One of my most magical memories from childhood is of when my cousin and I would make a tent in my aunt and uncle’s living room. We would place the dining-room chairs in a circle and then drape blankets over the chairs. Next we would relieve the house of all its pillows and line the inside of the tent with them, creating a sort of Bedouin paradise. Then my cousin and I would crawl inside and imagine ourselves to be daughters of sultans. The light would filter through the blankets, giving the inside of the tent a soft, red glow. Now I’m grown up, and I’d long forgotten the feeling of being a princess inside a cloth palace … until I went to the Hookah Lounge at Paymon’s. I don’t know whether the Hookah Lounge is like that childhood tent or that childhood tent was like the Hookah Lounge, but they both sparked my imagination in a special way.
A few years ago, it seemed that every bar/restaurant was buying a few hookahs and calling itself a hookah lounge. Perhaps some people fancied themselves cosmopolitan when they smoked hookah in glorified dive bars, but, really, the hookah was just the newest bar gimmick in a long line of bar gimmicks. (See past and future installments of this column for examples.) However, the Hookah Lounge (a registered trademark of Paymon’s Mediterranean Café & Lounge) transcends silly trends. According to its website, “Hookah Lounge Las Vegas is the original Hookah Lounge, as it was the first of its kind and remains the most recognized hookah establishment in America.” Quite the tall order. Nonetheless, Paymon’s had garnered 12 years of street cred before it opened the Hookah Lounge in 2000, followed by a second location on East Sahara in 2004.
- Paymon's Hookah Lounge
- 4147 S. Maryland Parkway, 732-3203.
The Hookah Lounge itself, while connected thematically and geographically to Paymon’s, is a completely separate experience. At the Maryland location, the rectangular, red-walled room makes it look like the inside of a jewel box. A display of historical hookahs runs across the high shelf of one wall, which reminded me of the historical opium-pipe display in the restaurant at Tao. A mass of golden-framed Mediterranean and Orientalist paintings set the mood for a type of relaxation that hasn’t existed since the invention of electricity. Then again, if electricity didn’t exist, then the Hookah Lounge couldn’t offer cool light-up hookahs that flow through a rainbow of colors. (Available for purchase at Hookahlounge.com for $39.95.)
According to its website, the Hookah Lounge also offers the “hookah experience,” which is the newbie-friendly version of a ritual that has been around for thousands of years. Guests get to pick the flavors of hookah from a pretty box of pretty boxes of flavored tobaccos. (Flavors range from fruity to spicy to my favorite: cola.) The “hookah man” also pours a “Turkish hand potion” in the palms of guests’ hands from a pretty metal watering can. The potion feels like rose water.
I like the idea of a bar that offers so many little diversions and activities that you almost forget to drink alcohol. And since most guests sit on couches and stools around little wooden tables, video poker is also forgotten. Though some might say you’re substituting one vice for another, at least the vice of smoking doesn’t lead to possible DUIs.
Counterintuitively, I also appreciate being in a bar with little to no smoking. Cigarette smoking, that is. I’m used to bars having the suffocating smell of smoke or the acrid smell of stale smoke, depending on the quality of the bar, but the smell of hookah smoke is aromatic, fruity, pleasant.
Make no mistake, this still is a bar, and it offers Mediterranean “specialty drinks” such as Genie’s Navel, Babylon Spice, The Fig Leaf, Flying Carpet and the exotic favorite: Apple Martini.
There are lots of destination bars in Las Vegas, but most are for tourists. It’s a nice change to have a “destination place” for locals: a place where you can feel transported to another land, another era without having to deal with a casino, its parking and its prices. Likewise, the crowd at the Hookah Lounge is chill, laid-back yet vibrant. It seems to lack the glazed-eyed look of patrons that over-frequent neighborhood dive bars. Perhaps some of the vibrancy is due to the fact that the lounge closes at 1 a.m.
Though it’s sad to think I’ll never construct another living-room tent with my cousin, I’m happy that I can always recapture that magical feeling for the price of a cocktail.