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 the construction of a nearby mosque. Although the recurring theme is hookah, the ambiance of each establishment varies tremendously. Some lounges are full-fledged restaurants that have spent a substantial amount of money beautifying the establishment, 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 introduction 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 serving hookah. Because of this exception, most of the lounges on Steinway are expected to be unaffected by the new law.
Rotana Hookah Place belongs to a category of lounges that have plain interiors and are renowned solely for the quality of 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 at a table writing code on his MacBook Air. “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 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.”
In addition to Rotana Hookah Place, Messaad Mohammad now owns Jasmine and Taj Mahal, two other hookah lounges on the same block.
“I don’t worry about competition,” he said. “When I opened Rotana nine years ago, there were only three other hookah lounges on Steinway.”
He believes in focusing on providing good hookah, so none of his lounges serve food. Each of Mohammad’s establishments is based on a different theme: “All my hookah bars have their own vibe and different types of crowds come to each one.”
“Steinway is a nightlife street,” Mohammad said. “Anywhere else you’d have to deal with the headache of attracting people, here, people just show up.”