Destination: Nicaragua — Exploring the Estelí tobacco trail

For years now, there have been a number of ways to experience Estelí, Nicaragua’s cigar capital and the source of some of the most celebrated products in the cigar world. Travelers who make their way to Estelí generally do so through or with significant help from tobacconists and cigar manufacturers. Those are still great options, but what if you want to do your own thing?

Unfortunately, planning a trip to Estelí can feel a bit overwhelming. Between the scarcity of information available online (businesses here don’t tend to have much of a web presence) and the language barrier that might exist for smokers who aren’t fluent in Spanish, a trip to Estelí might feel like a bit of a crap shoot. But it doesn’t have to. We traveled to “El diamante de las Segovias” to get the lay of the land and give you some sense of what it takes to pull off an incredible cigar trip on your own terms.

Getting to Estelí


We landed in Managua at right around lunch time, and cigar industry friends we asked insisted there weren’t very many good options for food along the way to Estelí. So before starting the drive, we had lunch at the Hotel Camino Real — which also happened to be the pickup location for our Avis rental car. The Camino Real is a small hotel with lots of beautiful courtyard areas and a lunch buffet that will provide all the short-road-trip fuel you’ll need to make it to your next destination. On the day we stopped by, there were steak skewers, grilled fish, and filet mignon de pollo a la gorgonzola (which was chicken breast wrapped in a bacon strip and covered in a gorgonzola cheese sauce).

TIP: When you’re booking your flights, make sure you account for the drive between Managua and Estelí. It can take between two and three hours, depending on what traffic looks like. Also, Estelianos tell us there’s been a push by law enforcement to curb speeding, so keep that lead foot under control on the highways.

The road to Estelí consists almost entirely of two-lane highways that run along mountains and through valleys. You’ll see beautiful countrysides dotted by small shanty towns and roadside vendors hawking everything from rotisserie chicken to iguanas to birdcages made from metal barrels. Chances are you’re not in the market for most of that stuff, but keep your eyes open and your cameras at the ready; there are some incredible views along this drive.

Eventually, you’ll end up entering Estelí from the south on the Pan-American Highway (or the Panamericana, as it’s called in Spanish), which runs north center of the city, merging with the Avenida Central at the north and south ends. The six-or-so-block-wide strip that runs between the Panamericana and Avenida Central for about 2 miles is essentially the heart of Estelí. This is where you’ll find not only most of the city’s noteworthy cigar factories, but also its best hotels, cafés, bars, restaurants and other attractions.


Your first move should be to stop into your hotel and drop off your luggage. Generally speaking, Estelí is a safe city to roam during the daytime, but there is some serious poverty here and you don’t want to leave lots of luggage out in the open. This time around, we stayed at the Hotel Hex Estelí. Located adjacent to Estelí’s first and only shopping mall, the Multicentro, the Hex (which also has a Managua location) is as close as you can come to a modern business traveler’s hotel in Estelí. There’s a gym, good breakfast, and a cigar-friendly terrace area. You might prefer to feel like you’re more in the thick of things. For that, there are other options with a more Nicaraguan feel closer to the heart of the city (Hotel Los Arcos, for instance).

TIP: Take it easy on your first day driving around Estelí. The roads can feel a little chaotic, as there’s a mix of cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians with few traffic signals (usually none at all). You’ll want to keep your wits about you as you get the hang of driving around here.

Once we’d put our things away and showered off the day’s travel, we met up with Alex García, the art director at Foundation Cigar Company. You probably know his work best from Foundation’s El Güegüense brand art, which pays homage to an ancient work of Nicaraguan theater.


Alex guided us around Estelí for a tour of the city’s street art. All over town, the murals that cover the sides of buildings are elaborate, modern, and “street” in a way that makes it clear American graffiti culture has spread to this region and blended with Nicaraguan political themes and native folklore.

“My profile, since I started, was in urban art ad graffiti. I started in 1998 in Managua with one of the first graffiti groups that was known around the country — and maybe all over Central America. People didn’t talk much about graffiti then,” Alex said, pausing to give directions from one mural to the next. “We were just coming out of the war (between the Contras and the Sandinistas) and there still weren’t art magazines or Internet here. I came back to Estelí, my hometown, after college. At first, I was disoriented because I didn’t know if there would be much graffiti here. There were murals, but it was all political or related to the war.”

Drew Estate — the company that first brought Nicholas and Alex together — has clearly been a catalyst in the street art scene here. A significant chunk of the murals in Estelí was commissioned by and makes mention of Drew Estate (with varying degrees of subtlety).

Once the sun had set, making the art harder to appreciate, we stopped for an end-of-tour drink at Café Luz. Among Estelí bars, this is one of the places that will remind you most of the kinds of craft beer and cocktail bars you’ll find back home. In fact, it’s one of the bars that serves what lots of locals insist was Nicaragua’s best craft beer: Moropotente Lado Oscuro. It’s a stout with coffee and chocolate notes — not quite the sort of thing you’d figure is brewed (never mind brewed well) in the tropics.

On the recommendation of friends at Oliva Cigars, we capped off the night with dinner at one of the cigar industry’s new favorite Estelí restaurants: Finca A Su Mesa (which translates to “Farm to Your Table”). It’s owned and operated by chef Darren Remy, an American who left the U.S. for Costa Rica in 2007 after years working in the Los Angeles, Calif. area between restaurants and a five-year stint as a personal chef to a wealthy family.


“I had a restaurant (in Costa Rica) about eight years. During my time there, I would come to Nicaragua and explore,” said Darren, pulling a chair up to our table to tell his story as the kitchen started to shut down. “I made connections with people in the cigar industry who are food lovers and they were begging me to start a restaurant in Estelí. It was kind of a no- brainer; I love the weather here, I love cigars, I love rum.”

Eating at Darren’s restaurant feels a lot like visiting an old friend who just happens to be really damn good with a smoker. The small dining room is comfortable and no-frills without feeling divey, which is a pretty close reflection of the food.

TIP: When you’re packing a lighter, consider the fact that you might have few opportunities to refill. Make sure you’re working with something that has an ample tank and maybe even bring along some refill cans of your own.

“There’s an organic farmer's market here on Fridays, which is where I'll get all my vegetables for the week. I also source local beef, local pork, local chicken. I have a custom-built smoker and use wood from my friend’s farm in Condega. We smoke ribs, sausage, and I make my own hot sauce with a special chili which everyone seems to like. Everything is savory, big flavors, but nothing too fancy. Sea salt, cracked pepper and butter is pretty much all I use in the kitchen.”

We tried the ribs, a steak and a burger—the latter being an easy choice since some guys from Plasencia Cigars were at the next table raving about it while we were trying to make up our minds. All of it lived up to the high expectations people had set for this restaurant — and it was all true to Darren’s philosophy of big portions and simple dishes. The burger was nothing but a massive half pound patty, grilled onions and melted cheese, while the ribs were as good and expertly smoked as any you might find in the U.S. (although these are more for the dry-rub crowd).

Just minutes from food comas, we headed back to the Hex. We’d need the rest with a two-day cigar factory marathon ahead of us.

The cigar factory marathon begins

When you think cigar tourism, one manufacturer should be coming to mind first; nobody does it quite as well as Drew Estate. Their factory is not only one of the largest manufacturing operations in the country, but also one of the most beautiful. What’s more, they even have their own on-site lodging (in the form of 11 cabañas) for visitors and a swimming pool with a mountain view on site.


Generally, most of that is made available to smokers who travel to Nicaragua for Drew Estate’s Cigar Safari, a program which was recently expanded to happen several times a month. If you’re traveling independently and want to check out the factory, you just need to contact them with a week’s notice or more to book a tour — which is what practically every factory told us when we asked about how best to set up visits.

On this particular visit, we had a chance to see production of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve cigars, which are made front and center on the rolling floor, on tables specially labeled to make sure you know what you’re watching. Off to one side of the sprawling rolling floor is a separate room in which Liga Privada cigars are made by the company’s best rollers. Yet another room is reserved for production of many of the infused cigars that help make it one of the most prolific factories in the world.


Our next stop was a factory that’s about as large, but not quite so old. A.J. Fernandez used to make his cigars in several smaller factories — primarily a cramped one closer to the heart of the city. Having outgrown that setup, for the last few years, A.J. has been making his cigars at an expansive factory at the north end of the city, just east of the Panamericana, with much of his farmland situated in that area as well. In part because it’s among the newest, but also because A.J. is maniacal about quality, the factory is one of the more modern in Nicaragua.

TIP: Be aware that the AJ Fernandez factory is one of the few — perhaps the only — that charges for one-off tours (about $15 per person). All proceeds are donated to area charities doing work related to childhood diabetes.


Our walkthrough of the factory with A.J. and his father Ismael afforded us plenty of opportunity to see them both in action. They’re both personable, gregarious characters who ooze knowledge about tobacco and cigar making. Throughout our brief tour with A.J. — which also included a bumpy drive through his farms — he never stopped inspecting tobacco, asking workers for updates, and checking whatever happened to be near him to make sure the quality was up to snuff. It’s that compulsive, almost obsessive preoccupation with detail that has helped this factory earn a reputation for consistently high quality.


Next, we drove just a few minutes west, crossing over to the other side of the Panamericana, where Oliva Cigars makes products like Serie V, Serie V Melanio, Connecticut Reserve, and Nub. We did a walkthrough with María José Morales, who — among other things — manages visits to and tours of the factory.

The parts of the factory that were operational were largely identical to what I’d seen the last time I visited the Oliva factory nearly four years ago. The exciting part — aside from the incredible aroma of the aging room — is what’s in store for the future. The land just beyond the longstanding factory is now largely a construction site. Over the course of the next year or so, Oliva is not only expanding its cigar production facilities, but also adding a box factory to its campus. Especially if you’re a big Oliva fan, you might want to ensure you visit Estelí after these projects have been completed so you can take in that much more of the process.


The last factory visit of the day was to the Yayabo facility, just a bit farther south. This boutique manufacturer is situated right at the intersection of the Panamericana and the entrance to Residencial La Riviera — a small neighborhood of about 65 acres that many in the cigar industry refer to jokingly as “Hialeah” (a reference to the ultra-Cuban populations of both this neighborhood and the South Florida city that’s also home to so much of the cigar industry). In other words, when much of the cigar industry goes home at night, it drives right past Yayabo headquarters, which produces Yayabo, Doña Diana and Cirion. We sat with Yayabo’s owners, Diany Perez and Alexander Basulto, for cigars and coffee at their factory’s lounge before taking a look at the rest of the building.

This factory is unusual in its layout, at least as compared with other factories in town. Once you get through the gate and into the parking lot, you’ll find yourself looking at what looks a bit like a strip mall — except that, instead of various storefronts, you’re actually looking at various phases of the cigar production process. One door leads to a room filled with pilones of fermenting tobacco, another to a small tobacco sorting area, another to the part where cigars are packaged, and still another to the rolling floor. Yayabo does great work here, and there’s still plenty of room for them to grow, as the dozen or so rolling tables don’t even come close to filling out the room.

Estelí is cigars

We went into our last day in Estelí determined to pack in as much as we possibly could — knowing that there’s almost no way to experience all that the Estelí cigar community has to offer in the time we’d given ourselves.


First, we headed to My Father Cigars, where we were fortunate enough to catch cigar legends Pepín and Jaime García. Cigar Snob’s relationship with My Father goes way back to the magazine’s — and My Father’s — beginnings (check out our 10th Anniversary Issue — May/ June 2016 — for some of our earliest stories about the company from back before they’d moved manufacturing to Nicaragua), so it was a special treat to catch up with them over coffee and cigars while we smoked Vegas Cubanas, the brand that the Garcías have revived from their earlier days.

Even with the tall wall that separates the facility from the Panamericana, the My Father factory has an almost unnecessary amount of curb appeal. The Italian-inspired main building and lush landscaping are entirely consistent with the traditional and ornate branding that you’ve probably come to associate with My Father products like Le Bijou and H-2K-CT (although this factory is also known for making many cigars for many other brands, like Tatuaje and Crowned Heads, to name just two).


It’s not generally a part of the tour they offer visitors, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out the large building, just a few minutes’ drive away, where My Father’s tobacco fermentation happens. That was an experience you shouldn’t pass up, either. It really is something to see how perfectionists like these handle tobacco. Case in point: Pepín boasted far more about how clean and meticulously organized his fermentation process was than he did about the quality of his cigars during our visit. Indeed, the pilones were so neat and the floors were so squeaky clean that this was starting to look more like a showroom than a fermentation building.

“This is how we always keep it,” Pepín assured us, beaming. “We had no idea you were coming.”


Having smoked at least a couple of cigars at My Father (which isn’t exactly known for catering to lightweights), we needed a quick bite before moving on to our next factory visit. Dig back through the pages of Cigar Snob’s travel content and you’ll see that we rarely recommend anything that even resembles fast food. Estelí, though, is an exception. Quick service chicken is a staple here, and anybody who spends significant time in this town has strong opinions about which chicken joint is best. On this trip, we went with Tip-Top (fans of rival chain RostiPollos, which is a bit nicer, were less than pleased with us). The cheesy cartoon chicken logo might give you the impression that this chicken shouldn’t be taken seriously; that’s the wrong impression. We’d put Tip-Top’s fried chicken up against any American chain’s any day of the week. This is an excellent option for smokers on the run or travelers who need a break from a steady diet of steak and tostones.

TIP: Are you a soccer fan? Check on whether there’s a match happening at Estelí’s stadium during your visit. Their team is a perennial championship contender.


Having refueled, we made our way to Tabacos Villa Cuba, the factory from which most of Rocky Patel’s Nicaraguan-made lineup comes. The factory isn’t huge, but there’s a ton of activity packed into this space, which is located a bit more centrally on one of Estelí’s city blocks east of the Panamericana. At the time of our visit, just about every rolling table was occupied and the staff in the packaging area were hard at work getting cigars into their boxes, including Rocky Patel Fifteenth Anniversary. This factory is a bit smaller, making it a great place to take in the cigar manufacturing process in a quick visit while still getting to come up close and personal with some of the world’s best-known smokes.


For our last two cigar factory stops of the day, we visited companies that are practically synonymous with their home country. First, we took the tour at Joya de Nicaragua, where Ariel López leads guests through a journey that starts with one of the most fascinating corporate histories you’ll ever hear.

“Nicaragua had been growing tobacco a long time, but a very different kind than we would use in cigars; it was mostly consumed by the natives,” said Ariel during his presentation. “In the 1940s, the Nicaraguan government started looking for regions that would be suitable for growing tobacco. Eventually, they identified this region. At that point, Nicaragua began to grow Virginia tobacco and American British Tobacco invested here. However, after the Cuban revolution, many of the Cubans who left the island ended up in Nicaragua since they’d heard that there was tobacco being grown here. Plus, (then dictator) Somoza was offering subsidies and financing to foreigners who came to Nicaragua to start businesses in agriculture. So these Cubans bring black tobacco seeds and start growing.”

It wasn’t until 1968 that J.F. Bermejo and Simón Camacho (yes, that Camacho) founded Nicaragua Cigars, launching with just one line: Joya de Nicaragua. Eventually, that became the name of the whole company, which ended up sold to Somoza under political pressure in the mid-1970s. In 1994, the company was purchased by Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, who is its current owner and has been responsible for the brand’s renaissance.

All this is to say that the history of Joya de Nicaragua serves as a pretty apt analogy for the history (at least the modern history) of its home country. We did this one on our last day, but if you can start your Estelí experience with a tour of Joya de Nicaragua, that would do a lot to put the rest of your time in Estelí in context.

TIP: A tour of Joya de Nicaragua will probably be one of your few chances to try Joya Clásico, a brand that isn’t generally available in the U.S. market.

Our last cigar factory visit was to Plasencia Cigars. The Plasencia family has been growing tobacco for five generations and has multiple factories manufacturing cigars for third parties, but it was only recently that they began their push to get their own brand name out there — starting with Plasencia Alma Fuerte. While the Plasencia factory isn’t the largest around, it might be one of the most attractive once you get past the front reception area. There’s a courtyard with a fountain in the middle of it, French windows that give you a look onto the rolling floor, and a lounge that’s got to be the nicest of any cigar factory we have visited in Estelí so far.


After a dinner at Los Chagüites, we joined María José (from Oliva) and Diany and Alex (from Yayabo) at Hard Bar — a multi-level nightclub, bar and restaurant located right on the Panamericana. When it comes to Estelí nightlife, this is as big as it gets. We ended this trip with a bang, starting at the bar’s open-air dining room and moving on to the indoor, mezzanine-level dance floor.

Cigars are a key component of Estelí’s identity, but that’s only been the case for a relatively short time. The city feels like it’s coming into its own, as is the cigar industry insofar as it’s just now beginning to mature as a tourist draw. We were only able to get to a small fraction of the factories here, and even then it felt like there was evolution and expansion and change around every corner. That’s what makes being here — amid all this life and potential, not to mention great cigars and steaks — so exciting and easy to come back to again and again.

New York City like a local

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

New York City is one of Cigar Snob’s favorite cigar destinations. No, there aren’t many cigars being made here. And no, there aren’t many non-cigar establishments that are still cigar friendly. And yet, there seems to be no shortage of top-quality cigar clubs and lounges around here.

At least, that is, in Manhattan. That’s why, every other time we’ve been in New York City to work on travel stories, we’ve spent practically all our time there rather than crossing over into other boroughs, where cigar lounges are harder to come by. This time around, we landed at LaGuardia Airport and headed straight for Brooklyn.


Junior's on Cheesecake Corner, Brooklyn

Junior's on Cheesecake Corner, Brooklyn

When you think of Brooklyn as a travel destination, you don’t think of cigar hangouts. There’s a good reason: there aren’t many of them. What there is, however, is a number of vibrant neighborhoods teeming with youth, culture, and small businesses. Considering we arrived pretty early in the morning, the first order of business was to refuel with some breakfast at Junior’s Cheesecake on Dekalb Avenue and Harry Rosen Way (aptly named Cheesecake Corner). Junior’s now has four locations, but the one on Cheesecake Corner is the original. It opened in 1950, and the Jewish diner remains an old-school Brooklyn landmark.

We know this thanks to the guy who suggested we drop in and served as our guide for most of the day: David Diamante. If you’re an NBA fan, there’s a chance you’ve heard David at work; he’s the voice of the Brooklyn Nets, calling games and riling up fans at every home game in the Barclays Center. He also does lots of work in boxing and other sports.

For now, though, our focus was off the hardwood and on our menus. Our publisher Erik Calviño and I opted for traditional breakfast options: Eggs Benedict and corned beef hash, respectively. David went with a trio of small pastrami sandwiches and flagged down our waitress when he realized there was something missing from our table.

“You can’t eat at a Jewish deli without pickles and beets!”

The dining room is a classically ‘50s deli space. All kinds of people come through here looking for the comfort of not only cheesecake, but matzo ball soup, brisket, tuna sandwiches, and egg creams. Even though we were on the opposite coast, it felt a little bit like we were right back in Hollywood at Canter’s Deli, which we visited in our last issue (September/October 2016).

Junior’s is old Brooklyn, but not as old Brooklyn as David’s family. From Junior’s we headed into his cigar lounge, Diamante’s Brooklyn Cigar Lounge, which is just a 15-minute walk away, a couple of blocks south from Fort Greene Park.

Diamante's Brooklyn Cigar Lounge

Diamante's Brooklyn Cigar Lounge


“They came here in 1868. My grandfather almost lost his leg in the park down the street. My family has pictures of this neighborhood when it was all cobblestone and horses,” David said. Everywhere you look in the lazy-L shaped lounge, there are pictures of his grandparents, great uncles, and other members of his family tree. In some cases, they’re posing — often with cigars — in front of buildings that are right here in the neighborhood (although my favorite shot might have been the one in which a number of his relatives are on a Cuba-bound boat in the early 1900s).

David Diamante lights up at his cigar lounge.

David Diamante lights up at his cigar lounge.

The Chief, as David affectionately refers to the cigar store Indian who, with little to no apparent con- cern about the fact that most of his nose is missing, greets customers outside the front door at Diamante’s, calls out to you as you approach the storefront, which is nestled among a string of those iconic Brooklyn brownstones.

“I love that history. Every city has its own style and flavor. San Francisco has Victorians; in Brooklyn we have brownstones,” David said, adding that a lot of work went into ensuring that the space ended up with the kind of character he’s always wanted to see in a cigar lounge. “This used to be a tax office. Nobody wanted the space. It had plywood floors, there were holes in the walls, but it’s about knowing what things are and having a vision. I knew what was here and what I could make out of this.”

Aside from the tin ceiling and the masonry on the fireplace, not much is original here. David worked with a Massachusetts carpenter to create custom wall paneling, a bar, and much of the seating and other furniture from reclaimed antique wood, making the lounge both nostalgic and a reflection of his own family ties to the neighborhood. The shop has a modest but frequently changing selection of cigars. It’s not big, but there’s enough variety that just about anyone should be able to find something they’ll enjoy here (we smoked some Don Pepín Original, Padrón 2000, and LFD La Nox). The layout was well thought out and makes the place feel bigger than it is while still retaining a sense of intimacy. You can come here to smoke with a friend or — on some nights — catch a game with a crowd of sports fans. More on that later.

TIP: The house blends at Diamante’s Brooklyn Cigar Lounge are pretty damn good.

After a chat in the lounge, we lit our second round of cigars and David led us on a quick walking tour of the area. While the brownstones still abound, David’s lounge is one of the few parts of this neighborhood that really feels “old Brooklyn.” This area is younger, more hip, and less attached to some of the nostalgia and comfort that started our day at breakfast.

“In this neighborhood, one of the things that’s happened is what some people like to call gentrification. I don’t like to make calls on whether that’s what’s happening or whether it’s a good thing, but the neighborhood has changed a lot. You’re not going to find that old Brooklyn in this neighborhood,” David said.

Within walking distance of Diamante’s, you’ve got great eateries and bars like No. 7, Prospect, Mullane’s, and Walter’s. They’re all small neighborhood spots with tons of new-Brooklyn personality and the kinds of fresh ideas that you get in a place this youthful and creative. The neighborhood is also home to a vibrant art community, including galleries, museums, and even Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. The prominent facade of the 40 Acres offices features a large mural memorializing Bill Nunn, who played Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing and died in September 2016.


The perfect weather made it feel criminal to smoke inside, so when we were through with the tour, we pulled some chairs out onto the sidewalk outside Diamante’s and finished our cigars before parting ways — David to the Barclays Center, where he would prep for that night’s game, and us to our next stop.

Blew Smoke opened in 2013; it’s just a block away from the intersection of Washington and Atlantic Avenues, about a 15-minute walk from the Barclays Center. While it’s similar to Diamante’s in terms of the sizes of their lounges and cigar selections, Blew Smoke feels like a more modern place. That’s intentional.

One of the seating areas at Blew Smoke

One of the seating areas at Blew Smoke


“As early as 2010, we found there was a community of smokers that didn’t reflect the image of what used to occupy the old cigar lounges,” said Gloria Blake, who is one of Blew Smoke’s four owners. “I used to travel a lot for work, and I would visit cigar lounges all over the world. This place is really a culmination of all the things I always thought I would want to include if I opened a lounge. It’s sexy, but still masculine enough for a man to feel comfortable.”

From the furniture to the wall colors and the bar (which is BYOB), Blew Smoke feels like it was designed with more “lounge” in mind than “cigar” — and that’s kind of refreshing. It reflects another side of the neighborhood and its history, working as an excellent complement to Diamante’s for residents and visitors alike.

TIP: Friday nights are ladies’ nights at Blew Smoke.

If you’re in the neighborhood and drop in for a cigar, Gloria recommends you check out Ode to Babel, a bar and lounge that caters to the arts crowd. Also check out Bearded Lady, a ‘50s style diner that features creative cocktails, and Milk River, a multi-level international fusion restaurant with a focus on Jamaican and Asian cuisine.

The Emmy Burger at Emily

The Emmy Burger at Emily

Hungry from a day of smoking, we started walking back toward the Barclays Center on Fulton Avenue, keeping an eye out for a promising restaurant. That’s when we came across Emily. Something about that name connotes daintiness. That name doesn’t inspire much confidence in a couple of guys looking to fill their bellies after four or five cigars.

Ignore the name. Emily — which has two locations — is a great little coal-fired pizza joint that also features “rustic small bites” and a phenomenal dry-aged burger. Erik and I each had a pizza, and we knew from the look of them that our practically random dinner choice was solid. The pizzas have that smoky char that comes from the coal fire, and all the toppings were top-quality. A girl at the end of the bar who looked about half my size grinned when a waiter put a massive burger (and fries) in front of her. She downed it in no time.

From Emily, we headed to the Barclays Center for a Brooklyn Nets game. Once in our seats in the lower bowl, we waved to David from across the court to let him know we’d made it.

Barclays Center, home of (among other things) the Brooklyn Nets

Barclays Center, home of (among other things) the Brooklyn Nets


“I try to be the sixth man and bring the crowd into it,” David said. “You really see these players’ chests puff out. By the fourth quarter, they’re exhausted, but if you get the crowd into it, you can squeeze that last bit out of them.”

Knowing the guy on the microphone gives you a whole new appreciation for that aspect of watching a game live, but David was far from being the star of the show. In fact, while the game stayed close throughout (they were playing the Pistons and, while David won’t admit it, neither team on the court that night is much of a contender this year), none of the players ended up being the highlight for us either.

No, the highlight of the game was an old man we’d only heard stories about: Mr. Whammy. He’s at every home game in a seat near the baseline, and he’s got a magical hand gesture he does — especially during opponents’ free throws — that guides the ball away from the rim. Of course, you have to say the magic word.


The ball rattles off the side of the rim. “I got one!” yelled Mr. Whammy.

A much younger Brooklyn fan sitting right next to me yelled out to him to provide encouragement. “We believe in you Mista Whammaaayyyyy!”

Mr. Whammy beat the Pistons 109-101.

The game aside, the Barclays Center is a must-visit arena. Whether you’re here for sports, live music or anything else, the building is impressive in its design, and they’ve managed to find a place for it that really puts you in the thick of a lingering crowd after the event. Very cool for anyone who wants to be immersed in Brooklyn. This night, everyone was lining up to take pictures with a statue of one of Brooklyn’s favorite sons, Captain America.

We ended the night back at Diamante’s. David had invited us over to hang with some of his regulars and watch the tail end of Game 7 of the World Series. We don’t need to tell you how that went.

As we sat there watching the height of sports drama, I couldn’t help wondering whether Mr. Whammy had made it home just in time to tune in when it was tied 6-6. Maybe the Cubbies got a little help countering that curse.


Paley Park is a world-renowned urban space, and it's cigar friendly.

Paley Park is a world-renowned urban space, and it's cigar friendly.


We spent all of day two in Manhattan, where we were staying at a hotel in Midtown. We headed north a bit to get our coffee fix (and some breakfast pastries) at a Le Pain Quotidien on E 53rd St. between Madison and 5th Avenues. In case you’re not familiar, Le Pain Quotidien is a bakery-restaurant chain. They’re all over New York (and a number of other cities), but we made it a point to come to this one so we could take our food next door to Paley Park.

At just 4,200 square feet, Paley Park isn’t a place you’ll spend a full day, but it is world famous for being one of the best-designed public urban spaces in the world. The privately owned public space was financed by the William S. Paley Foundation as a memorial to William’s father Samuel. It’s clean, with landscape and architectural features spaced out enough to avoid feeling like clutter that clashes with the city that surrounds the park. Still, falling water, trees, and open views to skyscrapers make for a setting unlike anything most cities can claim.

Anyway, this seems like an appropriate place to stop and take in some scenery in light of the park’s cigar industry connection. Samuel Paley was the creator of the first La Palina cigars. When he retired, he took the brand with him. His son William S. Paley made the family famous as the CEO who built CBS into the radio and TV network we know today, and William’s son Bill Paley went on to (among other things) bring back Samuel’s cigar brand.

Davidoff of Genevea Since 1911 on Madison Ave.

Davidoff of Genevea Since 1911 on Madison Ave.

Our coffee cups empty, it was time for a cigar and they don’t sell them at Paley Park. We walked over to Davidoff of Geneva Since 1911 right across Madison Avenue. The is one of three Davidoff stores in Manhattan, and they’re among the city’s premier destinations for not only cigars, but also ultra-high-end cigar accessories and men’s goods. As you’ve probably guessed, the walk-in humidor prominently features all sorts of Davidoff cigars (like Davidoff, Camacho, and Avo), but also products from many of the other elite luxury cigar brands (My Father, Padrón, Fuente, etc.) and a number of boutiques.

The main event here, though, is the lounge area with windows looking out onto 53rd St., which makes for some great people watching. There are no domino tables or bar seating here; this isn’t the place to go for a party. But that also means this is a setting that’s also usually quiet enough for you to get some work done (although there’s a rule against making phone calls here), read the paper, or watch the news.

Casa de Montecristo by Cigar Inn on 2nd Ave.

Casa de Montecristo by Cigar Inn on 2nd Ave.

Our next cigar stop, on the other hand, is tailor-made for bigger crowds. Casa de Montecristo by Cigar Inn has two locations, one of which is on 2nd Ave. just a 10-minute walk from Davidoff’s Madison store. The night before our visit, Jonathan Drew had been holding court here, signing boxes and rubbing elbows with smokers at a Drew Estate promotional event. This morning, the place was much quieter and the staff were getting through organizing the humidor.

Partly because this store is such a destination and partly because it’s now owned by online retailer JR Cigar, Casa de Montecristo by Cigar Inn has lots of brands and specialty formats that you just won’t find in your town’s brick and mortar stores. If you’re a collector or just like trying new things, you’ll want to spend some time perusing the selection. Consider asking the staff to give you a quick tour and point you in the direction of those products that are exclusive to this store.

After JR took ownership of the store, it got a major facelift. Since the last time we were in New York, the place got lots of new furniture and the area closest to the front door was converted from being retail space to being a lounge area with a great street view. Two other distinct lounge areas and natural light coming in from the back area make the store feel even more expansive than it already is. After business hours, this is one of the more lively cigar spots in the city.

From there, we headed to the Nat Sherman Townhouse on 5th Ave. and E 42nd St., where we met with Michael Herklots, the company’s VP of retail and brand development. But before we settled in for cigars, Mike had some secrets to share with us away from the Townhouse, albeit reluctantly.

“You guys are going to let the cat out of the bag when you run this story,” Mike said. “I have this place I like to go for lunch, but I’m always vague about it when people ask where I’m going. This is a real hidden gem.”

The dining room at Nino's 46

The dining room at Nino's 46

Needless to say, we were excited with a set-up like that. So when we walked into Nino’s 46 and saw that it was just a five-minute walk north of the Townhouse, we wondered how it had managed to stay under the radar (at least by Manhattan standards). Once we walked in, it started to become clear.

“This place used to be a very different kind of restaurant. They did sandwiches, and that kind of casual lunch food,” Mike said. “But they had a fire. When they rebuilt, the owners’ kids got involved and changed the concept.”

Sure enough, you’ll walk into Nino’s 46 and find that the glass sneeze guard you’re used to seeing at New York sandwich shops and casual pizza joints is still there. You have to walk past that before you see the dining room and bar near the back, where the dim, but not quite romantic, lighting, art and exposed brick class up the place while still keeping the environment as casual as the hearty comfort food on the menu. We sat at a table near the wood-burning oven and let Mike take the wheel.

“We’re going to eat. A lot,” he said. “But we’ll start with some wine.”

Nat Sherman Townhouse

Nat Sherman Townhouse

We headed to The Lambs Club for cocktails with Michael Herklots of Nat Sherman.

We headed to The Lambs Club for cocktails with Michael Herklots of Nat Sherman.

We started with a bottle of Mocali Brunello di Montalcino, moving on to an arugula salad, a pizza, orecchiette, spaghetti, some heirloom tomato soup, and finally a bread pudding that was topped with Nutella and mascarpone. Everything fresh, everything cooked to perfection.

The food was excellent, but what was truly startling about this meal was the fact that the entrees were priced between $10 and $16. That’s beyond reasonable in Manhattan, but if you’d been there with us and experienced the quality firsthand, you’d know it’s insane.

Next up: cocktails at The Lambs Club, which you might recognize as one of the renowned restaurants owned by Geoffrey Zakarian, who we profiled in the January/February 2015 issue. Our recommendations: try the Sasha’s Tale (Templeton rye, rubarbo, vermouth, averna, absinthe rinse) and the Gold Rush (bourbon, lemon, honey).

Feeling more than ready to sit down, light cigars, and not move a whole lot for a while, we made our way back to the Nat Sherman Townhouse while smoking some Panamericanas in the 5x50 Epicure format, which is perfect for this kind of New York City stroll. After settling into the lounge, we moved on to some Nat Sherman Timeless and enjoyed an impressive cigar industry impersonation by Mike. We can’t tell you who he did, but we can tell you we were in stitches, he did it so well.

Unfortunately, Mike had a flight to catch early the next day so he couldn’t stick around for the rest of our romp through Manhattan. On the other hand, though, we were very fortunate to be able to meet for dinner with someone who appears elsewhere in this very issue of Cigar Snob: restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone. He invited us to dinner at Lidia Batianich’s restaurant, Felidia, which is a place of great significance to his career. Alessandro grew up around the restaurant business, but it wasn’t until he spent time working in that kitchen that he discovered his passion for the industry. It was also appropriate given his perspective on the New York food scene.

Lidia Bastianich's restaurant, Felidia, where Alessandro Borgognone found his food industry calling.

Lidia Bastianich's restaurant, Felidia, where Alessandro Borgognone found his food industry calling.

“The city is moving toward a greater appreciation of classics,” Alessandro said. “This place is a classic.”

Our meal was essentially a tasting menu that included Nantucket Bay scallops; Ravioli stuffed with veal and pork and topped with truffle; paccheri with goat ragout and andouille sausage; roasted veal tenderloin; and all manner of decadent, delicious things. We paired it all with a bottle of wine: Conterno’s 2009 Barolo Cascina Francia.

It’s no wonder this place inspired him to pursue a career in food. Today, he’s known for — among other things — having transformed his own family’s restaurant, Patrizia’s, into a highly respected group of four restaurants, as well as for having opened Sushi Nakazawa, which has become the city’s hottest sushi restaurant.

Sushi Nakazawa

Sushi Nakazawa


Alessandro wasn’t able to join us for a cigar after the meal, but he did make sure to recommend his own neighborhood shop in Staten Island.

Carmine’s Cigars,” he said. “It’s on Richmond Road in Staten Island. It’s a lovely place. But what makes it really, really lovely is the majority of people that go there are blue collar. They’re in the fire department, they’re police officers, small business owners and so on. The conversation is amazing. And the day that I don’t want to spend by myself smoking, I smoke there.”

One of the lounge areas at Club Macanudo

One of the lounge areas at Club Macanudo

We ended our last night in New York at Club Macanudo, which is on the Upper East Side on the corner of Madison Ave. and E 63rd St., near the south end of Central Park. If you love cigars and you have not been here, you need to add it to your to-do list immediately. A diverse crowd gathers in this luxurious setting for cigar smoking, great drinks, and top-notch service. It’s great for dates, business, or a night out with friends. Most notably, though, it’s one of very few places in New York — or anywhere, for that matter — where you can eat, smoke, and drink indoors.

TIP: Make sure you won’t be turned away because you don’t meet the requirements of the dress code. “Club Macanudo requires gentlemen to wear collared shirts. Tee shirts, athletic attire/sneakers, shorts and ip ops are strictly prohibited,” according to the Club Macanudo website.

We met with a few friends: Nick Nanavichit, whose Nsolo Consulting Group is behind some of the coolest cigar brand packaging and swag you can get your hands on; Brian Shapiro of Oliva Cigar; and Brian’s son Aaron. We started off smoking Macanudo Inspirado Orange before moving on to the Oliva Serie V Melanios that Brian had brought along. We caught up, reminisced, and found excuses to toast with each round of Old Fashioneds, losing track of time as anyone might when there are friends, drinks, and great cigars.

Where to smoke cigars in Las Vegas

By Neil Wolkodoff

Arguably, Las Vegas is one of the best cities in the world to smoke a cigar. And even though there are now restrictions in most restaurants and some bars, you can still smoke on the casino floors and in most outdoor public places. It’s no wonder that a bevy of unique cigar shops and lounges continue to do well in Las Vegas. Just like the diversity of visitors and attractions, there is a cigar shop that appeals to just about everyone.

En Fuego is a comfortable lounge that welcomes anyone to come and smoke a cigar. En Fuego focuses on more boutique blends. For instance, regulars here are big fans of The Leaf by Oscar, which is known for coming wrapped rustically in a tobacco leaf rather than cellophane. They also have a good selection of Warped products. Alcohol isn’t allowed at the Sahara Ave. location, but you can bring your own at the Henderson location. Regardless of which location you visit, try the En Fuego house blend, which is rolled on site.

If you want something a little farther off the strip, with a bit more local flavor, then the Cigar Box is a real locals’ cigar lounge. Just west of the Strip on Dean Martin, behind Caesar’s, this is easy to get to, and you definitely come down a notch from the activity level of Las Vegas Blvd. Recently remodeled, the Cigar Box added a bar, which serves a variety of craft beer, wine, coffee, and soda. While there is an open lounge area, they also have a conference room that can be used for meetings and small events. Like their sister operation, Casa Fuente, they feature a wide cigar selection.

The Havana Cigar Lounge, while only open for seven months, has made an impact on the cigar scene due to the vision of Michael Alexander. What I like about that this establishment is that it's classically comfortable — nice chairs, a 120-inch TV, big pictures and relaxed atmosphere. The humidor has a variety of big brands as well as some things you haven’t likely heard about (Santos De Miami, La Rosa De San Diego, and Bariay, to name a few). Just soda, tea, and bottled water, but ample libations and the food is just around the corner. Since it is a mile from the strip, easy to get to and cart some sticks back to the casino.

Guests dancing to salsa music at La Casa Cigars & Lounge in Summerlin

Guests dancing to salsa music at La Casa Cigars & Lounge in Summerlin

La Casa in Summerlin is a high-end lounge that features an incredible spirits collection combined with nightly entertainment. If there was a perfect marriage of a nightclub with a cigar bar, this is it. This operation is located in the Tivoli Village, so shopping and dining is all within an easy walk. The proximity makes for a great evening out of dining, then cigars combined with music and libations. Dance contests also occur regularly. When the weather is a little better, their two outdoor patio areas are perfect for cigars and drinks.

The bar at Casa Fuente

The bar at Casa Fuente

Casa Fuente is one of the premier cigar lounges on the Strip, and it’s been here for over 11 years. While others are shopping at the Forum Shops, get your stogie on with a premium beverage. Casa Fuente is home to Arturo Fuente brand cigars and sports two other exclusive cigar lines in the large humidor. This is also among the premier spots for mojitos in the area, and the bar boasts over 100 whiskeys.


The cigar business seems to attract interesting characters, and Paul Vato, a former actor and writer is now the cigar baron of downtown. Vato Cigars is a modest sized shop within a Fremont Street casino with personal service. The smoking lounge is next door, inside Benny’s Smokin’ BBQ & Brew. Paul Vato does some unique events, such as the cigar crawl, where you get six premium cigars, drink specials and a look inside the cigar history of Las Vegas. Despite the size, Paul has a good selection of premium cigars and also rolls his own. At 18 inches long, the “All In” cigar is sure to keep you going for more than three hours.

The patio area at Davidoff of Geneva Cigar Bar

The patio area at Davidoff of Geneva Cigar Bar

If you want part social scene and part cigar spot, the Davidoff of Geneva Cigar Bar is more like an upscale lounge that also happens to be in the cigar business. An extensive open-air patio section with heaters beckons private parties and corporate groups in this location in the Fashion Show Mall. Also, the bar area has a nifty floor-to-ceiling ventilation system, so the non-smoker does not get overwhelmed. The bar pours craft drinks, and the humidor is small but mighty in luxury cigar offerings, from Davidoff Oro Blanco on down.

Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sport Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During free time, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix with cigars in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest, Everett Potter, Travel World and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.


Golf at a mile high. Check out these Denver-area courses on your next visit.

By Neil Wolkodoff

Denver is known for an active lifestyle and ranks fourth in the U.S. in golf rounds per capita. What might surprise you is how many excellent courses are friendly and welcoming to cigars. The following is a sampling of interesting courses you can play during a visit that combines great golf with stogies.

Be advised, if there is a high fire danger, these courses might limit on-course smoking. This happens in this area about five days per year, and much more in the mountains than along the front-range.

Most of these courses allow on-course smoking, limited patio smoking where available, and have humidors on site (in case you forgot to bring your own cigars).

CommonGround Golf Course is 17 minutes east of downtown Denver and is now the home to the Colorado Golf Association. That means the range, par 3 course and practice facilities are much better than average. Additionally, because the CGA wanted a course that would span all abilities, this can be played by the new golfer all the way to the tournament competitor as tee box placement is proportional to golf ability. The course meanders through a wetlands area was reclaimed, so while not Sherpa golf, there are a few hills, but the course is actually defined by creative meanderings around wetland features and mounds. Walker friendly as well as motor cart.

The 14th hole at CommonGround Golf Course

The 14th hole at CommonGround Golf Course


Close to Boulder in Erie is Colorado National Golf Club, the home course to the University of Colorado golf teams. With the golf teams using the facility, the practice areas are much better than average. The course features five sets of tees all the way to a 7,676 length for the ultimate challenge. The holes meander up and down the prairie hills with a Colorado links feel with great views of the mountains. The Master’s Restaurant is top-notch and can do everything from breakfast to large corporate occasions.

North of Denver about 25 minutes is Riverdale Dunes. This Pete Dye course used to hold mini-tour events and while a part of the Commerce City golf program, is much more than a public course. This is a links course that meanders for many of the holes along the South Platte River, with occasional pot bunkers and mounds interspersed with the use of railroad ties. It might be a public course, yet like others in the list, the conditions are much closer to a private club. The par four, signature #15 has you drive along a lake, then woof leg it again along the lake to the green. Like many holes at Riverdale Dunes, not exceptionally long yet the classic multiple risks with rewards.

Just 39 minutes south of Downtown in Larkspur is Perry Park Country Club. Steeped in early Colorado history, this course weaves through the sandstone rocks and hills with incredible geography and course features. While a private club, you can access the course as a guest through the Private Club Network. The 221 yard, par 3 17th is typical of the vista views and pristine conditions on almost every hole. While you can play the course in a little over four hours, you might want to take five because of the stunning scenery.

Image: Perry Park Country Club

Image: Perry Park Country Club


Head west of Denver 23 minutes, and get a dose of dinosaur history at Fossil Trace, another public golf course with country club conditions. While Golden is known for Coors, this is a close second as this is a stunning course that goes up and down through the foothills and rock formations. You can even stop on the signature par 5, 12th hole, which features natural sandstone monoliths, and take a three-minute walk through the fossil exhibit. No two holes are the same, and the finishing par 5 up a slight hill and next to the water for half the hole will test your metal.

Highlands Ranch Golf Course is southwest of downtown by about 11 miles, and features a championship track that is used as the home course by the University of Denver Golf Team, and hosts numerous tournaments every year. A Hale Irwin design, the way it follows the land in risk and reward fashion is a little different than most. You can smoke on the special patio after your round while enjoying a beverage or meal.

If you wanderings take you to Colorado Springs, the world-class golf option is the famous Broadmoor, with the East, West and Mountain Courses. The East course sports tree lined fairways and huge greens. The West course changes flavor with undulating fairways and multi-level greens combined with mountain vistas. In the classic Nicklaus style, the Mountain course has wide fairways with guarded approaches to the greens as it follows the contours of the hills. And, don’t forget the world-class hotel and conference center if you need to park it for a few days!

Hole 6 at Broadmoor East

Hole 6 at Broadmoor East


Part way to Boulder is the Omni Interlocken Golf Club and Resort. If you need to stay, then the Omni Hotel provides a friendly option with restaurant, bar, and spa. Golf is unique here in that the Vista, Sunshine, and Eldorado nines are all a little different. Each course twists through the hills and landscape with no holes running parallel to each other. Each nine plays anywhere from 2700-3500 yards, so as much challenge as you want. The Fairways restaurant right in the clubhouse offers beverages as well as breakfast through dinner.

The Omni Interlocken Golf Club and Resort

The Omni Interlocken Golf Club and Resort


Green Valley Ranch is host to the Colorado Open series of tournaments and weaves through residential and wetland areas. Some memorable holes are highlighted by the 18th, a long par five that gently twists along wetlands to an elevated green. Besides being cigar friendly, the course has the three-hole challenge on the last three holes. Make par on the par four, three and five, and get a free beverage in the bar. And with proximity to DIA, you can get in 18th and then fly home.

The view from the 18th hole at Green Valley Ranch

The view from the 18th hole at Green Valley Ranch


Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sport Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During free time, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix with cigars in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest, Everett Potter, Travel World and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.

Cigars and Tampa history at King Corona in Ybor City

Thanks in large part to its location and cigar selection, King Corona has become a destination for locals and tourists alike. Unlike so many other cigar spots on Ybor City's famous 7th Avenue strip, King Corona doesn't have in-store rollers and stocks lots of the brands you're familiar with (along with its own smokes). Plus, their coffee, beer, breakfast and tapas offerings give people a reason to stop by around the clock.

Don Barco offered us a primer on the neighborhood's tobacco history and how his Tampa shop fits into that picture. 

Southern Spread: The world has taken note of America's most comforting cuisine.



On the one hand, it represents such a rejection of the things we might associate with trendy eating: pretense, status, novelty and urbanism, for example. On the other, Southern cooking is inextricably tied to other ideas that city slicker food snobs hold so dear: technique, indulgence and farm-to-table freshness (to name a few).
Still, there’s a lot that diners don’t know about what southern food is and isn’t. It’s a deeper, richer, more diverse and nimble idea than you might realize. And while that might mean the South is misunderstood, it also means that it’s got plenty of cards left up its sleeve. I spoke to chefs, writers and restaurateurs to learn more about America’s most comforting food and find out what’s next for the increasingly popular cuisine.


“I’ll tell you about sitting at a Southern table,” said barbecue legend Myron Mixon. “It’s about family. It’s about friends, about neighbors, and most of all — and I think a lot of this country has forgotten about that — it’s about manners. You gotta have manners. You gotta have respect for your elders. And all that happened around the dinner tables. The elders always got the first piece of chicken, you said the grace, you didn’t stand at the table, you didn’t whistle at the table, you didn’t talk ‘til you were spoken to. It was a time for fellowship to talk about the good things that happened during the day, and that’s what a southern table is all about.”

As much as Myron loves the Southern table and the family tradition it stands for — his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all pitmasters, he says — he’s made his reputation as “the winningest man in BBQ” away from that table. Myron only got into competitive barbecue to promote the sauce that his parents, Jack and Gaye, were making. He caught the bug, though, started a BBQ company (calling it Jack’s Old South) and went on to become the most deco-rated pitmaster around, winning more than 200 grand championships, 40 state championships, and an absolutely obscene number of barbecue trophies. He’s done all that with the classic style of barbecue from Georgia and the Carolinas, which involves using oak and hickory charcoal and those vinegary sauces the region is known for. He’s parlayed his competitive barbecue success into a line of high-end smokers bearing his name. I can’t say that I’ve had Myron’s cook-ing, but with a resume like that, you don’t need to to trust he knows his way around a pig.

“It’s all about starting with great ingredients,” said John Kunkel, the Atlanta-raised founder and owner of 50 Eggs. The Miami-based company owns some of the hottest restaurants in South Florida, including the Southern poultry sensation Yardbird in Miami Beach (which recently opened a second location in Las Vegas and is known for dishes like roasted chicken, fried chicken and biscuits and fried okra) and the pork-centric Swine in Coral Gables, where the best bar snack might be the fried bacon and waffles. John says plans for Swine prompted less doubt since South Florida’s Cuban com-munity practically guarantees you can sell good pork in Miami.

“I like to think that Southern food was one of the originators of farm-to-table. That was not a catch phrase. That was and still is how people eat in the South in many farm communities. In so much of the South, it’s not a trend; it’s how people eat,” he said. “Everybody’s got a garden in their backyard. People have cows and chick-ens and pigs on their land and that is how they eat. It’s become a hipster thing to talk about in the culinary world — particularly in major cities like Miami, New York and L.A. — but these are things that have existed in the rural South.”

John wasn’t raised on a farm himself, but At-lantans certainly aren’t insulated from the farm culture of the surrounding areas. And he spent a lot of time with his grandparents, who still have a large farm of their own. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s, he said, that he grasped that the rest of the country didn’t have the same rela-tionship to food as families like his did — grow-ing vegetables, butchering hogs, sharing some with the neighbors.

Anybody with a Southern food background is quick to bring up family. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, it’s tough to farm for just one person.

“From a very, very early age — as early as I can remember — I’ve been cooking,” said Dameione Cameron as he recalled his childhood in South Carolina’s Lowcountry (whose distinct coastal cuisine has more in common with New Orleans’ Cajun cooking than any other Southern fare). He and his partner Troy Rumpf own the Morris House Bistro in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “I remember when I was a kid coming home from elementary school and surprising my parents and my grandparents with dinner on Friday afternoons. Being able to clean game, fish ... They all taught me that.”

Dameione wasn’t just cooking at home. He was cooking homegrown ingredients. His grandparents’ half-acre farm provided much of the produce that he and his family worked into their meals. Every person I spoke to about Southern cuisine for this piece pointed to that as a cornerstone of the region’s food culture.

The more you talk to Southerners about Southern cooking, the more you realize that the food culture is really more about lifestyles and attitudes than it is about any particular set of ingredients. I turned to a Northerner for a little perspective.


“People around the rest of the United States think of Southern food as some unified thing. They might think of fried chicken or grits or col-lards. I think the fact is that Southern cooking is not unified. Just like American cooking is not unified,” said David Joachim, bestselling author of cookbooks like Cooking Light: Global Kitchen, Mastering the Grill, The Tailgater’s Cookbook and the A Man, A Can… series of books.

“Southern culture is unified; Southerners will identify themselves as Southerners and that spans across several states. That attitude is generally an attitude against the North. There is no Northern cooking. The cooking most people point to (as Southern) is really country cooking. If there’s any way to distinguish regional styles of cooking in the South, I would say it’s country and city,” Dave said, adding that even then, the distinction is really more tied to class than to geography.

That seems like it’s up for at least some debate. After all, Southern cooking almost certainly has more African influence than the cuisines of other U.S. regions. Even on antebellum plantations, generations of children were not only raised by but fed by blacks.

But it’s also true that the cuisine isn’t as unified or homogenous as many people think. There’s the Appalachian mountain cooking that stresses preservation through smoking and pickling. There’s the seafood-heavy lowcountry style of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Texas’ cattle culture means its food is heavier on the beef. And even Louisiana’s French-influenced dishes can be parsed into Creole and Cajun. The stron-gest thread running through Southern food seems more about culture (and maybe even a little politics) than gastronomy. Whatever the case, aspects of that culture — from Southern hospitality to intimate, family-style eating, and the laid-back pace of country life — have spread quickly.


That 50 Eggs’ idea for Southern restaurants in South Florida would be successful was far from a given. While south Florida is about as far lowercase south as you can go in the U.S., it’s not quite in the uppercase South.

“South Beach couldn’t be farther away from the true South,” John said. He remembers the winter when he and his wife decided to leave Atlanta for Miami. They were enjoying the 80-degree weather during a visit to his dad in Florida. “It was a cold, dreary Atlanta winter. We were like, ‘Let’s not go home.”

Having already opened a bakery café and a fast casual Mexican restaurant (Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, a chain 50 Eggs later sold to Ruby Tuesday for about $25 million), he’d begun to contem-plate a Southern concept as his next venture. He paid a visit to Brooklyn’s Buttermilk Chan-nel, which is known for quality, simple comfort foods. Not all of them are Southern-inspired, but much of the menu consists of things like fried chicken, cornbread and barbecued oysters.

“I thought, ‘If they can do this here, I can pull it off in South Florida, where it’s not represent-ed at all.’ People outright, blatantly said that it would never work,” John said. People doubt-ed he could “serve bourbon, bacon and fried chicken in the land of Red Bull, vodka, quinoa and kale. It was just not a no-brainer.”

Four years later, Yardbird is one of the busiest restaurants on South Beach. And yes, there are some local seafood and fresh vegetables on the menu for the more body-conscious. But the major draws here are the more indulgent items.

“You could go in there at any time and find a table of good-looking women eating a plate of fried chicken, throwing caution to the wind,” John says, laughing at an image he has to have seen a thousand times by now. I’ve thrown caution to the wind at Yardbird myself, but I doubt I look to anyone like I’m making a special exception.

A number of chefs have come through the Yard-bird kitchen, adding their own touches and in-novations to the menu, but the fried chicken recipe came from John’s grandmother.

That fried chicken is the menu’s heart and soul, so it makes sense that (in true Southern fashion) the heart and soul should come from family.

“It definitely helped shape Yardbird and Swine and all my other Southern-inspired brands,” John said.

At Dameione’s 13-table Cheyenne bistro (which, by the way, has a small humidor of its own), diners come from hundreds of miles away. His story is a little different. Having moved to Wyo-ming, and away from the foods he associated with home, Dameione took to his home kitchen with a deepened appreciation for the food he’d left behind.

“When you live in South Carolina, it’s a part of your life. You take it for granted sometimes, and I know that I did,” he said.

Myron Mixon, the “winningest man in barbecue,” has become an ambassador of southern culture.

Myron Mixon, the “winningest man in barbecue,” has become an ambassador of southern culture.

The more he cooked, the more people he ex-posed to those dishes. The more people he exposed, the more his friends urged him to make the leap from favorite dinner party host to restaurateur. It can be tough being so far away from the source of his inspiration (he can’t find some ingredients, like country ham bacon and green peanuts, as readily as he’d like to), but he makes it work. Morris House Bistro serves dishes ranging from macaroni and cheese pie — yet another one of those recipes handed down from a grandmother — to ribeye in a cherry pipe tobacco sauce, which Dameione says he based on memories of the tobacco his grandfather used to smoke. His winter 2015 menu includes items like the lowcountry classic shrimp & grits, crab cakes, Cajun calabash flounder, and rab-bit-topped dumplings.

Successful as restaurateurs like Dameione (with his 13 tables in Cheyenne) and Jon (with a formidable restaurant group he expects to expand into several new markets soon) have been, there might be no better or better known ambassador for Southern food than Myron Mix-on. Jack’s Old South has been featured on Food Network, Discovery Channel, History Channel, Travel Channel and the Versus Network. Chanc-es are especially good that you know him as a judge on BBQ Pitmasters or from one of his many appearances on daytime and late-night talk shows.

“Craig Ferguson, that was cool. He doesn’t have a teleprompter, he just says what he wants to say,” Myron said, recalling his appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. The smart-ass Scottish comedian’s staff warned Myron that Ferguson wouldn’t be able to re-sist the urge to joke about the Boston butt and “chicken balls” they smoked in trash cans on a rooftop for the show.

The TV appearance with the best visible rapport between host and pitmaster has to have been Myron’s visit to the Steve Harvey Show.

“I had a great time with Steve Harvey. That was a great show last year,” Myron said of the time he made proctology jokes with Harvey while stuffing a sausage into a chicken breast. “But you know, he understands it. Everybody talks about Southern culture. Well, Southern culture isn’t just about poor-ass white folks like I am. It’s all about African American people, too.”

All that TV face time means that Myron and celebrity chefs like him are in a position to af-fect the popularity of Southern cuisine. And his authority status isn’t just providing casual fans with mouthwatering entertainment. It’s put him in a position to spread the Georgia barbecue gospel, especially through the Jack’s Old South Cooking School programs that Myron hosts each month in Unadilla, Ga. on Myron’s seven-acre compound, where aspiring pitmasters (pros and amateurs) have flocked from all over the world to learn the winningest man’s methods.

“I have 100 students in every class. What I’m fixin’ to tell you is, anything to do with the South or Southern culture is the hot ticket right now. I don’t care what it is — if it’s food, if it’s music, if it’s TV shows — you take a bunch of top reality shows, as stupid as some of them may be, it’s all about Southern living,” Myron says. It might not “all” be about Southern living, but he’s got a point. From BBQ Pitmasters to Duck Dynasty to Party Down South, TV is rife with Southern themes. And that’s just reality TV. “You know what I’m saying? Everybody wants to learn about Southern lifestyles. And the foodie is no different.”

John has encountered similar curiosity from diners.

“They didn’t know what grits or okra were as we were opening up, but we really put an emphasis on service. So many restaurants in South Beach aren’t particularly known for that. We knew we would have to explain the food and sort of walk people through the dining experience, but we wanted to have warm, Southern hospitality in a place that wasn’t known for that,” he said.


It’s possible that one of the reasons southern food has intrigued the whole country is that — like Southerners themselves — it seems just the right combination of accessible and foreign to the uninitiated. After all, the spiking interest in Southern cooking — and even in Southern spir-its and bourbon cocktails — seems to coincide not only with the growth of foodie culture, but also with the peak of the recent economic re-cession. But whatever the reasons, Southern cooking has successfully permeated main-stream dining and cooking.

“You have everything from Asian to Italian to native Southerners who are giving their rendi-tion of Southern food,” John said, pointing to chefs like Hugh Acheson and Edward Lee as examples. “I don’t think any of us have to morph or change because most of these flavors and most of what we’re seeing in Southern ingredi-ents are so approachable. At the end of the day, the food is approachable, it’s flavorful, but it’s a broad flavor palate. With other restaurants (like 50 Eggs has done, whether it’s Mexican or Asian, we’ve had to make changes based on the local palate and the local understanding of eth-nic cuisine. With Southern food, people didn’t know what grits were, and they might never have had okra in their lives, but the flavors were approachable and known to most people. While you might have to do a little coaching or guidance on the menu, people identify with these flavors.”

Atlanta-native Chad Anderson is the executive chef at Oak Steakhouse in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta (the original Oak Steakhouse is in Charleston, SC). That restaurant is just one example of the Southern fusion that John’s re-ferring to. Part of the reason they can get away with innovative Southern elements at an other-wise traditional steakhouse: diner curiosity.

“The diner in the South is, I think, becoming more and more open-minded and branching out to try new things. When people will come in and they don’t understand an ingredient or they’ve never heard of something, there’s a lot of education of your diner through the service and through the chefs,” Chad said. Some of the Southern-inspired items on the menu include farro, a grain introduced to the South by Italians long ago, and bone marrow bread pudding. He also works local, seasonal produce like celery roots and turnips into dishes. Chad says about 70 percent of the Alpharetta restaurant’s menu is his own creation, with the rest being some of the obligatory (but no less delicious) steak-house fare.

The fried chicken recipe behind the success of Yardbird came from 50 Eggs restaurant group founder John Kunkel’s grandmother. Yardbird’s original location is in Miami Beach, with a second in Las Vegas and more on the way.

The fried chicken recipe behind the success of Yardbird came from 50 Eggs restaurant group founder John Kunkel’s grandmother. Yardbird’s original location is in Miami Beach, with a second in Las Vegas and more on the way.

“There’s one dish that’s probably the most Southern inspired. It’s basically like a refined barbecue plate. I take pork shoulder and I con-fit it, so I cook it in its own fat and oil for several hours. And I press it with a heavy weight over-night. So it kind of compresses that meat. And then the next day we cut it into a square steak or a pavé style. We serve that with barbecue baked beans and a little salad of Granny Smith apples and baby beets.”

That sounds fancy, to be sure. But it’s Southern fancy. And as the wave of southern cuisine hits new markets (it seems that, every year, a dif-ferent city’s papers declare Southern food the hottest new trend in town), we’ll see more and more of this kind of fusion here in the States.
What’s more, John and Dameione both say that their successes have affected the broader res-taurant landscape. Versions of the peach and bourbon sauce that Dameione uses on his pork have popped up on other restaurants’ menus. And 50 Eggs’ expansion is serving as affirmation for others who have the same kinds of doubts he did before opening Yardbird in Miami Beach.

“The fact that we’ve had so much success and are expanding nationwide inspires smaller re-gional operators to go attack that type of food because they know that it’s seen success in other parts of the country. The national and in-ternational success of Yardbird and other con-cepts like it is going to continue to spawn more and more,” John said. He intends to open three Yardbird restaurant openings in the near future — two in the U.S. and one in Singapore.

“A lot of people cock their heads back when we say that, but you think of fried chicken in Asia and it’s a natural fit.”

Myron’s also seen the international interest in American Southern cuisine reflected in the at-tendance of his BBQ course. “The biggest ma-jority of my class now is people from Australia, South America, Europe. We have a lot of people from Asia that come to the class because they see a lot of these TV shows about barbecue. They love Americana. And there’s nothing more American than barbecue.

“We had a gentleman who came to my Novem-ber class. He was from Israel,” Myron said. “He bought two commercial (smokers) and shipped them back to Israel to open up a barbecue res-taurant. That’s pretty cool,” he said, adding that a student from Dubai took an entire container of Myron Mixon brand smokers back home with him. “Twenty years ago, you think you ever saw any really authentic barbecue restaurants in New York City? But today they’re there. And they’re coming every day. Now L.A. is getting on board.”

No matter how much Southern food spreads or what it’s fused with, the standard bearers will always be those people who grew up in and on the South. It’s those people for whom this is most personal — because only they’re able to imbue their food with that culture and attitude that’s at the core of Southern cooking.

“I remember being a kid and my grandmother or grandpa serving that up for dinner,” Dameione said. “It’s all about the senses taking over and remembering things. I can talk to you about col-lard greens or about the macaroni and cheese pie, and I’ll enjoy that because that food just makes me feel that those people are still with me.”


Vendetta Men’s Apparel & Vintage Cuban Cigars


You read the name right. Turn back the clock to enjoy a smoke from owner Bruce Rothenberg’s collection of pre-embargo Cubans. Purchase any of those vintage Cubans and you’ll get a complimentary pour of rum. Looking for something contemporary? Their small selection includes some of today’s most popular brands as well. The shop is located in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel and the small smoking room (it seats about three) overlooks San Francisco streets with the occasional pass-ing trolley. Upgrade your wardrobe while you’re here. Vendetta’s also got a selection of fine men’s wear — including cufflinks, belts, pens, and more.

Vendetta Men’s Apparel
& Vintage Cuban Cigars

950 Mason St, San Francisco


Telford’s Pipe & Cigar


When it seems like places that embrace cigar and pipe smoking are in short supply, this shop near the north end of Richardson Bay, just minutes from Muir Woods National Monument, is the perfect place for you to join fellow puffing rebels for a smoke.Their walk-in humidor’s 20,000 cigars include an abundance of the industry’s top brands, and their knowledgeable staff will help you wade through that selection. For $700 a year, Telford’s offers a private members-only lounge with complimentary Wi-Fi, overstuffed chairs, and flat-screen TVs.

Telford’s Pipe & Cigar

664 Redwood Highway Frontage Rd.
Mill Valley 


West Coast Cigars


You’ll find it nearly impossible not to relax and enjoy yourself here. Aside from their selection of premium cigars, the shop offers both an indoor and an outdoor seating area. Bring your own bottle, and relax outside by their fire pit, where you might find hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill nearby. Inside there are two lounges, one public and one private, and complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout the building. Ten bucks gets you a day’s access to the private lounge, where you’ll find a pool table, dartboard, and more flat-screen TVs. The private lounge can be rented for small gatherings for a five-hour rate of $250. Coffee and tea are available as well, making this a pretty good place to get your after-breakfast cigar. 

West Coast Cigars

1650 Almaden Rd.
San Jose 


Casa Belicoso Cigar Lounge


East of Oakland in Walnut Creek, you’ll find Beli-coso Cigar Lounge. The walk-in humidor is filled with an array of popular lines, including an ample selection from 601 Cigars, which sponsors the private lounge here. Access to the member lounge is $10 for the day. Come here to play some pool, catch a game, or make use of their free Wi-Fi. If it’s too nice outside to be trapped indoors, enjoy your smoke in the outdoor seating area.What’s better than a great cigar lounge? A great cigar lounge that serves wine and beer, that’s what. Grab a cold brew from their menu of local beers. Don’t like smoking on an empty stomach? Make a pit stop at Saroor Indian Cuisine a block up the street

Casa Belicoso Cigar Lounge

2540 N. Main St.
Walnut Creek


The Piedmont Tobacconist


Oakland can sometimes feel like a bustling city, but The Piedmont Tobacconist — on the corner of Glen and Piedmont — is a quaint escape from that urban pace. As you walk in, you’re surrounded by tobacciana in what looks like your favorite uncle’s man cave. The walk-in humidor is small, but packed with many familiar names, includ-ing Punch, Fuente, and Tatuaje. There is a small seating area (it fits about three) right outside the humidor. The shop also features an extensive collection of cigar accessories, pipes, and pipe tobacco. If you have an appetite, you’re in luck. Piedmont Avenue is littered with cafés and other eateries within walking distance of the store.

The Piedmont Tobacconist

17 Glen Ave.


Los Gatos Cigar Club


Los Gatos is among one of the swankiest semi-private lounges we’ve come across while put-ting these travel guides together (“semi-private” meaning that you can access the lounge with a day pass rather than needing to have a long-term membership). There are also some tables out by the sidewalk where you can enjoy your stogie. The club is a perfect escape for a smoke after a hard day’s work, and you’ll find a diverse cast of characters doing just that here on any given night. Access to the lounge will cost you just $10, though they have annual memberships that might be a better value for locals. It’s an even better value when you consider they’ve got a BYOB policy and the American bistro next door (which is actually called Nick’s Next Door) will deliver right to the lounge. 

Los Gatos Cigar Club

21 College Ave.
Los Gatos


Club Havana Premium Cigars


On the outskirts of San Jose and Santa Clara lies Club Havana Premium Cigars ( just minutes from Cupertino, which is home to Apple’s headquar-ters). The shop is lined with cabinet humidors, totaling more shelf space than some walk-ins, full of the industry’s top brands, so you’ll find some-thing that works for you. Once you’ve picked out your stogie, head to the lounge area in the back of the shop and kick back in their comfortable leather chairs. The smoking area is big enough to seat seven comfortably. There are cigar tasting events almost weekly, so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to drop by for special deals. Stop in if you’re in need of a quick gift. Aside from tobacco products and accessories, Club Havana also carried some pretty cool bar items. 

Club Havana Premium Cigars

820 El Paseo de Saratoga,
San Jose 


Ohlone Cigar Lounge


Pronounced oh-LOW-nee, the name is a reference to one of the area’s native tribes. It’s a simple but comfortable lounge where the staff and owners are not only informed themselves, but also make it a priority to educate smokers on the products in the humidor, be it in one-on-one interactions or through the blind tastings they host every month for members of their “HERF Club.”

Ohlone Cigar Lounge

3370 Mowry Ave.


Lil’ Havana Cigar Shop


Since 1994, Lil’ Havana has been serving smokers in Vacaville (which sits just east of Napa), filling every cigar lover’s needs from cigars to accessories and more. Their shop features a walk-in humidor, humidified member lockers, and a leather-furnished, Wi-Fi equipped lounge. Lil’ Havana offers the perfect escape from your hectic work week far away from the sounds and sights of San Francisco.

Lil’ Havana Cigar Shop

101 Mason St.


Morgan Hill Wine Shop & Cigar Company


California has such a rich history with wine that it was only a matter of time before wine and cigar culture collided. At Morgan Hill in South County (just south of San Jose) you’ll find an ever-expanding selection of cigars ready to be paired with different wines, champagnes, and craft beers. Notable brands featured include Ashton, Drew Estate, Montecristo, and Tatuaje to name a few. Wine is available to be purchased by the bottle or by the glass at the bar in the rear of the shop. Up front, there’s a small lounge area where you can enjoy your favorite smoke and pairing. There’s always some kind of event going on (not that a cigar and wine night isn’t enough of an event), whether it’s their monthly poker night or wine tastings.

Morgan Hill Wine Shop & Cigar Company

17430 Monterey St.
Morgan Hill


Danville Cigar


More than just a cigar shop, Danville Cigar caters not only to cigar smokers, but also to lovers of wine and chocolate. As a Davidoff appointed merchant, their selection of Davidoff, AVO, the Griffin, and Zino is remarkable. There’s an outdoor seating area that can accommodate about 25 smokers. While there, you can also enjoy wine (by the glass or bottle) and confections from Lula’s Choco-lates, a chocolatier based in nearby Monterey. If you venture east of San Francisco on the Sinclair Freeway, stopping here is a must.

Danville Cigar

445 Hartz Ave.




Upon walking into Humidor on Battery Street, you are greeted by an impressive collection of luxury humidors on your right, and a barrage of pipes and pipe tobacco. In the rear of the shop is a gor-geous walk-in humidor with its own street view. Their location on Chestnut St. in the busy Ma-rina District offers a smaller selection than the Battery store, but still has a good variety. This is the closest premium cigar seller to the Golden Gate Bridge.

(Two Locations)

275 Battery St. #1
San Francisco

2050 Chestnut St.
San Francisco