Cigarette Aficionados Go to War

The evening of Saturday, March 31, found a beautiful pack of

gallery crawlers huddled outside Mary Boone’s Chelsea gallery, puffing on their

Marlboros and bouncing from Blahnik to Blahnik to keep warm. They sucked on

their cigarettes, ashed on the sidewalk and flicked their butts in the gutter

before going back into artist- célèbre

Damian Loeb’s new show, where the New York art and fashion crowds  were out in force. Moby, Iman and Lucy Sykes

elbowed their way around the main room through the deafening babble. And there,

in the back room, a barely perceptible wisp of cigarette smoke floated toward

the ceiling. It emanated from the lanky Mr. Loeb himself. Pinching a cigarette

between his left thumb and index finger, à la Johnny Depp, and blowing smoke on

the admiring throng and attending camera crews, Mr. Loeb surveyed the scene, an

ashtray filled with three butts in front of him on the glass table. “It’s not

allowed; it’s me,” Mr. Loeb said with a smile when asked about the forbidden

nicotine. “I think every artist gets a few favors on the night of their

opening.” Then he added, with a laugh: “I won’t show up if I can’t smoke!” With

that, Mr. Loeb summed up the predicament of smoking for those chosen few who

feel they’re entitled to light up wherever they please, whether it’s illegal or

not.

Although the City Council’s Smoke-Free Air Act banned

cigarette smoking in restaurants with over 35 seats (except in the bar area and

in specially enclosed rooms) in 1995, there are still those who aren’t

afraid-or even aware-of the ordinance, or are perhaps so confused by the law

that they aren’t sure what’s allowed. In fact, according to a City Council

spokesperson, the law is extremely complicated: Smoking is allowed in the bar

area, even at tables, but the provisions that govern how many tables are

permitted, and at what distance from the rest of the restaurant, are based on

factors like the size of the restaurant and its revenues. As a result, a handful

of chic restaurants keep ashtrays handy for regulars, celebrities and other

pretty or powerful addicts who want to indulge in that after-dinner Marlboro

Light in off-limits areas. “There are people who are important to us because

they have been coming for many years,” said Danny Emerman, the owner of Chelsea

lunch spot Bottino, the canteen of art-world regulars like Larry Gagosian and

Andrea Rosen, and a haven for smokers like Cecily Brown and David Hockney.

“[They] have smoked here and feel they are a little bit above the law. We have

to be strong, but sometimes we’re not.”

Now, however, a bill put to the City Council by Speaker

Peter Vallone might force those restaurateurs to toughen up. His new bill would

outlaw smoking in all restaurants-bar area included, except when closed off-and

in some food-serving bars as well, prompting a wave of panic among New York

smokers, who complain that the 1995 ordinance has already pushed them onto the

butt-strewn street, leaving gaps in the conversation as they duck out between

courses. Helpless, they watch the last rampart remaining before the city

becomes as smoke-free as Los Angeles falling into the hands of the health

freaks, while restaurant owners-some of whom think nothing of paying the

thousands of dollars the health department fines them, with 751 such fines paid

in 1999-brace for a loss of business. In threatening this dwindling

constituency, Mr. Vallone has given life to a particular New York creature, the

powerful smoking pariah.

“Please Sir, ease up, redirect your efforts,” wrote the

actress Natasha Richardson in a three-page Feb. 1 appeal to Mr. Vallone that

was c.c.’ed to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Senator Hillary Clinton, obtained by The Observer .

(Ms. Richardson declined to comment.) “[T]here are many citizens in this city,

as well as visitors from all over the world who do not mind being in the

presence of other people’s smoke. They are just not as vocal as the righteous

anti-smoking brigade, who will not rest until the few beleaguered smokers who remain

are relegated to grabbing a desperate fix on a wind blown street corner, or

must be content to stay at home and not visit the fabulous restaurants and bars

of our city.”

Those “few beleaguered smokers” have found refuge at several

hand-picked restaurants. As Ms. Richardson put it, “Since smoking was banned in

restaurants a few years ago, the list of places that can accommodate smokers

has become very short indeed. (I used to go to about 30 restaurants in the

city; I now have a short list of about five.)” But these refugees aren’t being

forced to dine at the bar at Dallas BBQ. The power-smoker’s short list includes

Elaine’s, where smoking is frequent at the tables in front of the bar; Da

Silvano, where the front room is a semi-accepted smoking section; and Swifty’s,

where Nan Kempner said she used to puff away in her smoking days after the 1995

law, although Swifty’s management said they deter their customers from smoking

and are a “non-smoking” restaurant. Add to those the continental bistros with a

European smoking etiquette, such as Les Deux Gamins and Piadina in the West

Village-favorites of Condé Nast Brits, fashion photographers and guys in

thin-soled loafers and quilted coats. “Basically, it’s all French types of

brasserie, etc.,” said publicist Nadine Johnson, a Belgian-born smoker,

addressing where one inhales à table these days. “It’s a romantic thing. Like Café Flore or Brasserie

Lipp more than conservative restaurants. It’s [like] existential living in

Paris.”

At Balthazar, the closest New York will ever get to that

glimpse of Parisian existential life, Kate Moss was recently spotted lighting

up at a corner table after a salad and fries, only to have a waiter rush

over-with an ashtray. Because who in the world is going to tell Ms. Moss to

stub it out? “It’s a power game,” explained the manager of a prominent Upper

East Side bistro. “If someone lights up a cigarette and the person next to them

asks us to tell them to stop, we sometimes have to tell them to move to a

non-smoking section.” Or as Keith McNally, Balthazar’s owner, put it: “I could

care less about the effects [of the bill] on business. But am I going to tell

people like Fran Lebowitz or Christopher Hitchens they can’t smoke? If people

breathe their second-hand smoke, they’ll probably get a higher I.Q.!”

It comes as no surprise that the smoking sections of these

restaurants read like a New York power map. Tables in the front of Da Silvano

and Elaine’s are next to impossible to land for the average Joe, and the maître

d’ of the aforementioned Upper East Side bistro said that a majority of

non-smokers actually ask to be in their illegal-smoking front room. “It’s where

everyone wants to be, so they can see people coming in,” he said. By losing the

smokers, these restaurants risk losing some of their star appeal. Out go the

chain-smoking models and their Marlboros, and so do the Page Six mentions and

ensuing star-gazers. Hence the owners’ lax attitudes. “It’s hard to tell people

to stop, especially Europeans,” said Silvano Marchetto of Da Silvano, where

Donatella Versace freely lights up. “And a lot of people from fashion do that

all the time. If they can’t, they get annoyed.” Asked whether people smoke in

the front room of his restaurant, Mr. Marchetto stammered. “Sometimes,” he

said. “Not really … at lunch time … sometimes. Sometimes they can, sometimes

they cannot.”

Listening to worried restaurateurs, it seems that they have

a lot more at stake than the smokers if Mr. Vallone’s bill passes later this

spring. They are the ones who will be in the difficult position of telling

their longtime smoking customers to put it out or take it outside. Take Sean

MacPherson, who recently opened Chelsea hot spot the Park, and who started

celebrity hangout Bar Marmont in smoke-free Los Angeles. “It really puts the

restaurant owner in an awkward position,” he said of his L.A. experience. “You

are obligated to tell the person smoking they can’t smoke, but you’re not

obligated to stop them, and technically you can’t take the cigarette away. So

you go over there and tell them smoking is illegal in the city of Los Angeles,

and they can say, ‘Yes, I know,’ and keep on smoking. It can end up being

fairly conceptual.”

Despite the hefty fines given to restaurants when they are

reported to the Department of Health, some customers just won’t quit. “The law

is very vague,” said Frank Minieri, co-owner of Il Cantinori in the Village, a

favorite of Uma Thurman, Keanu Reeves and Ms. Richardson. “Not everyone

understands you can only smoke at the bar, and a problem arises when a customer

lights up in the non-smoking section. We go over and tell them to stop, and 98

percent of the time they do it. But there’s always that one person who will

take another puff, or two, and then I get reported and get a violation and have

to go to the tribunal.” Last week, he said a regular customer-“a high-profile

lady”-refused to put out her cigarette after she was asked. “Don’t they want

our business?” she snapped at the waiter. “Don’t they want us here?” She left

in a huff, saying she would only patronize restaurants that don’t care about

legality from now on. “They come to the restaurant, they spend money, they

think they should be able to do what they want,” said Mr. Minieri. “And we’re

in the restaurant business-we want to make people happy.”

Most smokers understand that times have changed. Nan

Kempner, currently in a “stop-smoking stage,” remembered the glory days of

lighting up mid-meal in New York. “Once, long before the smoking ban, someone

next to me complained about my smoking at La Grenouille,” she recalled. “They

said, ‘I’m allergic.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you move?’ But I couldn’t do that

today.”

The argument of most restaurateurs, however, is that they

will lose business. Elaine Kaufman of Elaine’s depends on a crowd of regulars

who come knowing that they will be able to drink and smoke, and drink and eat

as they smoke some more. “Of course it’s going to hurt business,” she said.

“And it antagonizes foreigners-and we like their business.” Ms. Kaufman added

that, as it was, the smoking section at her restaurant was already too small.

“The rule now is more than adequate; there’s no need to stack on more rules and

laws.”

At Chelsea’s Lot 61, which is to downtown artists what

Elaine’s is to uptown writers, owner Amy Sacco sounded the same worried note.

“Smokers go out a lot; they bring in business,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to

have customers who smoke and nowhere to let them smoke.” But lest we think it’s

only the elite watering holes that are targeted, Ms. Sacco added: “It’s not

fair to the little guy who has 35 seats. People were probably flocking there

because they could smoke. Now what is

he going to do?”

Surveying their options, restaurateurs talk of several

strategies. One will be to continue to coddle their smoking customers (a

strategy cited, on background, by at least one restaurant partner). Another

would be to turn restaurants into nightclubs, which Ms. Sacco half-considered

with a laugh. A third is to hope the restaurant and tourism lobby will be

working hard enough on the issue to block the bill.

Smokers are almost ready to get … political. Apart from the

pleading Ms. Richardson (“I beg you Sir to reconsider this matter”), Mr. Loeb

toyed with the idea on the night of his opening. “I seriously considered, when

George W. Bush won, protesting and being political,” he said. “But the smoking

thing would definitely push me over. It’s much more important.” And how would

he protest? “Egg houses, T.P. people. They don’t really have trees to T.P.

here, though,” said the Connecticut native. “But all kinds of subversive

vandalism-whatever it takes.” Then, after a pause, he said more seriously:

“What I would do, actually, is vote against the Council members who support it.

I vote. I’m politically aware.”

It is, after all, a

Mayoral election year, and Mr. Vallone is in the running. Current Mayor Rudy

Giuliani will probably veto the bill if it is approved as is by the City

Council, but Jordan Barowitz, Mr. Vallone’s spokesman, said that there is still

time for the bill to be amended, especially since a second hearing will take

place before the vote sometime this spring. But the city’s smoking

constituency, despite all its star power, might not find strength in

numbers. “We’re an unpopular group,” said

writer Gay Talese, who cites among his few remaining vices an after-dinner Cohiba Robusto-the weed of choice in the

90’s. “We have no constituency. Who do we have now? Castro?”

“There’s no question that smokers are losing this war,”

echoed Mr. MacPherson. “As much as I’m opposed to it, I think it’s a losing

war.”

“I don’t see it hurting the business if it’s universal,”

said Lotus co-owner David Rabin. “But the enforcement is so shoddy that there

will always be little French bistros in Nolita where 90 percent of the

customers smoke.”

And there will always be that celebrity or power-broker who

will be allowed to smoke whenever he or she desires. Asked about the ban as he

left Mr. Loeb’s opening, David Bowie said: “I had not noticed that … and I

probably won’t when it happens.”

-With Petra

Bartosiewicz