Up In No Smoke
Since 1997, Downing Street Pub has operated on a simple motto of "premium spirits, fine wine & cigars." On its website, the bar touts its status as the only bar in Houston where patrons can smoke inside legally and purchase cigars from a 400-square-foot humidor. Due to that status, it's a destination for patrons who appreciate being allowed to savor a cigar without being scolded.
However, the good times may be coming to an end. The bar is considering changing into a non-smoking facility and has already decided to ban smoking on its patio.
"I understand there's a lot of speculation going on," managing partner Lawrence Daniel tells CultureMap. He acknowledges that such a move is "under consideration" by Downing Street's 14 shareholders but says they haven't reached a consensus on a final decision, which hinges on their neighbors in the shopping center at Kirby and Westheimer.
(Update: A few hours after the story was published, Downing Street announced in a press release that it will be going non-smoking after March 14.)
"(He) believes it is essential that we work with our neighbors to find a solution, and we endorse that concept."
"We're delighted to have Benjy Levit and Local Foods coming in," Daniel says. In order to be better neighbors with the restaurant and the Memorial Hermann Breast Care Center that's upstairs, the bar voluntarily elected to make its patio non-smoking.
"We've stepped up in accommodation of that vision for the patio," he adds.
The problem, Daniel notes, is that now Downing Street is in the "difficult situation of trying to manage two spaces differently" with a non-smoking patio and a smoking inside. The property's landlord is also "heavily involved" in the conversation.
"(He) believes it is essential that we work with our neighbors to find a solution, and we endorse that concept," Daniel says.
While long time patrons note that smoking is part of the reason they like going to Downing Street, Daniel has been thinking about the flip side. "If we were to go completely non-smoking, what might that open up? Nobody in Houston can touch our back bar . . . in single malt Scotches and bourbon."
He suspects that non-smoking fans of those liquors might be more likely to patronize the bar if they don't have to be around smokers.
Downing Street's cigar loving current patrons are still trying to figure out what to do if, as they expect, the bar follows through and goes completely smoke free. William Burch tells CultureMap that he and his friends have been meeting at the bar every Friday for the last three years to smoke cigars and enjoy an end of week cocktail. He recognizes that smokers are not sympathetic figures in a publicity campaign against a popular restaurant and a cancer treatment facility but hopes their long-time hangout can find a way to accommodate them.
"We had a place. We were out of the way. We weren't bothering anyone," Burch says. He's now worried that "they'll be no (indoor) place left for us to go."
Currently, the group is evaluating its options for what to do if Downing Street goes non-smoking. In good weather, they'll probably alternate between El Big Bad and the Blue Bar at Brenner's on the Bayou. In poor weather, they might patronize cigar shops like Stogies and Cigar Cigar, but those businesses aren't allowed to serve liquor, even if occasionally patrons bring their own.
"Do you try to raise the money to open your own place?" Burch wonders.
Meanwhile, Downing Street is trying to decide how best to balance its relationship with its customers while being a good neighbor.
"We're all in this together," Daniel says.