Barstool: Passing the torch at Havana Phil’s

Given that Lamar smokes, he enjoyed Havana Phil's more thoroughly than I did. (photo by Eric Ginsburg)

The exposed brick wall, the wash of natural light, the orange-upholstered barstools and the deep black ceiling immediately drew me to the new Havana Phil’s cigar bar. But alas, I’ll likely never step foot inside, and neither will you.

After seeing a photo of the renovated Anton’s on Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, I knew I wanted to check it out. So when my friend Lamar said he needed to drop his car off for repairs nearby recently and wanted a chauffeur, I agreed on the condition that we spend the hour or so boozing at Havana Phil’s.

The cigar store relocated from farther down the thoroughfare near New Garden Road towards downtown’s periphery, between Kickback Jack’s and Geeksboro. In taking on more square footage, Havana Phil’s also added a cigar lounge, back patio and — arguably most importantly — an exclusive bar.

I don’t smoke — never have and never will, after witnessing my grandfather’s struggle to quit. But the décor and uncommon setting proved alluring, and I guessed this would be the sort of place that would make a mean cocktail.

When Lamar and I walked in and were told the bar is members’ only, I figured we’d need to front a couple bucks for a membership card and fill out the mildest sort of paperwork. Not exactly; it will run you $500 a year to join this exclusive circle unless you know someone.

But, we learned, there is a cigar lounge in the center of the standalone building, and if you peruse the humidor and find something you’d like to puff on the premises, the lounge and patio are waiting. After poking our heads inside the lounge, which is named for cigar-company owner Rocky Patel, and seeing the leather recliners, a deep couch, mini-bar area and four televisions, we decided to stick around while Lamar worked on an $11 cigar.

There is no alcohol in the sleek man cave, despite a refrigerator with diet Coke, a sink and a relatively expansive glassware collection on display. But a door does open to the secluded bar. The lights remained off inside until the 4 p.m. open time, but we could see what we were missing through the locked glass door. We’d need to make due in our “well-appointed room,” as Lamar put it, high and dry.

We had the room to ourselves, with the door shut and a few diffusers keeping the room smelling fresh for more than an hour. A skylight allowed the sun to spill in, and more light came through two stained glass windows and the door leading to the retail space, where we could see a biker couple checking out at the register and other comings and goings.

The cigar lounge sports other trappings that likely adorn other such hangouts — a high table with chairs where I imagined friends playing poker, a lineup of bobble heads, what we took as a cigar storage locker with cabinets named after men from Mickey Mantle to Howard Coble, four televisions tuned to golf and basketball replays, a coffee machine, more reading material than a doctor’s office and a tall wood carving of a stereotypical Native American chief.

Signed pictures of Rocky Patel, who looks vaguely like former Greensboro councilman Zack Matheny, posing with Havana Phil’s owner Phil Segal decorate one wall, and posters of Patel hang over some of the seating as well.


Besides the questionable music — Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square” and Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” both played on the house stereo — I found myself being drawn in. It’s the most relaxing and private commercial environment I can recall being in, evoking the feeling of a friend’s finely finished basement more than anything. If I had a whiskey on the rocks and the ability to take over the tunes, I could’ve spent the rest of the afternoon there kicking it with Lamar. A friend called while we reclined, and I practically invited him over.

But this is a business, not a living room. The sodas may look up for grabs, but they retail for $1. We could’ve stayed longer, if Lamar wanted to smoke a second cigar, but this isn’t where we’ll go to watch the game. And the lounge may be as close to that elite bar as we’ll make it, but the view is just a tease.

As we rose to leave, UNCG’s relatively new chancellor Frank Gilliam walked into the cigar lounge, planning to kill time until the bar itself opened. In the room outside, the state head of campus Jewish organization Hillel chatted with Segal. To get into the bar, I’d need to start running in these circles. And that’s about as likely as me picking up smoking.