striking match.

The big secret: pair body to body.

To view Annika Mengisen's video take of today's Good Life segment, click here.

Cigar authority Richard Hacker, who developed a booklet on pairing with General Cigar, recommends pairing the Excalibur 1066 with Dalmore Cigar Malt, the only single malt distilled specifically for cigar smokers.

Savvy clients are often heard ordering -- a little more loudly than necessary -- the toast of the club, the 63rd Street martini. At $63, it's more subtle than flashing those $100 bills.

Shanghai Confidential

The Guanxi Lounge, part of San Francisco's Shanghai 1930 restaurant, is evocative of the period when Shanghai was referred to as the Paris of the Orient.

And as in Shanghai high society, you pay pricey dues for conversation and a smoke at this strictly members-only cigar lounge. A one-time membership fee can range from $3,000 for an individual to $5,000 for corporate clients.

Guanxi, which means "relationships" in Mandarin, describes the club's primary function: to cultivate relationships among select social sets.

"We attract the upper echelon of society," explains manager Steven Fung in a mellow, sleepy tone that contributes an aura of mystery to the whole affair.

Indeed, the club and its clientele create an atmosphere befitting of a governor -- the esteemed Mr. Schwarzenegger, that is. He is an honorary member, Fung discloses.

Other notable San Franciscans and out-of-towners meet for business or pleasure in the tranquil space, complete with the finest cigars and authentic Chinese artwork.

Eighty percent of Guanxi's patrons are male, making this another unabashed boys' club of sorts, where cigar taste and choice of company are very subjective.

Not Yet Taboo

You don't want what you can still have.

That's why Prague's tycoons and A-listers are not as crazy about cigar-exclusive lounges. Lucky Czechs can still light up almost anywhere, says Martina Pesdova, manager of Bar and Books in Prague.

Furthermore, cigar lounges are for those who appreciate a quiet atmosphere and exclusive environment. "People who have money in Prague want to be seen," says Pesdova.

In fact, Prague Bar and Books, part of a successful trio featuring the notorious Bar and Books in New York, is the only cigar lounge in Prague, according to Pesdova.

You'll hear lots of English here among the expat clientele, where half the patrons are female.

Yet Czechs still appreciate a good cigar, as proven by Prague's four cigar shops and the popularity of Bar and Books' Cuban cigars.

Escaping the Ban

Club Macanudo had a slight spike in business when the 2003 New York smoking ban first went into effect, says McKee. Like other cigar lounges, business wasn't affected dramatically, because Club Macanudo has a solid customer base.

Czech Out Cigars at Bar and Books

The Guanxi Lounge's tobacconist license helps it to remain one of the only lounges in San Francisco where smoking is still allowed after being banned in public places in 1998.

Still, patrons of Club Macanudo are required to spend a minimum of $20 per person, $10 of which must be on cigars. "This determines us as a place for coming to smoke a cigar rather than smoking cigarettes," says McKee.

For this reason, while opening new cigar clubs is a popular move, it's also tricky.

In Prague, smoking is illegal only at bus stops, but Pesdova predicts the European Union will push a ban similar to those in the U.S. in the next three years.

So visit these classy lounges before they're illegal, and, unlike a certain former president, be proud of what you inhale.



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