Preppie college guys sporting polos and ball caps gathered around blown-glass hookahs inside the University Lounge on a recent Saturday night. Fragrant smoke filled the air as each man exhaled and passed the mouthpiece.
The University Lounge, which opened in April on the Highland Strip, is one of three hookah bars in the Bluff City. The other two, the Caspian Restaurant and Sidi Bou Café & Shisha Lounge, have opened within the past year. Such smoking lounges are part of a growing national trend.
My friends and I have come to the University Lounge for the hookah experience, but it appears there's nowhere to sit. Nearly every chair and sofa in the place is full.
"I'm sorry, but we're out of hookahs right now. They're all being used," says woman working behind the counter. "If you wait, someone will probably finish up soon."
Within minutes she's setting us up with a two-foot tall green water pipe (known as a hookah or shisha) filled with mango-flavored tobacco.
I grab the mouthpiece, inhale deeply, and sweet, tropical-scented smoke fills my lungs. As I exhale, a feeling of relaxation washes over me. The process reminds me of my college days, only back then we weren't smoking, um, tobacco in our water pipes.
Of course, none of the local lounges allow illegal products, but hookah smoking is intended for relaxation. While cigarettes often serve as a quick nicotine fix for Westerners on the go, the Middle Eastern practice of hookah smoking is meant to be a leisurely process, and because hookah smoke is filtered through a liquid, it's much smoother than cigarette smoke.
"I'm from Iran, where this is a social thing," says S.C. Mirghahari, owner of the Caspian Restaurant, an East Memphis Persian eatery. "Here, people go down to the local watering hole. But there's no alcohol in my country. Instead, people use hookah as a chance to get together."
Mirghahari decided to add the hookah lounge to his restaurant last fall after noticing such establishments in larger cities, like Atlanta and New York.
"I wanted to offer a place to hang out and smoke, and I was also looking to draw a younger crowd into my restaurant," Mirghahari says.
And that's exactly what he's done. Most of Mirghahari's hookah customers appear to be in their 20s and 30s. Since opening the hookah lounge, Mirghahari says business is up 10 to 15 percent.
The Caspian draws a slightly older crowd than the young faces we see at the University Lounge. The latter's location near the University of Memphis attracts mostly college students, but owner Allen Rasoul says sometimes professors and grad students stop in.
Downtown's Sidi Bou Café, which opened last month, serves light lunch fare, so it's popular among business people by day and hip, young downtowners by night. Unlike the Caspian and the University Lounge, which allow hookah smoking from open to close, Sidi Bou doesn't bring out the hookahs before 5 p.m.
Sidi Bou offers a handful of traditionally flavored tobaccos — like strawberry, apple, and melon — and one non-flavored version. The lounge also specializes in gourmet coffee drinks.
The Caspian boasts 15 tobacco flavors, and Mirghahari likes to mix things up a bit by substituting juices for water in the hookah's base. One popular combination is Orange-Orange — orange tobacco and fresh orange juice.
Hungry smokers can take advantage of an array of Persian dishes at the Caspian, and food can be washed down with cocktails from the full-service bar.
At the University Lounge, patrons can choose from 34 flavored tobaccos and 10 nicotine-free herbal blends. Flavors range from the traditional apple and vanilla to the more eccentric snickerdoodle and margarita.
"We even have nicotine filters for people who don't want to actually inhale the nicotine," Rasoul says. The University Lounge does not serve alcohol, but they do serve coffees, teas, smoothies, and desserts.
"The main reason we chose not to sell alcohol is because it makes for a loud, rowdy atmosphere," Rasoul says. "If someone wants alcohol, there are plenty of options down the street."
Fortunately for local hookah lounges, the new statewide smoking ban, which takes effect this week, exempts establishments that only allow customers 21 and up. With a few modifications to their age restrictions, local lounges should not be affected. Perhaps they'll even serve as an oasis for smokers wishing to get their fix without being forced into the cold.
"It's getting harder and harder for smokers to go anywhere to smoke these days," says Rasoul. "The hookah bar offers a social forum for people to get together and smoke in a relaxed atmosphere."
Caspian Restaurant, 715 W. Brookhaven Cir. (767-3134)
Sidi Bou Cafe, 111 N. Main (522-0035)
University Lounge, 663 S. Highland (405-3011)