From the moment you enter the wood-paneled elevator, where a chalkboard displays the day's weather in Havana, there can be no doubt: this cigar mecca is the next best thing to Havana's Tropicana Club.
Stepping off at the third floor, you stroll through an aisle of 120 Spanish cedar humidors, noticing the brass nameplates: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Demi Moore, Joe Pesci. An unlikely crowd for Baltimore, to be sure, but with Planet Hollywood opening local digs, the fumaratti may soon rely on this home away from home.
Casually furnished with green leather sofas and oriental rugs, the dimly lit ballroom is a cozy scene, twinkling occasionally with the reflections from a disco ball. It's 8 p.m. on a Friday, and the cigar bar is starting to fill. In another hour, a two-hour line will have formed by the elevator downstairs. Management could probably squeeze a few more bodies into the third-floor bar, but because it adheres to the 300-person capacity, the atmosphere here remains light and comfortable.
That's owner Steve de Castro leaning against the mahogany bar and chatting with gubernatorial hopeful "American" Joe Mediewsewski, now a Maryland delegate. De Castro, who left his native Cuba at age 12, provides a selection of 25 cigar brands (a total of 65 cigar sizes) for regular patrons, ranging from a chewy $6.50 Padron to the $28 Davidoff Anniversario and the $40 Macanudo1984 Vintage No. I.
For the club's 210 humidor tenants, who pay $400 per year to rent the boxes, de Castro offers a selection of 250 cigars, including the Dominican Partagas, a wide range of Dominican Montecristos and 20 types of Paul Garmirian, all unavailable to regular patrons. There are no vacant humidors, and the waiting list has been steadily growing since the club's May opening. Currently, the list contains 150 hopefuls.
"Of course, you can keep your tennis shoes in there if you want," jokes de Castro. "We do have a customer who keeps candy in his. He owns a candy store and he says a humidor keeps candy at the perfect temperature and humidity."
Across the room, two couples are shooting pool, playing poorly but clearly having fun. In about an hour, they will be upstaged by a serious group of players who sip Martinis and do not laugh. Gambling on this table is strictly forbidden--but extremely frequent. The stakes are always high.
In addition to the broad cigar selection, the club offers a first-rate dessert menu with Bananas Foster and Gran Marnier Souffle, as well as a wine list that boasts more than 500 bottles and an appetizer menu with steak tartare. All desserts, wines and appetizers are provided by the four-star Ruth's Chris Steak House downstairs.
"It's not the drinking, it's not the food and it's not the cigars that make this place," says Dorothy Thomas, who visits the club at least once a week. "It's definitely the Latin dancing." As if to prove her point, Thomas is covered with sweat.
De Castro credits all of the above for the club's success. "There's no other place in Baltimore for adults to go after dinner for cocktails, where you can smoke and have dessert and just relax," he says, a smile hinting at his lips. "Also, we made it very women-friendly. We have dancing, and a person who works in the bathroom, and valet parking." As he's speaking, two tall, slender women enter the club and, without hesitating, begin a quick salsa on the tile dance floor. De Castro draws deeply on his Davidoff Special "R" robusto.
On second thought, maybe the Tropicana is the next best thing to the Havana Club.
Monday, March 16, 1998