Talha Ahmed exhales a thick cloud of smoke that momentarily blocks the vision of his face until it disperses into a translucent mist. He is smoking a grape-mint flavored hookah at one of the dozens of storefront hookah lounges on Steinway Street in Astoria.
Steinway Street, more commonly referred to as Steinway, is a hub for hookah connoisseurs. The first lounge opened more than two decades ago, even before an influx of people of Middle Eastern descent that followed construction of a nearby mosque. Although the recurring theme is hookah, the ambiance of each lounge varies tremendously. Some lounges are full-fledged restaurants that have spent a substantial amounts of money beautifying the establishments, while others embody the spirit of a nightclub. Steinway is home to over 30 hookah lounges concentrated over a few blocks.
Recently, the City Council voted to add hookah to the city’s indoor smoking ban. The regulations prohibit the inception of any new hookah bars in New York City but allow existing spots to remain open if at least half of their sales are from hookah. Because hookah is the primary source of income in most lounges on Steinway. Rotana Hookah Place belongs to another category of lounges that have plain interiors but are renowned simply for the quality of the hookahs they serve. The people who frequent here are not looking for a night out of mingling but rather one of seclusion.
“I come here to get work done,” says Leo Perez, a web developer at Parkfield Commerce, while hunched over writing code on his MacBook Air that is placed on the table in front of him. “Firdos is my comfort area where I know the folks who work there… .” “I go there when I want to hang out with friends but whenever I am behind on work, I head towards Rotana.”
Perez is not Middle Eastern but frequents Steinway consistently because he is fascinated by the culture. “Steinway is special to me because it’s a small gem in a predominantly Greek and Italian neighborhood where traditional Middle Eastern culture is prominent,” he said. Being a New York native, I am fortunate to experience the world and its culture within a couple of miles.”
“I don’t worry about competition,” says Messaad Mohammad, the owner of Rotana Hookah Place. “When I opened Rotana nine years ago, there were only three other hookah lounges on Steinway.”
In addition to Rotana Hookah Place,Mohammad now owns Jasmine and Taj Mahal, two other hookah lounges on Steinway Street. He believes in focusing on serving good hookah, so none of his lounges serve food. Each of Mohammad’s lounges are based on a different theme. “All my hookah bars have their own vibe and different types of crowds come to each one,” says Mohammad.
“Steinway is a nightlife street,” says Mohammad. “Anywhere else you’d have to deal with the headache of attracting people, here, people just show up.”