Hell’s Kitchen neighbors’ fears flamed by hookah bar’s fumes

The city banned trans fat in restaurants and smoking indoors—but what about hookah bars?

Part of these establishments’ popularity certainly stems from their exemption from the city’s smoking ban. For college kids and twentysomethings, they’re seen as an exotic alternative to smoking cigarettes. For Middle Easterners, smoking a hookah is a relaxing social activity dating back centuries.

But what’s it like living above one?

Horus Too—a hookah joint from the operators of three similar locations in the East Village—recently landed in the ground-floor space at 416 W. 46th St. between Ninth and 10th Aves. The Mediterranean restaurant/bar, and its fragrant hookah fumes, has gotten many of the residents of the building smoking mad since opening in April. They’re tired of the sickly sweet smell and noise emanating from the front and back of the space. But the tenants couldn’t have known what they were in for, as the owner framed the operation as a family-friendly restaurant on a residential block when it appeared before the local community board in the spring.

Hookah bars avoid the indoor smoking ban because the product being puffed on doesn’t contain tobacco and they need no special license to operate. Sally Sarhan, a manager at Horus Too, said that her restaurant’s hookahs contain hardened molasses and fruit, which can be flavored with tea, milk or wine. A hookah costs anywhere from $15 to $40 for “top shelf” ingredients. Some hookah proponents—including a waitress at the restaurant, according to an online review—claim it’s not as harmful as cigarettes, and proponents also say it aids in digestion.

Sarhan, however, refused to wade into the debate. “I’m not going to condone any type of smoking,” she said. She did note that hookah smoking is a popular social activity among Middle Easterners, and a social and leisure activity for many Muslims because it isn’t “haram”—forbidden by the Koran—like alcohol. For them, she added, it’s like relaxing with a beer after work with friends.

Although hookah bars are pervasive in the East Village, only a handful operates on the West Side. Sarhan explained that Horus Too’s patrons are often regulars, because “there’s a large Middle Eastern population in this neighborhood.” As if on cue, an older gentleman at the table next to her expertly exhaled a thick plume of smoke scented like sweetened incense.

But for Scott Moyer, a 14-year resident of an apartment above the restaurant, the problem isn’t as simple as the smell and noise—he’s worried about the health of his infant son. Nine months old when Horus Too opened in April, Moyer’s son developed a chronic cough within two months, which the doctor agreed was due to smoke coming from the restaurant.

“He says if it doesn’t go away I’ll have to move,” Moyer said, adding that his son’s cough subsided when they left town for a month, but came back shortly after returning to the city.

Moyer now keeps his windows closed, but said that the smoke still seeps in through air-conditioning units. “And if you don’t get it from the street, then you get it from the ventilation system in the back [of the building],” he said. “[The smoke] comes from both sides no matter where you live.”

After so many years at the address, Moyer is now considering taking a drastic step. “I’m giving it a year,” he said. “After that I’ll have to leave, and we’ll be priced out of New York.”

Camille Turchel, who was “born and bred in Clinton,” bought her apartment in the same building more than 20 years ago. She keeps her window closed most days to avoid the smoke, and claimed patrons often “stand outside at midnight or 1 o’clock, talking loudly. They’re not very good neighbors.”

Both the World Health Organization and the American Lung Association recently released studies on waterpipe smoking based on hookahs using tobacco, which isn’t used in New York’s public hookah bars. The WHO reported that a typical hour of smoking a waterpipe results in more than a hundred times more smoke inhaled than from smoking a cigarette. The organizations also recommended that “waterpipes and waterpipe tobacco be subjected to the same regulations as cigarettes and other tobacco products,” and suggested that hookah use “be prohibited in public places consistent with bans on cigarette and other forms of tobacco smoking.”

In a March 20 letter from Community Board 4 to the State Liquor Authority, the board recommended denying Horus Too’s beer and wine license request “unless the following conditions, as agreed to by the applicant, are incorporated into the method of operation: Hours of operation will be from noon to midnight; no backyard use; no hookah use; no sidewalk use, and signs will be posted requesting quiet; French doors will be closed at 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays.”

While a business owner is not legally obligated to follow the instructions of a community board, Moyer said that the owners willfully misrepresented their intentions. According to Moyer, when someone asked the owner at a meeting, “No hookahs, right?” he replied, “No, no, just good Mediterranean food.”

The restaurant is open until 4 a.m., despite the owners originally telling the board they would close at midnight. Moyer and Turchel also said that guests frequently spill out into the space’s back courtyard, the restaurant offers sidewalk seating and does not consistently close the front door, as requested by the board to mitigate noise and smoke.

“They’re trying to generate a business that’s really overflow onto the street,” said Danajean Cicerchi, who has lived on the second floor in the front of the building since 1982. She added that she’d like the restaurant to follow the agreement it made to the community board.

“We do all live in NYC and realize we have to coexist with businesses,” said John Owens, co-chairperson of Board 4’s Business Licenses and Permits Committee, which oversees liquor license applications. “We need to figure out how to better integrate them.”