FOOD- THE DISH- Smoke and Mirrors: GA passes smoking ban light

In a 2004 Hook cover story called "Tobacco Town," we discovered that many Charlottesvillians loved to light up, despite the health risks. But a new state-wide smoking ban in restaurants could change our tobacco lovin' ways.

Smoke ‘em if you've got ‘em, because after December 1, that won't be happening in most of the restaurants and bars that still allow smoking in Virginia. On February 19, the General Assembly passed the ban that Governor Tim Kaine has sought since he took office in 2005. 

After fighting over the substance of the bill between anti-smoking and tobacco lobbies, it isn't much of a ban. For starters, the fine for smokers and restaurants who defy the law is akin to getting a parking ticket, just $25.

This new brand of bill allows restaurants to create "separate ventilated rooms" for smokers without saying exactly what such a room should contain. Private clubs and outdoor patios will be exempt from the ban.

Advocates of restaurant smoking bans have argued that it's all about worker's rights, about restaurant employees not having to breathe in secondhand smoke. Some bartenders Dish knows might find that kind of funny, the equivalent of a hospital employee objecting to secondhand germs and blood. In a 2004 Hook cover story on local smoking habits, then Rapture manager Jessica Wilkin, put it succinctly when she was asked why they allowed smoking. "Because we're a bar," she said, "and you can't have a bar without having smoking."

But the anti-smoking crowd isn't laughing.

According to the EPA, second-hand smoke is responsible for 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year. Of course, there's the irony here that alcohol consumption is potentially more dangerous to public health than second-hand smoke, yet no one appears ready to demand a ban on serving alcohol. Over 13,000 people are killed by drunk drivers each year. Of course, 3,000 deaths is nothing to scoff at, but we imagine those folks didn't die from second-hand smoke inhalation on their way home from the bar. 

Besides, according to restaurant industry officials, 70 percent of Virginia's restaurants have already banned smoking, including many in Charlottesville. So why pass a law that has no teeth, can't be adequately enforced, and could become obsolete as more restaurants go smokeless?

As restauranteur/chef Christian Trendel said during the last smoking ban go-around, "I feel that business owners and their customers can make their own decisions without the government's intervention."

Still, some restaurant owners are happy to have the ban. Despite the minimal penalty, small restaurants owners who have always wanted to go smoke-free can do so without having to be the heavy with their smoking customers. 

"I've been fighting for this ban for years," says one long-time Charlottesville restauranteur, who wished to remain anonymous. "Big restaurants or private clubs can afford to go smoke-free and make separate rooms for smoking, but the small Mom and Pop places have had to allow smoking without a ban, otherwise we'd have to turn our smoking customers away."

Others find it intrusive and unfair.

"Rich people will still have private clubs," says Mas chef/owner Tomas Rahal of the new ban, "while working class folks, who often talk turkey or politics over cigs and drinks, will be forced to shiver outdoors or chew nicotine gum like crazed addicts. And this really kills the vending machine industry because nobody will put one in their bar now...Cuba's looking better all the time."

When Mas opened six years ago, Rahal says they installed two gigantic air scrubbers to maintain air quality, but with the new ban they won't be able to allow smoking in the main room. Still, Rahal says he doesn't see the late night bar scene being effected at all. "First, there are only so many places open for late night," he says, "and outside smoking is still okay. Once our patios are open it will be a moot point."

Joel ‘beyond organic' Salatin to speak

The best-known son of Swoope and the star of Michael Pollan's diet-changing book The Omnivore's Dilemma will speak Saturday, March 7 at PVCC in Charlottesville on the topic of starting your own farm. He is Joel Salatin, an outspoken thorn in the side of the industrial agricultural complex who practices what he preaches at his Polyface Farm. (Other speakers on the bill; pre-registration required.) If you miss that gig, Salatin is due back in town at 7pm on Saturday, March 14, when he comes back to speak at the Montessori Community School on Pantops Mountain.

Uncle Charlie's R.I.P.

Crozet's only music venue shut its door February 22 on the corner location whose longest-running business in our memory was a drugstore. Next to try that spot: Mudhouse has a lease, according to an Uncle Charlie's owner.

Maya six-course ale dinner

On March 2, Maya on West Main is hosting a six-course Bells Brewery Ale Dinner at 6:30pm. Enjoy six different beers with six different dishes, including shrimp cakes, brunswick stew, roasted stuff quail, braised lamb shank, and other treats. To make reservation call 434-979-6292 or send an email to

WahooRidge open for business

There's a new place in the McIntire Business Park, just beyond Saigon Café and Kathy's Hair, to get homemade BBQ and breakfast burritos made with local organic ingredients. WahooRidge Company, described as a "hole in the wall" by owner Mike McBlair, just recently began opening up its whole sale frozen food business to walk-ins. No, the food isn't frozen, as McBlair has a working kitchen on the premises. In several weeks, McBlair will be offering his frozen homemade food at Whole Foods, but for now he's offering up some of his specialties to anyone who wants to stop by. "The breakfast burritos are to die for," he says.