Will Smoking Make a Comeback in Center City?

Bars can now apply for a permit to allow customers to puff.

Remember the old days of Philadelphia, where you could light up a cigarette pretty much anywhere? It seems like just yesterday that I was sucking down Camel Lights at Bob & Barbara’s and catching an after-dinner drag on a Nat Sherman at Tank Bar. But it wasn’t yesterday. It was 2007 when Philadelphia went the way of New York, passing one of the most restrictive smoking bans in the country. Five years in, the city has made the odd move of relaxing some of the regulations.

Oh, don’t worry. They’re not going to be sparking up at Alla Spina anytime soon, especially not while cigarette-loathing Michael Nutter, the man responsible for creating the ban as a city councilman, remains mayor. Most of the rules are still in place, but the city has begun to entertain requests for exceptions from the ban, something it hadn’t done since the original exception application period expired years ago.

Even if a new bar met the original requirements, namely that less than 20 percent of its revenue came from food sales, the city had said “no dice” because the application period was over. But now, bars can once again apply for permits, although the criteria have narrowed.

Under the new law, a bar is eligible only if 15 percent or more of its revenue is derived from tobacco sales, a high bar, to be sure. New Old City steakhouse Reserve seemed to think that it was in the clear, as it had its official opening last week complete with a cigar lounge. But inspectors from the Department of Public Health paid them a visit and set them straight. “It is unlikely that this particular establishment can meet [the] threshold,” explained city official James Garrow when I asked him about the new requirements. When I dined at Reserve on Monday, there wasn’t a hint of stogie scent in the air, though the hostess told me that it was something they were still considering for the future. Given the language of the law, I don’t see how that’s possible.

Tom Piazza, owner of the just-closed smoker’s paradise Mahogany, has said that he intends to open another nicotine-friendly bar in Center City, though the future of that project remains unclear. One longtime Philadelphia restaurateur, who wishes to remain nameless, has told me that he’s toying with the idea of a smoking bar called, well, Smoke. He envisions a trendy outpost where customers throw back beers and bourbons while comely barmaids sell premium cigarettes, cigars and loose exotic tobaccos by the ounce. Rolling services will be provided, free of charge.

There’s no indication that the city intends to further relax the laws to allow smoking at your average neighborhood bar, where food sales can easily come in at less than 20 percent. But even if they did, Bob & Barbara’s owner Jack Prince says he wouldn’t consider applying for a permit. “I remember when I worked behind the bar, my chest would be on fire at the end of the night,” says Prince, who did not seek an exception during the original application period, though he would have been a shoe-in, since Bob & Barbara’s doesn’t serve food at all. “I can’t see ever going back to the old way. It would be regressing.”

Whatever the future of smoking in Philadelphia, one thing is clear: I won’t be joining in the fun. After spending far too many years as a casual smoker, I puffed my last puff in mid-2011, although I still wander into hazy, smoking-permitted McGlinchey’s for cheap beers and a contact high.