You're in downtown Roanoke. It's been a long day and you can use a drink, but you'd prefer an atmosphere outside the norm.
As you breeze by 16 W. Campbell Ave., you stop, taken aback by the smoke seeping through a few open windows. It's smooth, even calming.
But you think you've lost it when you walk in to find a group laughin' and draggin' from a bong, right?
Wrong. No, you're not trippin'. That's not a bong . . . i t's a hookah and it's at Dolce, a trendy restaurant and lounge.
An ages-old tradition in Middle Eastern culture, hookah (or shisha, as it's known in some countries) has become a popular American pastime in recent years. Roanokers can thank Dolce owner Jay Ali for introducing the valley to its fruity lure and social appeal.
"Shisha is something I grew up with," says Ali, who opened the restaurant in October. After a suggestion from his brother, he began offering the smoky pasttime in January.
"We wanted to offer the big city experience . . . very urban," he said. "A lot of people come in and say they feel like they're in a bigger place like New York or Chicago. We wanted to bring something different to this town."
It's very common for Ali, who is Jordanian, to spend hours with friends and family playing cards and smoking shisha. Cafe/lounge-type settings are essential, he said, because that along with the smoke, encourages relaxation and a calm mood.
"Just relax and don't over-inhale," Ali said. "If you do, the tobacco will burn too fast and then it's pointless to finish smoking it."
Dolce has only authentic, Jordanian shisha pipes that were brought to Roanoke by some of Ali's family members. The tall, heavy pipes are embroidered in Jordanian designs including decorative carvings on the tongs used to place the burning coals that heat the tobacco. Ali also imports the shisha tobacco, which gets its rich taste from soaking in flavored syrup. It can also be smoked from a cigar, he said. The restaurant offers a selection of flavors including strawberry (a favorite), mint, apple, grape, mango and peach.
Joe Scruggs grew fond of the shisha while on his 18-month tour of military duty in Iraq.
"It was a way for us to forget where we were and it helped to ease a lot of stress," said the 23-year-old Roanoke native. "We'd sit around together and talk about good times. That's what it's about . . . good times"
Is it safer than cigarettes?
Some water pipe smokers believe it delivers less carbon monoxide and nicotine than regular cigarettes, but that may not be so says Thomas Eissenberg, head of the Clinical and Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University. The variations in the amount of nicotine that each product contains is not the issue, according to the co-author of an April 2004 study about the hookah fad.
"It's about how much nicotine gets to the user," Eissenberg said. "That amount is at least as much nicotine that is in a cigarette." The use of charcoal also causes the smoker to inhale material from both its smoke and that of the tobacco, he said.
Smoking flavored tobacco through a water pipe.
Where: Dolce, 16 W. Campbell Ave., downtown Roanoke
Why: Complements a social evening with its relaxation factor. For the hygiene-conscious, plastic covers are offered for shared mouthpieces, which are also sanitized.
Price: $15 for each setup, which lasts about an hour.
• Raas — holds the tobacco
• Gazaza — holds the water
• Ragaba — stem, body of the pipe
• Sahan — tray that holds hot charcoal
• Mulgat — pick or tong
• Berbiesh — mouthpiece
• Don't hog the shisha. It's meant to be enjoyed by everyone. Stinginess can kill the friendly climate.
• Be easy. It's not a rat race. Slow drags prevent quick burnouts and keep the spirits high.
• Don't be forceful. Some say it’s never nice to pass the hose directly to another person. Put it down and let the next person pick it up.
• Keep it legal. Smoke ONLY tobacco out of your shisha.
Tips and tricks
• Be creative by mixing tobacco flavors for a unique taste, like strawberry and mango or apple and strawberry
• Refrigerate tobacco to make it last longer.
• Replace the base water after every use.
• Add ice cubes to the water for a cool, fresh taste or sweet red wine for flavor and a warm feeling
• Clean the shaft from time to time with a brush to avoid clogging and harsh-tasting smoke.
• Pack the tobacco loosely and evenly for a clean hit and to prevent clogs.
• When using aluminum foil, poke lots of small holes to allow charcoal and tobacco to burn slower.
Burning for a hookah?
In Roanoke, head to Sherie's Place on Williamson Road. Prices vary from about $50 to $215, depending on the size of the pipe and the number of hoses (362-8621).
In New River, Blacksburg Pipe and Tobacco on North Main Street (951-8457) and Radford's Smoker's Friend Too on Pepper's Ferry Road (731-4243) are your best bets. Or you can head to She-Sha Cafe & Hookah Lounge on Draper Road (961-9100).
On the Web: www.thehookah.com
Sources: www.thehookah.com and Dolce