Forget the beer bongs and keggersand toga parties of the past; college kids of the new millennium are far too sophisticated for that behavior. Now, instead of downing Pabst till their livers come up through their mouths, America’s future can be found charring its lungs at the new college hangout: the hookah bar. Okay, so they may not have completelyreplaced the beer bong, but there is no doubt that these hookah bars have been popping up all over the city, and it’s rare that you see anyone older than 30 in attendance.
Hookah bars tend to rely on aesthetics to attract people and are usually dimly lit with plenty of comfy-looking couches and Persian rugs on the floor. Hookahs themselves, also called shishas or narghiles, are intricately decorated, which adds to the exotic experience of smoking one. You order the flavored tobacco as you would ice cream, along with a drink or a snack. Smoking one will give you a very mild, relaxing buzz. Most of the cafes listed below are crowded in the evenings, so go early for a more laid-back hookah session. Open long past last call, they also make ideal after-hours spots. Here are some favorites:
Ancient Grounds Café
“This reminds me of Mexico,” said my friend, noticing the sheet-metal roof hanging above the patio chairs outside and the chainlink fence and rotting boards struggling to keep the hillside from spilling into the yard. That was when we first started going there a couple of years ago. However, they finally made some renovations. This is the only hookah spot in Los Angeles that isn’t overrun with people. Here, you can actually relax; either by lounging in the couch setup outside (a real cinderblock now holds up the hillside) or at one of the tables inside. Have some Turkish coffee. Talk to some of the dudes who have been playing cards inside for years. I recommend you check it out before half of Silver Lake discovers it and they start charging $20 a hookah. 3229 W. Sunset Blvd.; usually opens around 9 p.m. and closes around 3 a.m.
This is more your typical arty café from straight out of a college town that happens to serve hookahs. However, Equator has no indoor-smoking license so the smoking is limited to outdoors only. Up until the cops weeded them all out of Old Town, the alley outside the cafe used to be where the punk-rock kids of Pasadena hung out and pounded their 211s. Their drunken antics served as entertainment to go along with your hookah smoking. No more. Now, instead, you can watch the boring old Pasadena folks emerging from the bar across the way, listen to a live band, or partake in Friday-night Karaoke. 22 Mills Place, Pasadena; Sun.-Thurs., 8 a.m.-12 a.m. (Hookah service stops at 11 p.m.); (626) 564-8656.
I came here on a Monday night, and it was packed. Besides hookahs (you are encouraged to experiment with mixed flavors at $13.99 a pop), Gypsy offers a number of Mediterranean dishes, pastries, cocktails, beer and wine. Awesome Middle Eastern music plays into the evening. However, later in the night it changes to generic Top 40 rap. You can watch both American and Middle Eastern music videos downstairs (a popular pastime for UCLA students, it seems), but for a $15 minimum you can go upstairs to an intimate, comfy lounge area, which is definitely worth it. 940 Broxton Ave., Westwood; Sun.-Thurs., 10 a.m.–4 a.m., Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 a.m.; (310) 824-2119.
A cheaper version of the Gypsy, catering to UCLA kids who don’t want to shell out $13.99 for a hookah. The hookahs are cheap and there are plenty of reasonably priced kabobs and other Middle Eastern treats. Ask for “Chad’s Special” for the hookah: tobacco grown on his ranch in San Diego. The disco ball, stoplight and music vacillating between Middle Eastern songs and MTV dance jams (the same ones played across the street at the Gypsy) set the chill party mood, and if you want to enjoy your shisha in a quieter environment, you can always pay extra and rent out the VIP room.
FUN FACT: Habibi means “beloved” in Arabic. 923 Broxton Ave.; Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 a.m.; (310) 824-2277. Mandaloun
It is hard not to be a little awestruck by the Lebanese restaurant Mandaloun. Because, while the local Middle Eastern restaurant scene is no stranger to grandeur, I’ve never seen anything like this place, a gilded gastrodome of massive kebabs, pita made to order, and outdoor terraces devoted to the baking of Lebanese flatbreads and the smoking of apple-flavored tobacco. (Jonathan Gold) 41 S. Maryland Blvd., Glendale; Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Full bar; (818) ?507-1900.
Up In Smoke Café
This is a chic Sherman Oaks spot with plenty of aesthetic appeal — plush sofas, arty lamps and candlelight, even belly dancers. It has an astoundingly large selection of flavors, from the basic apple, cherry and mint to the more obscure pistachio and cognac for the adventurous smoker. They offer mixes too, with names like “Magic Lamp,” “Genie’s Wish” and “Mummy.” I opted for the “Garden of Babylon” — cherry, mint and rose, and it was delicious. For a little extra, you can get your hookah’s ceramic bowl replaced with a fresh, carved-out apple filled with the flavor of your choice. The menu choices were lacking compared to the other cafés. However, Up In Smoke does offer a number of Middle Eastern snacks such as shallots and yogurt, and hummus with warm pita bread. Though this place wasn’t packed with people, the loud Greek and Arabic music combined with the noise from the traffic on Ventura Boulevard made it difficult to relax and simply enjoy the hookah and conversation. Oh yeah, and it’s practically impossible to get the employees’ attention, even on a not-so-crowded Thursday. 14426 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Sun.-Thurs., 12 p.m.-1:30 or 2 a.m., Fri.-Sat., 12 p.m.-4 a.m.; (818) 788-5678.