Hookah bars are ancient news in many parts of the world, and even in Richmond they've been popping up for a few years. But the arrival of Shockoe Slip's newest club, Off the Hookah, has ratcheted up interest in the centuries-old hookah ritual, raising questions for those who haven't smoked shisha before.
Off the Hookah allows hookah smoking at the bar and in the seating areas on the upper floor of its massive, elaborately decorated two-level space. Guests choose from a menu of flavors — $20 for the regular Egyptian tobacco and $25 for organic hydro, a sugar-based, nicotine-free smoke. Flavors run toward the sweet and fruity. Double apple and chocolate mint are big sellers, or guests can blend flavors such as cappuccino and banana. Cigarette smoking isn't allowed, and although the staff is used to jokes about adding cannabis to the mix, it's not legal (yet) nor typically part of the hookah bar scenario in this country.
The decorative water pipe is fitted with a plastic mouthpiece and brought to the table by a server. Two or three guests can share, and smoke can last an hour or longer. Hookah runners stoke the coal, assist guests and offer refills for $10. It's all added to the bar tab, and tips are later divided among personnel. Traditional smokers always use their right hand to hold the hose, and never pass the hose directly to another person unless it's folded so the tip points inward. Manners are somewhat looser at Off the Hookah and other clubs, but a respect for the ritual's cultural significance is desirable. A dress code (no sneakers, no baggy jeans, no hats) befits the upscale nature of the club, which has packed in more than a thousand partiers on recent weekend nights.
“Hookah is definitely a very social thing,” says the club's self-described hookah general, Trevor Fletcher, “and I do think Richmond will catch on. This place is remarkable, it's good quality shisha, and when the weather is warmer we'll have outdoor hookahs” in the canal-side setting. Hookah smoke doesn't leave the club or its guests smelling like cigarettes, but nonsmokers can drink and dine downstairs away from it all.
Unlike some clubs, food isn't an afterthought for this business. Middle Eastern and Mediterranean recipes are prepared by a 30-year kitchen veteran, chef Ed Blase (pronounced blaze), formerly of the Edible Garden. Desserts are his specialty: Baklava, chocolate ganache torte, fried cheesecake and carrot cake are on a changing list of indulgences. On the lunch menu, hamburgers on Flour Garden buns, Caesar salads and steak kebabs are popular; at dinner, the house platter (hummus, baba ghanouj, grape leaves, falafel and fattoush salad) is meant to be shared, generously portioned at $16. Small plates are under $10, including gyros, coconut shrimp, chicken wings with Asian glaze and seaweed salad; a changing list of entrees in the $15 range offers meats, pastas and seafood.
The eye-catching dAccor and relaxed vibe get Blase going. “You walk in and you don't know where to begin to look — it's new and exciting,” he says. “There's just an enjoyment here that is fun but serious. And the flavors of the food, they tell me, are right on point.”
Off the Hookah is at 140 Virginia St. in the Hat Factory building, serving weekday lunch with dinner and bar hours nightly except Sundays. offthehookah.com.