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A Pre-Steak Smoke at Cigar Parlor Velvet Lounge

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There are more than 6,000 bars in New York City. About 200 of them get regular press. This column is about the other ones. Robert Simonson, a journalist and blogger of the drinking life, and the originator of the "A Beer At..." column, takes a peek inside Gotham’s more anonymous watering holes, one by one.

[Kreiger, 9/23/10]

Recently, a friend accused me of lately being a little too good to myself with this column. Sure, I was visiting dives, but they were "really good dives." She had a point. Dark, dank joints like Milano's, Jackie's Fifth Amendment and the Grassroots Tavern make for high-end slumming. I hadn't been to a bar that made me want to take my life since visiting that castle of Murray Hill douchbaggery, Tonic East.

So this week I set out to visit the place where I'd find material for misanthropy. Walking past Peter Luger in Williamsburg, I saw a place with the Vegas name of Velvet Lounge. A bunch of thick-necked guys in dress shifts were standing outside. They puffed on fat cigars, and stuck out their tongues when they laughed, DeNiro-style. A sandwich board described in detail the new drink craze, the Caipirinha. Inside, all was purple velvet wallpaper. Bingo.
Red Velvet is part of a mini-chain of Gotham cigar bars; there's another one in the East Village. However, you can't smoke inside, only outside, where there's an awning, some seating and a few ferns. Consequently, the interior—which, aside from the big wooden cigar store Indian, looks like a bordello—is deserted. I slid by the smokers and took a seat at the bar. There were plenty of Scotches on offer, but this column isn't called "A Scotch At..." so I ordered a beer. The Temptations sang "My Girl." The blonde bartender, who wore a low-cut black t-shirt, didn't offer to run a tab, but asked for immediate payment. She then claimed the tip I left on the bar while I was still seated. Class.

Lonely, I decided to buy a cigar and join the fellas our front. The blonde cut it for me, and then said, "Melissa will light you up?" She will? Melissa was outside, an actual cigarette girl (cigar girl, really), showing plenty of leg in a flowered mini-dress and shifting her weight uncertainly among the over-attentive men. Melissa did try to light me up, but the wind was fierce. So I turned to a passing hipster with a lighter. "Hey, Melissa will take care of you!" protested one of the beefy smokers. They didn't like hipsters.

The lighter didn't hold up either. Melissa finally got me going. She said she was new to New York, a transplant from the Pacific Northwest, and had never been to Peter Luger. "I'm a little ADD about what I put in my mouth." Sushi good, barbecue bad. The first group of men left to dine on Porterhouse. Many groups of out-of-towners hit the Velvet Lounge before or after their Luger meatfest and regularly mistake Velvet Lounge as being affiliated with the steakhouse. "We're just good neighbors," said the blonde, as Percy Sledge strained to tell us what happens "When a Man Loves a Woman."

A new set of cigar-toting men replaced the first—some old friends who came in from Jersey and Long Island for a night on the town. One was celebrating his birthday. "He's an old fuck," remarked his friend, with a smile. The blonde came out and sat with them. It was clear that part of the women's job was to chat and flirt with the customers. There were many kindly offers to refire up the men's cigars. "What are you?" asked one guy of Melissa, "Hispanic?" "She's a strange mix," said the helpful bartender. "Guess." Nobody got it right. "She's half Czech, half Filipino," finally revealed the blonde. "But Filipino are, like, the Hispanics of Asia." "It's all good," said one man, to make sure no racial feathers were ruffled. "I like all mixes," offered another, thoughtfully drawing on his cigar. Melissa said nothing. There was a jar on her cigar tray that read "Tips."
—Robert Simonson