Ladies' night out but with a good cigar

January 14, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

Lisa Drake lights a slender, 7-inch Juan Clemente Especiale, exhales a smoke ribbon toward the ceiling of Ruth's Chris Steak House and without uttering a word raises the old Freudian question: When is a cigar not just a cigar?

Perhaps when it smolders in the lips of a woman.

Or, say, 33 cigars smoldering in the lips of 33 women who gathered last night at the downtown Baltimore restaurant for a four-course, three-stogie meal billed by its sponsors as "The First National Women's-Only Cigar Dinner."

The cigar as political symbol? Maybe so. Not as potent as a flaming brassiere, but better with Dewar's, Courvoisier or cabernet. Long after the novelty of a female fighter pilot, Supreme Court justice or U.S. senator has worn thin, there remains the fresh sight of a brigade of women firing up Davidoff Grand Crus and languidly storming the battlements of yet another male bastion.

Or, maybe it's just a cigar.

"It's just a nice thing to do. I don't think there's a women's issue here," says Ms. Drake, 40, of Annandale, Va., a winery representative, smoking the evening's first cigar and nursing a Hennessy martini.

"It's just a food and wine thing," says Sally Dodd, 41, of Kensington, another winery representative.

Men, after all, have been doing this cigar and food thing for ages. A little scotch, a little wine, some red meat, a cigar.

And in the past few years, with the rise in sales of handmade, premium cigars, more restaurants have been offering cigar dinners. But they tended to be dominated by men.

Then Deborah Hutton and Cathy Hall, both of whom work for wine or liquor distributors, were sitting at the Capital Grille in Washington early last month smoking cigars and getting nasty looks from a few of the male patrons.

"Cathy said, 'We should have our own cigar dinner,' " Ms. Hutton tells the gathering. "We" meaning women.

"The more we talked about it, the more we realized that it's important for women to get together and do the same things men do," says Ms. Hall, 36. "It's almost a statement, a statement of power."

Some of the women freely acknowledge they have smoked cigars a few times but barely know a corona from a Churchill.

In the United States, it is estimated that maybe a tenth of 1 percent of the 6 million to 8 million cigar smokers are women, says Norman F. Sharp, president of the Washington-based Cigar Association of America.

These have been good times for cigar makers, who find their product bucking the downward spiral of tobacco sales in the United States.

Mr. Sharp reports that in the first eight months of 1994, the number of cigars sold jumped by 6.1 percent to 2.4 billion. Sales of imported premium cigars shot up even more -- 16.4 percent through October.

For some reason, cigars have become chic. Smokers have their own glitzy magazine, Cigar Aficionado, and find among their ranks such fashionable celebrities as David Letterman, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Whoopi Goldberg.

The dinners have been part of the marketing. For last night's affair, which drew women from as far away as New York, California and North Carolina, each woman paid $80 for scotch, wine, port, cognac, a meal that included appetizers of shrimp remoulade, crab meat stuffed mushrooms and a main course choice of filet mignon, veal chop or blackened tuna. And, of course, cigars -- three Dominican varieties with a total retail value of $20.

Steve F. de Castro, owner of Ruth's Chris Steak House on Water Street, says the sponsors chose his restaurant because of its cigar-friendly policies. He keeps five humidors stocked with 24 varieties of cigars and allows cigar smoking in the restaurant and bar if no one complains. The private room where the dinner was held last night was recently equipped with four smoke eaters in the ceiling and a separate ventilation system.

Despite the new gear, the air was smoke-filled before the women got halfway through the first cigar. Nevertheless, there was as little concern expressed about the health risks of cigar smoking -- chiefly throat and mouth cancers -- as there was about defying social convention.

"Every single cigar smoker I've ever met has been an interesting personality," says Judge Grace Connolly of the Baltimore County Orphan's Court. "I think a woman who will come and eat meat and drink scotch and smoke a cigar has got to be a lot of fun."

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