In Search of the Smokiest Bar

I was standing outside a downtown wine bar when it became clear that something had to be done. And by something, I mean a bar tour. More specifically, a tour de smoke that would suss out the stankiest-smelling place in town.

It was First Friday, and a young woman next to me in a pinkish tweed coat was puffing away on a cigarette outside J.P. Wine Bar and Coffee House. Her frosty breath mingled with the cigarette smoke puffed out by a small group of people huddled together. The woman, who insisted on going by the alias Coco Chanel, had a strong opinion about Kansas City’s potential smoking ban.

“I’m all for it,” she said. “I need to quit smoking. So if there’s no smoking in bars, that’ll help immensely. I don’t like to smell like shit when I go home.”

The real Coco Chanel, a smoker herself, probably rolled over in her grave at such blasphemy.

Just then, her friend, a tall brunette in a black-and-white herringbone coat, burst through J.P.’s front door and loudly exclaimed, “I can’t handle the bitches in Kansas City. Bitches, you have no right to act like that … you’re in Kansas City.”

Sadly, she declined to elaborate on the bitchcentric incident inside. She lit up instead. After taking a few drags from her cigarette, the lively brunette, who also refused to give her name, revealed her pro-ban stance. “I like New York and Boston,” she continued. It’s easy enough in cities with smoking bans, she explained, to simply go outside for a cigarette. “I can smoke my fucking brains out. Then, I wake up and it’s like, Oh, my hair is so lovely.”

Even when it’s cold, the brunette said, it’s not so bad — as long as you’re drinking. “I don’t feel it anymore,” she said. “I’ve got enough Grey Goose in me to increase my body temperature 20 degrees.”

That vodka-fueled bravery is integral at J.P., a wine bar at 15th Street and Walnut that has been cigarette-free since it opened eight months ago. It’s one of the few bars in town to self-impose its own ban on butts.

As I drank my second Spanish coffee, it occurred to me how blissful it was to be at a bar and not worry about any errant cigarette smoke sneaking into my coat, my purse, my clothes and, by extension, into my car and my pillowcase. As a confirmed lush who happily draws a living from exploring KC bars through my gig as the Pitch‘s Night Ranger, there’s the matter of the occasional sore throat and stinging eyes, too.

In case you haven’t caught the bias, I’m a nonsmoker. My past experiments with smoking usually took place while I was fairly lit. Thanks to an inability to draw the rich tobacco goodness into my lungs — as well as the mocking laughter from friends who derided my technique — I stopped a few years ago. Now, when I’m out, cigarette smoke always seems to drift into my face, as if the smoke knows that there’s a nice set of pink lungs needing to be corrupted. It’s insidious like that.

So, as I pondered the fantasticness of not smelling like a week-old ashtray when waking up from a night out, I came to the realization that the smoky bar may soon be obsolete almost everywhere — except, perhaps, at rural old-guy bars. Kansas City, Missouri, is considering its own ban in bars and restaurants, like the ones in neighboring cities, including Independence and Lawrence.

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As the alcohol and caffeine started to kick in, I formulated a plan: I’d embark on a quest for the smokiest bar in Kansas City. It seemed imperative to commemorate this declining era.

So I loaded up on Febreze and gorp and set off on this journey. I developed a scientific formula for measuring the smoke particles in clothing (hello, Nobel Prize); it consisted of stuffing my stinky clothes in Tupperware containers and having them smelled by world-famous wine guy Doug Frost. I bought a $15 smoke detector from Target and hid it in my purse. And I talked to fellow barflies to enlist their help picking the finalists for our smoky sojourn. Not surprisingly, many of my favorite KC watering holes made the list of smoky places to visit. Perhaps the “research” for my quest wouldn’t be that bad — except for the smoke-immersion part, that is.

As in a word-association game, one’s instinctive response to hearing the phrase “smoky bar in Kansas City” is usually “Buzzard Beach.” So Buzzard seemed like a natural spot to begin the quest. During a visit when Friday night turned into Saturday morning, I ventured in, armed with the smoke detector and an orange cashmere sweater to test the smokeworthiness of the place. As usual, the sharp cigarette smell stung my nostrils upon entering the bar. In the bathroom, a woman from Lawrence complained about the noxiousness of the smoke.

After my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, I spotted two bearded, scruffy guys leaning against the Golden Tee upstairs, cigarettes in their hands. I was surprised to hear that they were fine with the ban. “I hope it’ll help me quit if it goes through,” said 27-year-old Eric Howard.

His friend, 30-year-old Tim Hopping, agreed, but only to a point. “If I were a nonsmoker, I’d hate coming home reeking of smoke,” he said.

Both guys talked about what influenced them to pick up the habit years ago. “It looks cooler. Chicks dig it. It’s the James Dean effect,” Eric quipped.

“It was Stand by Me,” Tim said. “What would Corey Feldman do?” Well, really, what wouldn’t he do? In any case, WWCFD is truly a question for the ages.

On the bottom level of this Westport dive, the ceilings are low, and the fluorescent light over the foosball machine illuminates the foglike cigarette haze that hangs over the room. The upper level is just as odoriferous, though a wooden deck provides some fresh air as well as a good perch for watching the drunken antics of the duders and duderettes as they stumble through the narrow alleyway outside the bar.

I tried to waft some bar air into my open purse to see if the smoke detector would go off. Nothing happened.

Then I found some dissenters to a smoking ban, including 36-year-old Ed Lynn, a Buzzard bartender for nine years. Buzzard has the distinction of being the least Westporty bar in Westport. Its clientele usually consists of local rockers and service-industry folk, the tattooed and the pierced, and Those Who Dye Their Hair Black. Ed said he had worked both the upstairs and downstairs bars at Buzzard Beach. “For restaurants, I don’t mind. But for bars, I don’t agree [with the ban],” he said.

But, I explained, city officials say smokeless bars are ostensibly for your benefit. The idea is to protect bartenders and others who spend their days with their heads in a cloud of smoke exhaled from a bunch of barflies.

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“In the bar business, most people do smoke,” he said. Most of his colleagues, Ed explained, don’t agree with the ban.

On weekend nights, after the clock strikes midnight, the Buzzard crowd really begins to filter in. Thanks to its 3 a.m. license, Buzzard is the place where people go to shitfacedly finish off the night, especially after the 1:30 last call for alcohol. A corollary to late-night drinking seems to be chain-smoking. Stretched out across the room, glowing orange cigarette tips look like a carcinogenic chain of Christmas lights.

Milo Konefal, a 26-year-old artist, expounded on how smoking and drinking go hand in hand. Two guys who were walking by overheard Milo and stopped to listen. With this new audience, Milo’s voice became more preacherlike in cadence and tone, and the two guys provided a hallelujah response to his points.

“I’d hate to go into a smoke-free bar. What kind of bar is that?” Milo asked.

“It’s all about the smokin’ and drinkin’.” said Random Guy No. 1.

“Not every bar should be designated smoke-free. Lighten up, dude, and commit the ultimate sin,” Milo continued, all fired up.

“You’re goddamned right,” said Random Guy No. 2.

“It should be totally up to the owner. When you go out and drink, you should expect to smell like smoke,” he concluded.

Praise the Lord and pass the lighter.

I left after an hour, and the fresh, cold air was a pleasant change after the smokefest inside. I felt grimy and longed to take a shower to wash off the smell. Remembering that sommelier Doug Frost has signed on to help with my quest, I dropped my sweater in a Tupperware container to preserve its odor.

On the recommendation of a co-worker, I headed to another notorious smoke hole: Chez Charlie. True to its reputation, the cigbots turned out in full force. Nearly everyone in the bar expelled a stream of smoke. The acrid smell hit me right away.

After cracking open my PBR can, I started talking to a vivacious brunette, who cried, “Ban that shit. Fuck that.” Lucinda Wandfluh, a pretty 38-year-old smoker, understands what it does to other people. “I was in New York, and there were 30 people outside smoking,” she said. “Everyone thought it would kill business — it does not. Just put a coat on and go outside.”

Located on Broadway near 39th Street, the double-C is in a building covered in beige siding, and it prefers to remain anonymous to strangers. The neon beer signs behind the barred windows are the only indicators that alcohol is served to the general public. One table over from Lucinda sat 33-year-old Frederico Romero with his friends, building a beeramid out of PBR and Miller Lite cans. Frederico, a native of Peru, was clad in a light-gray corduroy jacket. He disagreed with Lucinda.

“A place like this should be a spot for smoking. It [the ban] will change the whole concept of a bar,” he said. “The thing about smoking is that it’s a choice. Just like if you come into this bar, you can leave after five minutes if you don’t smoke.”

Chez Charlie is a hipsterish hangout, and its interior feels like a ’70s rec room. A black Naugahyde bench lines one wall, and dartboards dot the others. In one corner, James “Superwolf” Trotter spun some vinyl, next to an old-school jukebox loaded with classic 45s.

Lindsey O’Brien, a 23-year-old who sported a blond, slightly spiky bob, brought up an interesting geographical point. “Being able to smoke everywhere is what I like about the Midwest. It’s a Midwestern trait.” She got hooked around the age of 14. She forced herself to want to be a smoker, to be like her parents. “When I first started, it was very harsh. I really didn’t inhale. When I did so, my lungs were on fire. Now, it’s second nature,” she said.

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After a couple of drinks, my work was done. My eyes were stinging, which was definitely a sign that Chez Charlie was a strong contender for smokiest bar, even though my smoke detector didn’t emit a peep. The clothing stink factor was high, and I put my pink cashmere scarf in Tupperware for the lucky Doug Frost.

The evidence that the bar might actually win came when I stopped in to see the Significant Other after my visit. “Ugh. You reek. You need to take a shower,” he said.

As I washed the stench out of my hair, the S.O. moved my purse into a different room. The smokiness that clung to it was too much, he said. I became even more thankful for my balcony, where I regularly air out coats, purses, jeans and sweaters. I’m sure my neighbors love the sight of disheveled clothing on my broken lawn chair. I’m classy like that.

The next stop on the tour was the Clarette Club in Mission. I’d always liked the place — it’s a divey, laid-back bar. Because of a decent ventilation system and the fact that the bar takes up nearly an entire block, the smokiness factor isn’t horrible.

I hovered near the bar and noted that most everyone in the pool-table area held cigarettes or cigars. That’s where I met Louis French and Kendall Owen, two former Lawrencians who were sitting in front of the bar’s semi-big-screen TV, watching the KU-Florida basketball game. During halftime, they shared their tales of smoking woe.

Louis is a nonsmoker but doesn’t mind the haze in bars. “A lot of people in Lawrence don’t go out because of it [the ban]. It changed Lawrence,” said this 26-year-old, who now lives in Overland Park. Some of his friends would rather drive to Tonganoxie and Overland Park for a night out, he said.

Kendall, also 26, said he moved to Wichita because of the ban in Lawrence. Kendall is a former bar manager at J.B. Stout’s Sports Bar and Grill and has worked at other bars and restaurants for the past six years. “It forced a lot of successful businesses to modify practices,” he said — eliminating cigar sales and adding patio seating, for example.

Both guys sympathized with the fact that I have to air out my manky clothes on my balcony.

“Look, smokers don’t mind going outside,” Kendall said. “It’s just the older people who are set in their ways.”

As I prepared to leave, I realized that the Clarette Club didn’t leave me feeling smoked out. That’s surprising, because the Clarette Club once sent me a T-shirt after I had written about the place, and the shirt carried a strong odor of cigarettes. And when the bar mailed some ballots for our Best of Kansas City issue, the package positively reeked of smoke.

After my excursion, the whiff factor on my black cotton sweater that I dropped into Tupperware was still above-average.

I also concluded that my smoke detector, which remained silent, probably wasn’t the best tool to use in this highly scientific experiment. For some reason, “photoelectric technology” didn’t translate to “nasty-smelling bars.”

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Next stop: The Brick, for Monday night Brodioke. A neighbor had been there the previous week and vouched for its smoketasticness. I’m also a big fan of the Brick’s food, which sometimes comes with a side order of cigarette smoke.

I visited with Chris Manley and his girlfriend, Thomasena Armstrong, both hardcore smokers. They had strong opinions on going outside to puff away. “It’s either too cold or too hot,” they said. Plus, the need to smoke is too strong sometimes to go outside.

Chris explained that a smoking ban would mean a quick end to bar conversations. “When you’re talking to someone for a long time, like for 30 minutes or an hour, you’re not like, ‘Fuck off, I need to smoke right now,’ and end the conversation,” Chris explained. “It’s an addiction.”

“Bars like this are at risk,” Thomasena said. “It should be up to the owner whether the establishment should be smoking or not.”

Most everyone was a familiar midtown face that night, but 56-year-old Ron Brakevill was enjoying his first Bricksperience, which he diplomatically described as “different.” He was accompanied by his girlfriend, 38-year-old Dana McGinnis, and his daughter, Shanna, who works nearby.

Dana, a Blue Springs resident, is a 20-year smoker, and she’s anti-ban. She’s a waitress at Neighbors Cocktail Lounge, off U.S. Highway 40, as well as a nursing assistant. I asked her if she has encountered patients who’ve been affected by secondhand smoke, and she responded that it’s the smokers who come in with lung cancer. It’s good to know that the line between smokers and nonsmokers is so clear-cut, diseasewise.

By that time, it was almost 1:30 on a school night, so I settled my tab, said my goodbyes and slipped out. Once I got home, I promptly sealed my wool scarf in its plastic tomb. The smoke wasn’t cough-inducing, but I still had to use my balcony for airing purposes. As for the smoke detector, I should have thrown it off my balcony, for all its helpfulness so far.

friend nominated Harling’s Upstairs for the Smoky Bar Hall of Fame, saying that even her smoker friends complained about the terribleness of the haze inside. Well, if the smokers said it was bad, I had to check it out.

I settled in with friends John and Lexie at the long bench table by the Ms. Pac-Man machine. Harling’s, a KC institution, attracts a young-looking crowd. I noticed a couple nearby playing Golden Tee who looked like they were going to the prom. The guy wore a French-blue shirt and a tie, and his date was clad in a brownish, strapless, tea-length dress with a black sash. A clique of guys and chicks in argyle sweaters gathered by the dartboards. By the bar, the junior hipsters in vintage finds danced maniacally to Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky.”

“I feel like I’m 22,” John said.

“I feel like I’m 17,” Lexie smirked.

The smokiness of the room was intense. Entering Harling’s was like hitting a wall of smoke, which was a bit surprising, considering the not-too-low ceilings and the fact that the place wasn’t packed.

Not long after our arrival, I noticed a group of about five women and one guy making a beeline for the women’s bathroom. Intrigued, John and I went over to investigate. I tried to open the door, but someone was clearly holding it closed. John pushed harder, and it opened a few inches. An indignant woman with brown hair sat on the counter and glared at us. “Get the fuck out,” she yelled. “If you have a vagina, you can come in.”

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I gave up and went back to my beer. The door guy, who sat less than 10 feet away, continued to read Harold Robbins’ Sin City, indifferent to the bathroom conference.

About 10 minutes later, this happy group left the bathroom. I stopped one of the guys, who gave his name as Sconelius. He had a different take on the possible smoking ban. “It’ll end inconspicuous marijuana smoking,” he drawled. He explained that he’s been “very successful” at sneaking a toke at bars, thanks to the cigarette smoke. “It masks the cloud,” he explained.

At that point, his friends pulled him away. See you at the next smoking-task-force meeting, Sconelius.

Last call was announced around 1:30, and by that time, I’d had enough. The smoke had permeated everything, and my throat was a little sore, too. I felt disgusting — more so than I had from any other stop on the tour.

A week later, I met the affable Doug Frost at Trezo Mare, a new, entirely nonsmoking restaurant in Briarcliff. He helped design its wine list, which he described as “wacky.” Doug was also wonderfully wacky, too, in that he had agreed to smell some chick’s gross clothing.

“Is this the most random assignment you’ve had?” I asked.

“I’m not sure. But it’s definitely fun,” he replied.

I handed him the Tupperware pieces in no particular order. First up was the orange sweater from Buzzard.

He took off the lid and gingerly sniffed the top of the box. “It’s not real bad, to be honest with you. It just kind of has that old, musty smell.”

Then, he unfurled the sweater and got the full effect. He recoiled in disgust.

“Sorry. Excuse me. Now, I’m like, ewwwww. That took a lot of cigarettes to get that smell,” he said. “It’s just gross.”

The second item — the sweater from the Clarette — elicited a different response. Doug thought he smelled a stronger cigar note, and he definitely picked up on my perfume, which he described as lilac and gardenia. “I’m not able to say there’s a significant cigarette note on that. I tried to adjust, but the last one was so pungent that I wonder if it’s overwhelming,” he said.

He moved on to the scarf from the Brick, which he described as musty, stale and dirty. “It’s smoky, but not that smoky,” he said.

Between garments, Doug sniffed his sleeve as a nostril-clearing device. Then he ordered a glass of Moschofilero — a white Greek wine that he described as very floral and very intense — to help clear the air. He explained that he was having trouble differentiating the clothes, a difficulty that he admitted surprised the crap out of him. Because the cigarette smoke was the common note and his brain had gotten used to it, all he could pick up on were the smells other than the smoke.

Before he got to his wine, he unsealed the scarf I had worn to Chez Charlie. “Oh, God, that’s awful. That’s fresh,” he said, before tossing the box onto the table. “That one’s really stinky. Someone was just blowing cigarette smoke on you the whole time.”

Then he got to the sweater from Harling’s. “Now, this one isn’t too bad to me,” he said. He smelled cigar or pipe tobacco smoke in it (but he didn’t smell any pot).

Doug swirled his wine, took a sip, then asked to smell the Clarette sweater again. This time, he could smell different amounts of smoke all over it, but the perfume was its top note, he said.

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OK, Doug. What’s the most rank item and, therefore, the winner of the smoky bar quest?

“They’re all pretty bad, but I thought this was the worst, maybe because it was the first,” he said, pointing to the sweater from Buzzard. “And this,” he said, gesturing toward the scarf from Chez Charlie, “was probably the worst without it being the first.”

Doug’s bloodhound nose didn’t fail him. After a couple of months of research, I had come to the same finalists.

Now to pick a winner.

A few weeks later, after coming off a particularly vicious head cold, I walked into Buzzard Beach for a midweek, midafternoon, 75-cent Bud Light draw. During the day, the place is pleasant, almost like a fern bar. The weak winter sun filtered through the skylights, and a newspaper sat on a table for patrons to peruse.

On that afternoon, six people sat at the upstairs bar. At one end were the service-industry folks, discussing bar fights they’d gotten into, and at the other were the grizzled regulars reading the paper. Everyone had a cigarette in hand. I ordered my drink, sat at the bar and noted that the pungent smoke smell still penetrated my sinus congestion.

Earlier that day, I had spent $5 on a trophy from All Star Awards on 39th Street, a lovely, discontinued model of a gold-colored basketball player atop a luridly shiny American-flag-patterned pillar. I then glued a cigarette to the figure’s free hand. After downing my beer, I got the attention of bartender Scotty Rex.

I explained that Buzzard had won the Pitch‘s first — and possibly only — Smokiest Bar Award.

“I wouldn’t disagree,” he said with a small, snorting laugh. He lit a cigarette, posed for a picture with the trophy, then put it on top of a cash register. But not before my bar-stool neighbor admired it.

“A basketball in one hand and a Pall Mall in the other,” he marveled.

And with nonhack-ridden bated breath, all I can do now is wait for the City Council to make some sort of decision.

Enjoy that victory cigarette while you still can.

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