NYC Fine Cigars acts as a second home to its customers. Almost all of the shops's clients are regulars, coming to browse their wide selection of cigars, chat with the owners, and relax while puffing on a cigar. When the Manhattan Sideways team stopped into the store at midday during the week in the summer of 2017, several people were lounging around in the back, talking about everything under the sun with John, the co-owner of the store.
John and Jon, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, bonded over their mutual name and immediately began speaking about the shop’s legendary history. The first owner of the shop, Julio, came over to the United States from Cuba on a raft. In Cuba, he had been one of the best hand-rollers of cigars and had always dreamed of having his own shop. He was able to do just that, first opening up around the corner on Ninth Avenue, and then moving to his current location in 2015, bringing his loyal following with him.
For many years now, Julio has had his own factory in the Dominican Republic, where he uses Cuban seeds to grow tobacco from which to roll cigars. Every cigar sold in the New York shop comes from Julio’s factory. Because of Julio’s expertise, NYC Fine Cigars is known as the “number one hand roll specialist shop in Manhattan,” John said.
Though John disclosed to us that he does not roll cigars himself, he has a wealth of knowledge about them, having been an enthusiast for several years. “For me, cigars are more of a hobby, but I love them,” he said. Today, the shop still focuses on great cigars, but more importantly, on creating a comfortable atmosphere for its patrons. “At this shop, We don’t like egos. We’re not snobs,” John explained. Located in a quieter part of Midtown, many actors, musicians, and designers are regulars in the shop, looking for a more discrete place to hang out and unwind. "These people don’t brag, instead choosing to come to shed their identities that they bear elsewhere." This lax atmosphere has created a tight knit community of cigar aficionados, many of whom are close friends with each other. “We travel together, we know each other’s kids. When our children want to see where daddy hangs out, they come here and take a look around,” John shared.
After having eaten at Barbes, I was eager to check out Omar Balouma's other restaurant. Stopping to notice the beautiful, ornately carved front door, we learned that it was shipped directly from Morocco, and functions as a literal and figurative portal to North Africa. Inside, a vague smell of hookah smoke hangs in the air amidst beautifully crafted walls done in a soft pastel-hued Venetian plaster. The front of the restaurant is for dining where the menu offers smaller Mediterranean-style plates flavored with Moroccan spices. The back hookah room might be the real star. Benches line the large square room, along with colorful seat cushions while tapestry-esque sheets hang overhead. Saturday nights come alive with belly dancers and music is played by Rachid Halibal, a native of Morocco.
Neon lights, on the back wall, greeted us as we entered Trademark Grind, the “boutique coffee bar” serving Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters from Brooklyn. In this quaint space, we were treated to excellent cups of hot chocolate, perfect on this winter day. A few minutes later, the PR manager, Matt, greeted us and invited the Manhattan Sideways team to follow him through a small entryway where we discovered Trademark Taste, a cozy, dimly lit restaurant... a safe little hideaway in the middle of bustling Midtown Manhattan. Opened in the spring of 2016, by In Good Company Hospitality, Trademark Taste & Grind serves a mixed clientele, from guests at the attached hotel and the pre-show crowd from Madison Square Garden to those looking for a unique weekend bar scene. The menu is impeccably curated by culinary director, Jeff Haskell, to featured favorites like Burrata and Knots and Tuna Poke. However, with its dark, mellow colors, graffiti motifs and hints of industrial flair, Trademark is all about the space. The walls are white and black with accents of red. Intimate hidden booths circle a large center bar, the anchor of the room. As soon as I took a look around, I wanted to settle into one of these booths for the evening. When I repeated this to Matt, he replied, “People tend to not want to leave. ”
Built originally in the mid-1800s, Sniffen Court encompasses a small alleyway running between two quaint rows of brick buildings. With vegetation lending further tranquility to the scene, a wrought-iron gate protects it from the public. The buildings, which were once stables, have now been repurposed into commercial, residential and artistic spaces. Next door, the historic and private Amateur Comedy Club hosts shows performed by, and for, members. Sniffen Court now appears on the National Register of Historic Places.