City Paper is not for tourists
Standing among the nine or 10 tables that fill his restaurant on a steamy Wednesday evening, Bardia Ferdowski looks on approvingly as Mike “Tac” Tacelosky presses a blue-and-white decal against the front-door windowpane at Bardia’s New Orleans Cafe. The decal is the size of a snapshot and declares that the Adams Morgan eatery is “100% smokefree.”
“Maybe this will attract newcomers,” Ferdowski says, nodding toward the addition.
Tacelosky, a handful of stickers in his bag, is accompanied by Angela Bradbery, a fellow anti-smoking volunteer. They call themselves Smokefree DC, and tonightfortified by a plate of Ferdowski’s sugar-dusted beignetsthey plan to affix at least a few decals on restaurants in the neighborhood.
To qualify for the tag, a business must agree to prohibit smoking anywhere inside, including at the bar. “The whole idea of a smoking or nonsmoking section,” Bradbery says, “is kind of like saying, ‘This is the peeing end of the pool; this is the nonpeeing end.’ It all circulates.”
Bardia’s is not much of a challenge for the Smokefree brigade; the restaurant has been solidly nonsmoking since it opened in 1993. “People like it,” Ferdowski shrugs. “They like to enjoy their meal without smelling other people smoking.”
Tacelosky and Bradbery admit that this is a baby step toward their long-term goal of pushing through a legislative ban on smoking in all workplaces in the District. But their immediate plan is to draw some attention to their cause, while talking to patrons, staff, and restaurant and bar owners about the pleasures, health benefits, and enhanced business potential of voluntarily banning smoking in their establishments
Tacelosky, 40, who designs and maintains various travel Web sites and “sites fighting big tobacco,” concedes that many restaurateurs aren’t so receptive to the idea. “It’s absolute insanity,” he says, brow furrowed. “We don’t say it’s up to the restaurant owners whether there’s rat poison in the kitchen.”
So about six months ago, he teamed up with Bradbery, 37, (in her off-hours from her job as a spokesperson for Public Citizen) to start the campaign. Thus far, they’ve handed out about 60 stickers. They also maintain an online petition at www.smokefreedc.org, calling for smoke-free workplaces. And they’re cobbling together a list of restaurants that meet their standard.
The list is heavy on Dupont Circle-area eateries because, well, that’s where Tacelosky lives. It also includes a wide, if random, selection from the New York Avenue Taco Bell to Palena in Cleveland Park. Up to now, the restaurants that made it on the list, Bradbery explains, “were whatever we knew about, just from walking by a place and wondering, Hey, is this place smoke-free?”
The process is getting a little more structure from the D.C. Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Program, which sent out a letter on June 20 to some 1,400 restaurant owners: “We would like to bring your attention to secondhand tobacco smoke (SHS), also known as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), because it is potentially harming the health of your staff, your patrons and yourself.” It goes on to invite those willing to declare themselves smoke-free to fax an enclosed form back to the department in order to be included in a printed smoke-free dining guide and on Smokefree DC’s Web site.
“I just received the letter from the Department of Health today,” says Anthony Opare, owner of Ghana Cafe on 18th Street, when Tacelosky and Bradbery stop in to offer a decal and point out the myriad benefits of a cigaretteless room. “I agree with you,” Opare says, “but I don’t want to throw my customers out without a law.”
Tacelosky, sensing a potential conversion, jumps into action. “I’m just brainstorming here,” he says. “Suppose you have smoke-free Tuesdays, and see how that goes?”
“I’ll keep the sticker,” says Opare, smiling patiently, “but get a law first.”
The issue is still far from coming to a legal head in the District. Current D.C. law is hardly Draconian: It calls for existing restaurants with more than 50 seats to reserve only one-quarter of their total seating as nonsmoking. For new businesses, the requirement is one-half.
But the national pendulum appears to be swinging in favor of smoking bans’ favor. Washington may eventually join the ranks of places like Boston, Dallas, Albuquerque, and New York City, where laws now prohibit smoking in all workplaces. Whole states have gone this route as well, including Delaware, Maine, and California. Montgomery County, Md.’s, bill passed July 1 and will take effect in September.
But at this point the Smokefree Web site has only about 650 signers, some of whom add comments like this one by a woman who describes herself as a “field coordinator”: “If [smokers] want to kill themselves, one disgusting pathetic puff at a time, fine, they should do it in their own space.” A social worker writes, simply, “Smoking is sad.”
There are also pockets of firmeven mockingresistance, such as at Bistro du Coin in Dupont Circle. When asked his thoughts on voluntarily becoming a smokeless establishment, owner Michel Yannis laughs and says, “Never.” One-third of the French-style bistro is reserved for smokers, and in fact, Yannis (a cigar-smoker himself, incidentally) says, “Very often we have a waiting list for the smoking section.” As for the waiters who have to serve the nicotine-addicted patrons, he says, “I’m concerned for my people, but 98 percent of them prefer to be in the smoking section because [the customers] tip better. People who smoke enjoy life more, and they tip better for some reason. Don’t ask me why.”
Bar owners are even harder to sell on the no-smoking idea (as are owners of larger restaurants with separate bar areas). Lynne Breaux, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, says the organization supports “freedom of choice” and points out that “there are some wonderful air-ventilation systems out there.”
Mike Ferens, a bartender at the gay club Apex near Dupont Circle, is helping the campaign on that front, working to galvanize other bartenders to support smoking bans in their workplaces. “Where I work, we breathe eight hours of intense second-hand smoke, and I do believe that this smoke is killing me,” says Ferens, who goes on to note that his father worked for Philip Morris for 35 years. “Whenever anyone says, ‘You’re trying to take away my rights,’ I respond that I’m trying to get my rights, rights that I’ve never had my entire lifeto breathe clean air.”
After visiting Bardia’s, Tacelosky and Bradbery stroll through the neighborhood to slap on decals at Mixtec (which already has a big red-and-white “No Smoking/No Fumar” sign high on the wall) and the Vietnamese restaurant Saigonnais.
They also stop into the Little Fountain Cafe, a dark basement restaurant that Tacelosky says he used to like until the one table reserved for smokers made the experience too cough-inducing. But that was three years ago, he says. Maybe the smoking policy has changed.
“Do you allow smoking here?” Tacelosky asks a young woman who appears to be the only employee in the place. “Yes,” she says, explaining that there are three tables in the back that are given over to smokers when the restaurant isn’t too crowded. “But we’ve never had a complaint.”
“Actually, that’s not true,” Tacelosky says. “I wrote you a letter.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles steck.