Night Life

Smoke on the Water

Long, long, looooooong before college kids convened in dorm rooms to toke on a bong made out of an empty paper-towel roll, duct tape and a straw, there was the hookah. The hookah (also known as a narghile, a water pipe, a hubbly bubbly or just an old-ass bong) is a tool of tobacco consumption dating back to the 17th century. Conceived in India and perfected in Ottoman Turkey, its significance soon spread all through the Middle East. "It's like Starbucks," says Ayman Jerrah, the Syrian-born proprietor of The Hookah Bar (6423 Richmond), referring to the water pipe's mass appeal in Middle Eastern countries. "Every corner, there is a coffee shop like mine -- they serve that smoke pipe."

When Jerrah immigrated to the United States in the early '90s, he sought to bring some of that culture to these shores. Mission accomplished. The Hookah Bar restaurant and smokeshop is one of the many places where hip kids congregate when they can't get into Hustle Town (6333 Richmond) or T-Town 2000 (6400 Richmond) down the block. On weeknights, the establishment stays open until 2 a.m. (till four on the weekends). These loose hours have earned the bar a reputation as a late-night chill-out spot. On any random weekend night, the place can be swamped with young folks hanging around, hitting the pipe -- but in a pleasant, legal way, of course. It can get so clamorous that management has instituted a dollar cover charge on weekends just in case no one buys anything.

"For me, it's just funny that there's a place where you smoke out of a big pipe and get a buzz," says one mirthful patron, whose giggle soon blossoms into full-fledged laughter. Referring to the police, he adds, "You gonna be hiding behind doors and be like, 'Yo, where's the po-pos?' And so everybody just be up in here smoking with the door open -- I ain't used to getting no buzz off of smoking with the door open!"

Unfortunately for the chucklesome patron, Jerrah assures The Nightfly that the high people may achieve from the fruit-flavored tobacco is strictly imaginary. "They can think what they think," states Jerrah, who gets his hookahs and tobacco imported from Egypt, "but I know what I have."

Four years ago Jerrah opened the place with a mind toward serving his southwest Houston Middle Eastern brothas and sistas. But when he began advertising in higher-profile, English-language publications (such as the one you're reading right now), local pale-skinned interests were piqued. "So day after day, American people come here to push my Arabic people out," Jerrah says. "And I start to change the atmosphere to fit the American people, with the music, with the lights, a nightclub/bar feel."

Another big change was the tweaking of the establishment's name. Originally operating under the euphonious Can Yama Can (Arabic for "once upon a time") marquee, The Hookah Bar adopted its terse new name 18 months ago when Jerrah was persuaded to make the change. Although he still would like to see more Middle Eastern people bubbling away at his narghiles, he is certainly not going to shoo away the curious. Americans "like to see something new, something different," Jerrah says. "So I guess because I am different, that people like the place."

The Hookah Bar isn't the only Richmond-Westheimer hubbly-bubbly hangout servicing the needs of those looking for a banana-tobacco fix. Cafe Omar's Mediterranean Grill on Hillcroft was another, but new management has recently overhauled the place, discontinued its hookah service, and will soon reopen under the name Shawarma King. But not far away is the still-open Star's Cafe (6100 Westheimer). Opened in September 1999, this eatery (formerly the home of Reggae Cafe) also houses a collection of hookah pipes and flavors for those looking to get light-headed.

Emad Hassan, who runs Star's along with his brother Mostafa, chalks up the cafe's growing popularity to its organic vibe. "They like the food; they like the fresh juices; they like the hookahs, how the hookah is clean and tastes good," says native Egyptian Hassan. Much like Jerrah at The Hookah Bar, the Hassan brothers were originally looking to cater to their homesick brethren. But sure enough, Houston natives soon were hitting their pipes. Yet since the cafe appeals to a more mature crowd, Middle Eastern patrons haven't been quick to flee. "We have a lot of people from everywhere, different countries," says Hassan.

Owners of both The Hookah Bar and Star's Cafe are looking to expand the hookah scene by opening up larger narghile dens. Jerrah is scoping a spot that he hopes to launch later this year, while the Hassan brothers are one step ahead. They have sized up a bigger hookah coffee shop on Richmond and Hillcroft to be called The Cairo Palace, slated to open sometime this month.

So give 'em a try. While the smoke they peddle may not be The Chronic or Alaskan Thunderfuck, relaxing at a hookah cafe would be a step up from spending one more night getting baked with a makeshift bong, giggling at Courage the Cowardly Dog reruns.

Last Call

Open for only a couple of months, Current Nightclub (1800 Post Oak) is a weekend haunt looking to perk up nightlife in the Galleria area. Good luck trying to find it. Located "in the back" of the Post Oak Pavilion shopping center, the club had to put up temporary signs outside and around the building just so people could find the place. But once you do discover the portals and walk inside, you'll find yourself entranced by the aquatic, Haring-meets-Hockney decor. If you stick around long enough, the venue turns into late-late-night spot The Citrus Room. From two to six, the club ditches its mixed-music format and engages in some serious techno, which apparently attracts females like a sale at Ann Taylor. "On weekends, I would bet that we have the best girl-to-guy ratio in the city," says owner and magazine publisher John Finlay. "And we easily have the best good-looking girl-to-guy ratio in the city."

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey