Crossing Esplanade: French Quarter’s Neighbor Is a Bustling Bohemian Scene

By: Ian McNulty

Top to Bottom: Holy Smokes Cafe, Hand-rolled cigars from New Orleans Cigar Factory, Cigar Rolling Demonstration at Cigar Factory, Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.

Cigars may not be native to Louisiana, but they have certainly taken firm root in the city’s celebrated culture of indulgence.

The traditional finale to a rich meal, the cigar is also used to mark an important event such as the birth of a child or the completion of a big business deal. It’s no surprise then that a city that loves its fine cuisine and is willing to launch into boisterous celebration on the smallest pretext should prove a welcoming home for the cigar.

On A Roll

A fine cigar, after all, is to a common smoke as a bowl of dark, rich gumbo is to a can of soup: incomparably finer and more lavish. It’s also a handcrafted product made by artisans, rather than a mass-produced commodity, as one visit to the New Orleans Cigar Factory (415 Decatur St., 504-568-1003) will demonstrate vividly. In a bustling atmosphere fueled by meringue music and the ever-present aroma of just-lit cigars, a team of cigar makers works rapidly and with focus at a line of rustic wooden booths, rolling the establishment’s proprietary blends as visitors look on. Turning a pile of tobacco into a properly formed, appropriately aged and carefully maintained cigar is a long process, and each step is on display here, from the rolling table to the aging room to the walk-in humidor. The Cigar Factory operates a second location closer to the all-night action on Bourbon Street (206 Bourbon St., 504-568-0168), which is open much later.

While these cigars are New Orleans originals, many aficionados have brand loyalty and are only willing to stray from their favorites for so long. The French Quarter has several tobacconists offering large selections from well-known cigar makers, as well as specialty cigarettes and pipe tobacco. For example, the Crescent City Cigar Shop (730 Orleans Ave., 504-522-4427) and JAI Bawani (729 St. Louis St., 504-586-0994) both look and function much like the cigar shops visitors are likely familiar with from home. Much more exotic, however, is the retail experience at Rev. Zombie’s House of Voodoo (723 St. Peter St., 504-486-6366), where altars of religious statuary, ritual totems, candles and other curios share shop space with a wide selection of cigars and other tobacco products.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Dinner

At Broussard’s Restaurant (819 Conti St., 504-581-3866), one of the “grande dames” of Creole dining, cigars are part of what the restaurant calls the “Three Fine C’s.” Fine cigars, fine cognac and fine coffee form a veritable holy trinity of after-dinner luxury at the 84-year-old Creole restaurant, which stocks Davidoff cigars, a highly-regarded brand from Switzerland.

Cigars are paid similar respect at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse (716 Iberville St., 504-522-2267), an upscale steakhouse where the aroma of a cigar rounds out a distinctly gentlemanly atmosphere of polished wood interiors and a no nonsense menu of USDA prime steaks and New Orleans seafood favorites. The steakhouse offers a selection of cigars from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras and Jamaica. Cigar smoking is allowed in the bar, and upon request in private dining rooms.

Holy Smokes Cafe (533 St. Louis St., 504-588-1811) truly lives up to its billing as a smoker’s cafe. In addition to a walk-in humidor, the cafe has a gourmet coffee bar as well as a selection of gelato, the luxuriously rich and creamy Italian ice cream. Try a cup of the coffee gelato for a mellow and flavorful icy treat. Big comfortable rocking chairs and a selection of magazines invite lingering over a freshly-lit stogie.

Most of the cigar shops also sell smoking accessories, from utilitarian cigar cutters to beautiful humidors. But a stop in to M.S. Rau Antiques (630 Royal St., 504-523-5660), gives a unique historical perspective to just how seriously the cigar culture was regarded in the gilded age and earlier. This immense antique mecca boasts a collection of cigar smoking accessories, including some crafted by renowned makers such as Tiffany, Faberge and Cartier.

Often made from gold and sterling and sometimes even encrusted with gemstones, these antiques can command kingly sums. For much less treasure, however, visitors might well feel like kings and queens themselves with a fine cigar in hand strolling under the balconies and Creole moon of a French Quarter evening.

Ian McNulty is a freelance food writer and columnist, a frequent commentator on the New Orleans entertainment talk show “Steppin’ Out” and editor of the guidebook “Hungry? Thirsty? New Orleans.”