So let’s consider the options for a little socialization after a typical workday. There’s the ubiquitous happy hour at your local pub or sports bar. For those seeking a little lift, coffeehouses are the ticket. No-frills folks may head to a booth in a diner.
Now, to that list, you can add a more exotic setting: a hookah lounge. A what? Don’t worry if you are not hip enough to know about the mighty hookah. At a hookah lounge, or café, patrons share a melange of fruit-flavored tobacco from a communal pipe — or hookah. A long-standing Middle Eastern tradition, these bars have been sprouting up in urban areas around the U.S. for the past decade, but only recently have several opened in the Valley.
“It’s a place where you can socialize and enjoy a warm or cold beverage,” says Ray Ahmed, who opened Aladdin Café and Hookah Lounge in New Paltz last year. “There’s comfortable seating on leather couches. It takes your mind off work. You unwind.” And it’s a relatively cheap way to spend a leisurely hour. Share a hookah with a couple of friends and the price per person is around $4 — less than a large caffè mocha.
“In the Middle East, it’s a custom. It’s natural,” says Brian Nesheiwat, one of the owners of Zorona Restaurant and Hookah Lounge in Poughkeepsie. (The Middle Eastern restaurant has been open for several years, but the hookah lounge was added just last year.) “Almost every single house has a hookah. Almost any restaurant you go to you can order a hookah. Or just hanging out with a bunch of your friends by the house, you’re smoking a hookah.” Nesheiwat’s father, Yousef, was raised in Jordan, and it had been his dream to share a bit of that culture by opening a hookah lounge in Zorona. He died several years ago, but the Nesheiwat family forged ahead with plans for the lounge. They ended up opening the hookah lounge in a separate location because the restaurant’s landlord — nearby Vassar College — objected to the smoke-focused addition.
In fact, college students make up a sizable percentage of the patrons at both Zorona and Aladdin. Customers are primarily ages 18 to 25, many of whom aren’t old enough to socialize in 21-and-older bars. “We get a lot of students when midterms or finals come up, and they bring their laptops and type their papers up,” the 25-year-old Nesheiwat says. But it’s not only for the young. “We get ages 18, all the way up to the 50s and 60s,” he says. “Last night, I had a group of women who were in their late 50s who came for a Saturday night to smoke and relax.” He also sees a group of lawyers come in around 7:30 every so often. “Sometimes they come in suit and tie, and sometimes they come in plain clothes to relax and get away from going to a diner or a regular restaurant. In our lounge, you get your corner and nobody really bothers you.”
Hookahs draw smoke — produced by heating a small amount of tobacco mixed with fruits and other sweeteners — through a reservoir of water, which “mellows” the taste
The idea behind a hookah is to “mellow out” the smoke by running it through a vase of cool water at the base of the hookah. A small amount of tobacco, mixed with fruits, honey, molasses or other sweeteners is crumbled into a clay bowl atop the hookah. Hot charcoal is placed above the mixture (divided by tin foil or metal), which heats it and causes it to smoke. Sucking on the hookah’s mouthpiece draws the smoke down through the water, then up the hose.
Many hookah users don’t even inhale, Nesheiwat says, simply enjoying the taste of fruit-flavored sweetness. (Nevertheless, whether from cigarettes or hookahs, smoke is unquestionably harmful to the health, many studies have found. And a study published this spring found that college-aged hookah smokers generally underestimate the health risks associated with it.) The 20-or-so flavored tobaccos at Zorona range from blueberry and mango to watermelon and “skittles,” which is the $12 “house mix.” Nesheiwat explains: “My younger brother, his nickname is Hookah Joe. He sat there one day in the back and said, ‘I’m going to come up with a new flavor.’ And he mixed and matched and came up with one that he called skittles. Any time you smoke it, you taste different flavors.” And the ingredients? “Yeah, we won’t say.”
Up to three patrons are allowed to share one hookah at Zorona. Most customers buy the mixtures in the $12 to $15 range, but high-end ones are available for $23 and $29. Each smoker gets his own disposable mouthpiece — “wrapped up in plastic, like a bag of chips,” Nesheiwat says — and the tobacco lasts from one to two hours.
Ahmed, 42, opened his lounge in spring 2010 after many years of traveling to New York City or New Jersey to enjoy hookahs. “I always had it in my mind that it would be great for our community to have it,” he says. “I figured there were a lot of people like me who traveled to get it, so this way I can keep the business in the community rather than have them take it somewhere else.”
Among the regulatory difficulties in opening hookah lounges are clean air/dining laws. Nesheiwat emphasizes that “no food or beverages are served or prepared” in Zorona lounge — but that doesn’t mean that patrons can’t bring their own snacks or order delivery from the main restaurant, which is about a third of a mile away. “This is a place for people to get a taste of the Middle East, a chance to get to know it,” Nesheiwat says.