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Smoke 'Em If You've Got 'Em

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Matthew Ipcar

Light My Fire: Lounging on the patio at Elroys

There are still a few places in San Francisco where you can smoke

By Michelle Goldberg

Yes, we all know that smoking is a filthy habit, but we also know that the entire city of San Francisco didn't overcome its addictions on the day our daddies in the state Legislature banned smoking in bars. True, some of us have made new friends while cowering in the doorways of smoke-free nightspots like furtive, downtrodden office slaves.

More often than not, however, the ban has put a damper on socializing. Ever have to interrupt an intense, intimate conversation to run outside and suck down a cig? Ever leave a club early because its strict no-reentry policy leaves you no legal way to soothe a nicotine fit? Ever been left feeling like a dorky juvenile delinquent when a waitress or bouncer demands to know what you're holding under the table?

If not, consider yourself lucky. But if, despite all the indignities California heaps on smokers, you can't (or don't want to) quit, there are still a few places in San Francisco where you can have a proper cocktail and a smoke without hassles or dirty looks.

Sure, there are plenty of outdoor cafes in San Francisco, but light up in some of them and you're likely to get that annoying cough-and-wave routine from asthmatics and outraged heath nuts. Not so at the convivial tables at Plouf (Belden Place at Bush; 986-6491), where everyone's smoking, gulping red wine and feasting on cauldrons full of mussels in butter and cream sauces and on rich desserts. The waiters are all French, as is much of the clientele, and they're happy to laugh with you at American Puritanism. "Look, everyone's drinking, everyone's smoking," a smiling woman said on a recent evening. "Eets good! Eets alive!" the waiter replied.

"Everybody knows smoking is a poison," Parisian expat Eric Bizet says. "But it is also a pleasure. This alcohol is a poison, but it is also a pleasure. This chocolate--if I eat only that, I will die, but it's a pleasure. It's like in school; children are stupid, so they need rules. But people must be adult enough. We don't need this law."

Around the corner is the Occidental Grill (453 Pine St.; 834-0484), a bar and restaurant that happily refuses to enforce the ban. A long, cozy room with brick walls that is famous for its perfect martinis, the Occidental Grill has a Chinese sign taped over the obligatory no-smoking notice. Waitresses will happily provide you with ashtrays and matches, all while saying, "But there's no smoking, you know."

Although the Occidental Grill is filled with hearty financial-district types whose stogies dangle phallicly from their lips, the crowd is generally mellow and friendly enough, and it's easy to grab a quiet table or booth and unwind with your friends and your vices after a hard day at work (it's closed on weekends).

Occidental owner Kurt Post was cited for fiouting the ban, but at a hearing he was found to be in compliance--after all, the staff tells patrons that smoking is illegal, and if the customers do it anyway, it's not the Occidental's fault. A complaining customer could call the police, Post says, but "in this establishment, there would never be a complaint, because people who find smoking offensive simply don't come here."

He continues, "We're really here for our customers, not the other way around. This is called the hospitality industry for a reason. The only people that have to step outside are the staff, and the entire staff smokes. I can't even enjoy a cigar in my own restaurant!"

Near the Occidental Grill is the lovely Mediterranean-style cigar bar 850 (850 Montgomery St.; 291-0850). Formerly a Mexican restaurant, 850 is an airy, rustic, candlelighted space that opens onto a courtyard and allows both cigar and cigarette smoking. There's a fancy red pool table, the sound system plays sugary European pop and the bar sells "Bucket's O' Beer": five assorted bottles of foreign brews for $15 (or $12 for domestics).

In nearby North Beach is the hippest bar to blatantly ignore the prohibition, Tosca (242 Columbus Ave.; 986-9651), a dramatic, high-ceilinged room filled with yummy red vinyl banquettes. The first thing you see when you walk in the door is a signature-covered petition reading, "Sign here to repeal the ban." Puffing patrons give the bar a smoky, romantic ambiance. It gets mobbed on weekends, though, so choose a weeknight for your tobacco-fueled rendezvous if you want to get a table.

Of all the bars that allow smoking, Murray's Restaurant (740 Sutter St.; 474-6478) has found the most inventive way to circumvent the ban. You can't actually smoke in Murray's dining room, which serves slightly expensive Cali cuisine. Instead, smokers can relax in a plush lounge full of soft chairs, couches and tables. Since servers aren't allowed to be in the same room as smokers, you order your drinks (and cigars) over a wall-mounted phone and then walk outside to pick up your beverages. Customers tend to be In the Company of Men-type males boasting about their hunting victories, so it's best to keep to yourself unless you're looking for a sugar daddy.

Across town in SOMA is the stunningly space-agey Elroys (300 Beale St.; 882-7989), where you can puff away on an enormous enclosed patio replete with heat lamps and a roof covered with glow-in-the-dark constellations. The menu is full of wood-fired pizzas, Southwestern bar food and big fruity cocktails.

Whatever you do, though, don't go to Elroys on a weekend. Remember all those football players and cheerleaders from your hometown, the ones you moved to San Francisco to get away from? Well, they followed you, and they swarm here on Fridays and Saturdays. One well-scrubbed yuppie boy approached me to ask, "Are you interviewing nonsmokers too? Cause I don't want smoking in bars. I hate that shit!" Then why are you here? I asked, since at least half the crowd was lighting up. "It's the atmosphere! It's a great bar!" Then deal with it, I said. If you don't like smoke, you've got the rest of the damn city.

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From the August 24-September 6, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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