It’s 11:30 on Saturday night, and Hazel is taking a break. She’s been dancing at JP’s Night Club, a strip club at 2412 Wisconsin Ave. NW, for about four months now, earning money to support her 9-month-old baby. The job is exhausting, she says, but the money is good, the people are friendly, and JP’s is one of the rare D.C. establishments with a convenient spot to light up. Kicking back on the strip club’s “smoking deck,” Hazel takes a long drag from her cigarette. “It’s nice to have a place to smoke,” she says.
JP’s smoking deck, located on the second floor, is a wood-paneled room with four walls, a roof, a red carpet, mirrors, and a Smokeeter air-cleansing unit. On one side, a counter is strewn with ashtrays and empty beer bottles. On the other, there’s a large windowlike frame that extends almost, but not quite, the entire length of the wall. It’s covered by metal bars and is cracked open several inches.
Owner Michael Papanicolas says the deck was built in the mid-’90s, and used to be a storage space. Now that the smoking ban is in effect, it’s a dedicated smoking spot. “I thought we might as well have people out back [rather] than on the sidewalk,” he says. Refashioning the deck was simple, he says. All he had to do was weld some bars onto the frame, which he calls a dormer but which looks a lot like a window. It cost him about $40, he says. And the smokers appreciate it. One JP’s patron, who declined to give his name, says that, while the deck is “smoky as all hell, at least if I need to smoke I don’t have to go outside where I [could] get mugged.”
Still, JP’s smoking deck has the whiff of something noncompliant. According to the ban, smoking is prohibited in all enclosed public places, including restaurants, taverns, and nightclubs. It doesn’t take much for a space to be considered “enclosed,” either. All it needs is a floor, a ceiling, and to be surrounded on all sides by solid walls, windows, or doors, regardless of whether the windows or doors are open, the legislation says. Papanicolas says that if the health department has a problem with his smoking deck, he’ll take down one of the walls. “That would be easy,” he says, adding that it’s “better to find out [about a violation] than not to know.”
He might know soon. The D.C. Department of Health is tasked with making sure the city’s businesses obey the smoking ban, and it has already issued a warning to JP’s. According to spokesperson Leila Abrar,only five places have received smoking-ban exemptions so far: Ozio Restaurant & Lounge, Shelly’s Back Room, TG Cigars, Ollie’s Trolley, and a Georgetown University Medical Center research facility. Otherwise, even the most elaborate solutions to the ban seem doomed. U Street’s Tabaq Bistro, for example, has a mechanical glass roof that opens and closes to suit the weather—and the smokers. Co-owner Omer Buyukbayrak says that, when he opened the restaurant in 2005, he wanted to make the most of Tabaq’s panoramic view. Accommodating the smokers after the ban went into effect was just a happy byproduct. “It’s more about being able to enjoy [the roof] through the course of the year in the good weather and the bad weather,” he says. “We wanted a 12-months-of-the-year rooftop with a view.”
So on a steamy Sunday night, Tabaq’s roof is open above the bar, while the rest of the glass dome shields diners from the heat and humidity. The next day, when the weather is a bit cooler, the roof is rolled back farther. “It’s more than 60 percent exposure to open air,” Buyukbayrak says. He says his roof, which cost more than $1 million to build, was inspired by one he saw at a stadium in Holland. He confirms that some people do smoke at the bar. Abrar says Tabaq has received a warning.
Even the improvised “smoking lounge” at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in Adams Morgan might not pass muster, the health department says. That’s too bad, because Chief Ike’s lounge is particularly creative. When the smoking ban arrived in January, general manager Bob Belmonte glimpsed new life for Chief Ike’s “light way,” a sort of mini-courtyard in the center of the building. He added a coat of paint to the glorified air shaft, fixed the floorboards, built a bench, and dragged some stools outside. For atmosphere, Christmas lights hang haphazardly from the brick walls. The whole rehab cost between $200 and $300, Belmonte says, which is “no big deal.”
And it’s popular. He says customers often opt for the spot instead of the outdoor patio so they can take a quick break from dancing while still listening to music. Five to 10 people can fit in the 5-by-12-foot space, he says. And just in case customers have trouble finding it, there’s a paper sign posted on the wall with the words smoking lounge, please be respectful scribbled in black Magic Marker.
But the health department says the roofless smoking lounge is probably a no-no, although the agency hasn’t made an official ruling. “At the end of the day, it boils down to the intent of the law, which is to protect the health of residents and visitors to the District of Columbia,” Abrar says.
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