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Hookahs are the OG smoke delivery device. They have a long history (as in, half a millennium long), and their tale is one of being social, not solitary. Whether you share one or each get your own, hookahs have always been something to enjoy with friends.
Somewhat surprisingly in this age of tobacco vilification, hookah bars are still legal in Philadelphia. There’s a special license required, of course. It doesn’t cost all that much ($50), but the paperwork required to maintain it properly is complicated, just like the service required to maintain good hookahs. Which means you don’t want to just end up anywhere, whether you’re in search of a super-chill session on a couch, an enhancing buzz for your turn on the dance floor, or a jolt of extra flavor after a great meal.
Here are seven ways to do hookahs right in Philly.
After they escaped Lebanon during the tumultuous ’80s, the five Sawan brothers set out on a path to bring a taste of Lebanese culture to their adopted city of Philadelphia. It started with one restaurant (Cedars), but soon branched out to several others, including one of the first retail storefronts on the then-grungy block of 18th Street above Rittenhouse Park. Their Mediterranean food was a hit (thank their mother for the recipes), and along with the office crowd from the neighborhood, Lebanese around the city began to frequent their new spot. Many of them asked for hookahs, and the Sawan brothers obliged — essentially becoming Center City’s first outlet for the practice. In 2004, they formalized things, renaming their spot Byblos Restaurant and Hookah Bar.
Price: $20 to $30
While you’re there: Eat — try the falafel, shishkabob or fried kibbi (spiced ground beef).
116 S. 18th St., 215-568-3050
After they saw the success of hookahs at Byblos, the Sawan brothers decided to add hookahs to Fez, the Moroccan-focused restaurant they’d opened in 1991 just off South Street in Queen Village. Why go here instead of Byblos? Aside from neighborhood convenience if you’re on the east side of Broad, the atmosphere is more Middle Eastern, with tapestry-covered walls and belly dancers on weekends.
While you’re there: Eat, again, but here go for the “Fez Feast” — a seven-course dinner for $25 per person that also scores you half off a hookah.
620 S. 2nd St., 215-925-5367
Mohammed Elfar came to the U.S. from Palestine in 1982, and landed in Philly seven years later. In 2002, he opened this cafe just off South Street with a mission to introduce the city to the best hookah experience he knew. Don’t ask for flavors at this petite spot, where you can also get coffee, tea and Mediterranean snacks. Elfar serves just one tobacco (or “shisha”) combination, but he swears by it — “I will make you the best hookah you ever had,” he likes to say. “Don’t come here if you don’t want to be happy.”
Price: $25 for two people
While you’re there: Try the chai, which is made in house and it just as unique as the shisha.
609 S. 3rd St., 215-922-2202
A relative newcomer to the scene, this BYOB on Liberties Walk (across from the Piazza) was opened three years ago by Egyptian native Mina Sedarous and a couple of the friends he went to college with at Temple and Drexel. A few snacks are served, and you can bring your own booze, but this spot is focused on the hookah and the hookah alone. Fresh fruit heads — where the shisha is vaporized from inside an orange, pineapple or pumpkin, for example — are a specialty.
Price: $15 to $30
While you’re there: If weather permits, ask to sit outside — the patio is one of the only places in Philly to share hookahs al fresco.
1040 N. 2nd St., 267-259-6524
The second and third levels of this Spring Garden bar rock with dance floors and DJs in several themed rooms, but the bottom floor is all about chilling with tobacco. Mohammed El Laisy is ultra proud of the reputation his hookah service has gained, and touts his clientele as one of the most diverse in the city — his welcome sign is written in more than 40 languages. There are more than 50 flavors of shisha to choose from, and doors are open through 3:30 AM.
Price: $20 to $40
While you’re there: Snap a photo with the life-size camel statue or giant sphynxes.
601 Spring Garden St., 215-925-5000
Jamie Atlig says he’s owned more than 20 businesses in his long hospitality career, so when he opened this Old City club, he knew exactly the niche he was going for. More than just a hookah spot, this is a full-on smoking lounge, so don’t visit if cigars give you a headache. If you’re down with all that, the hookahs are some of the cleanest and well-kept in the city.
While you’re there: Dance to house music — it’s the only kind the DJ will play, no exceptions.
16 S. 2nd St., 267-908-4009
West Philly got this well-run hookah hang two years ago, when Samer Albarouki (he owns University City’s Ed’s Buffalo Wings down the street) decided to take over the former Zocalo and turn it into a Middle Eastern restaurant. What separates the hookahs here is the quality of the coal — Albarouki buys the expensive kind made out of coconut shells, and his staff and patrons say it makes all the difference.
Price: $20 to $25
While you’re there: Catch belly dancing on weekend eves.
3600 Lancaster Ave., 215-222-2345