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Sky, stars ... no reason to fume now

Special to The Times

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since smokers were kicked to the curb of bars and nightclubs in L.A. The city that gave birth to the “barfly” and glamorized cocktail lounge culture thick with smoke in Raymond Chandler-esque noir films has officially made the “smoky bar room” an oxymoron.

This doesn’t mean people have stopped smoking. Far from it. They just moved outside.

At first, smokers flocked to smoke-easies that turned a blind eye to the ban with a wink and a nod. Then, they huddled in doorways and shivered on sidewalks -- leaving their drinks inside -- until bar owners began to wise up. Every time someone stepped out for a smoke, their drink did not.

As Vincent Jung, owner of the Hollywood landmark Formosa Cafe, points out, even in health-conscious Southern California, there are a lot of social smokers. “Unless someone’s a hard-core smoker, they don’t want to spend the whole night going in and out of a bar for a cigarette without their drink. If someone can have an extra cocktail with their cigarette, they’ll stay longer and drink more.”

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Spurred on by the bottom line, proprietors like Jung knew they couldn’t change the law, but they could change the landscape. And change it they did. In just a few short years, Los Angeles has gone from having one of the strictest anti-smoking laws in the country to providing a plethora of outdoor spaces designed to please the very pariah it had exiled. The result? An open-air world just about everyone can enjoy.

People are spilling out on sidewalk cafes on Melrose, coffee shops in Pasadena, lush courtyards in Beverly Hills, awe-inspiring rooftops in downtown L.A., and ocean-side verandas in Venice, finally enjoying the best thing Southern California has to offer -- the weather.

It’s interesting, if not ironic, that it took a ban on smoking to serve as a catalyst for turning Los Angeles into what it should have been all along -- an outdoor city. Today, few proprietors would dream of opening a new bar or club without a patio.

Chris Breed, the man behind the recently opened restaurant and club White Lotus, says the first thing he thought about when developing Hollywood’s hottest new nightspot was where to put the patio.

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Driving by the club on Cahuenga Boulevard, it’s nearly impossible to miss the massive tented patio area that sprawls across half a block.

Some of the best uses of outdoor space can be found along the corridor that stretches from downtown L.A. to the beach. They exemplify the diversity of the patio culture that’s emerged in urban L.A.

The new alfresco movement has proven to be a creative one that didn’t simply rely on tossing a couple of folding chairs and an ashtray onto the pavement and calling it a patio. Just as there’s a different bar that caters to a certain crowd, there’s a patio to suit everyone’s tastes.

Hotelier Andre Balasz’s Downtown Standard Hotel patio actually gives new meaning to the phrase high end. High, high end. The hotel’s rooftop is a breathtaking version of an open-air bar. The prices shock while the views awe.

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Balasz says he chose this spot because “it’s one of the few places you can actually feel the city. From this vantage point, it’s an urban vision you rarely see.”

Nestled among L.A.'s most recognizable buildings, the skyscrapers become the wallpaper, the stars are the ceiling. Big, comfy couches surround an oversized fireplace, synthetic grass and prancing animal topiaries abound, and of course plenty of heat lamps blaze away, insulating the intriguing mix of the uber-trendy and the corporate clientele from the rooftop chill. And what smoking patio would be complete without Jetsons-style vibrating waterbeds?

Courtney Brigham, 29, in town from Silicon Valley for a technology conference, is agape. The nonsmoker says the view is absolutely the highlight of her trip here. “With all the fog in the Bay, we could never have anything like this,” she says. “To me, it’s quintessential L.A.”

Patios might seem “so L.A.” now, but before the ban, nightlife was played out mostly indoors, patrons holed up in smoke-clogged bars just like any other city. But L.A. is not just any city. All it takes is a few measly heat lamps and those who choose to can knock back cocktails and chain smoke to their heart’s content, 12 months out of the year.

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New York hasn’t been so lucky. The city is still reeling from its April 1 smoking ban. A bouncer was stabbed to death trying to enforce the law at a Lower East Side nightclub a few weeks ago. It’s too soon to tell if New Yorkers be able to adjust as well as Angelenos have, but then again, they don’t have our advantages. Southern California’s got the weather, the space, and one thing about the city is that those who live here know how to adapt to change. Of course, patio life didn’t happen overnight. Los Angeles’ fire marshal, Chief Jimmy H. Hill, says: “We didn’t rigidly enforce the smoking ban at first because we had to give the public time to adjust, so there was a lag time with the implementation and getting people outside.”

Basically, people ignored the ban until bar owners and individuals started receiving fines -- bar fees ranging from $100 to $5,000, and for smokers from $81 to $500, depending on whether it was a repeat offense. The threat of such a pricey smoke eventually pushed people outside. But considering the city only hires two full-time inspectors to patrol more than 3,000 bars in L.A., the chances of getting caught are pretty slim. To date only 486 individuals have been cited and 83 cases filed against bar owners. Still, very few “smoke-easies” are still operating.

Kristie Jones is in a booth in the back patio of the Formosa, lighting her third Camel Light in about 20 minutes. The 32-year-old waitress from Van Nuys says she knows a few places that still let you smoke inside, “but why would I, when there are so many patios now? I don’t have to be so restricted as to where I can drink.”

The Formosa was the first bar in Hollywood to take action after the 1998 ban. Two patios were erected almost immediately -- a roof deck and a ground-floor patio. The back patio at the Formosa cunningly gives the illusion of being inside, even though you’re really not. Latticework shields customers -- mostly youngish Hollywood regulars out on the pull -- from the construction site just beyond, and this smoking area is enclosed by a roof.

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An indoor-outdoor feel makes patios particularly inviting in winter months, especially when there’s also a fireplace involved -- something Alan Nathan and his partners surely considered when they designed the pre-Castro-Cuba-inspired it spot Nacional just off Hollywood Boulevard last fall.

Sleek and sophisticated, and always throbbing with a lush soundtrack from visiting DJs, Nacionale’s smoking section is one of the city’s most imaginative. It’s an atrium -- a square cut-out of an area -- smack in the middle of the club.

To create patio space here, the Nacional team had to think outside the box. “When we got this location, the first thing we did was think, how can we build a patio?” says Nathan. “We actually took off the roof. It might cost you $30 [thousand] or $40 thousand to build a patio, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be worth it. Sometimes, you’ve just got to be a little creative to separate yourself.”

Lisa Hamil, 28, a Silver Lake-based talent manager, is warming herself by wood-burning fireplace, schmoozing with a couple of male agents here for a private birthday party. Last night, she says she worked the patio at White Lotus, but she prefers Nacional for its people watching, and because “you don’t even realize you’re outside. A lot of outdoor sections in clubs make you feel segregated as a smoker.”

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Beautifully carved windows and archways with wrought-iron finish let you peer across the nonsmoking sections of the club so you won’t miss a thing while you’re out for your nicotine fix.

Not everyone has welcomed the smoking patio.

Victor Rodriguez is a DJ who spins at bars and clubs all over the city -- from the Standard Downtown to Falcon on Sunset Boulevard. He’s just finished a set at Cinespace, where a balcony overlooking Hollywood Boulevard is filled to capacity, mostly with smokers. Rodriguez is dying for a breath of fresh air, but he’s not going anywhere near the patio. “I usually don’t ever go outside because it’s too much. Even if you’re out there for just a minute, you go home and you can smell it in your clothes and your hair. It’s gross. Since I spend so much time in clubs, I was happy when they passed the ban, but the patios can be just as bad.”

Most nonsmokers deal with the fact that bar patios were built to accommodate smokers. If they want fresh air, sometimes they just have to go inside. But that live-and-let-live attitude stops short at outdoor cafes and restaurants. Cafe Luna on Melrose, an artsy courtyard with ivy-strewn walls and checked tablecloths, is a peaceful haven where shoppers can rest between bartering for the next great pair of $10 jeans.

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Tami Toland, a 34-year-old dental assistant from San Clemente, is trying to share a salad with her 7-year-old daughter, Kaylie, but the smoke from the next table is getting to her, so she asks to be moved. “I don’t mind it in bars,” she says, “but when it comes to food, I find it disgusting. And the worst is sidewalk cafes with seats right next to the door. Just to get inside to order your coffee, you have to walk through a big smoke cloud and there’s no way to avoid it. I’m always thinking, how long do I have to hold my breath?

“I just wish outdoor patios could have smoking and nonsmoking sections. That way, everyone could enjoy being outside.”

In West Hollywood, there is such a patio. At the Newsroom Cafe, if you want to sit outside, you’re given the choice of smoking or non. Owner Eddie J. Caraeff says it’s been this way since he opened eight years ago. “I just think people who smoke shouldn’t interfere with people who don’t smoke, even outside.” The Newsroom caters to a health-conscious clientele. Caraeff acknowledges that while many of his regulars enjoy healthy food, some of them still smoke. “You can do a Sean Penn, for example” he says, referring to one of his many celebrity regulars. “He has cigarettes, a shot of wheatgrass, then chases it with a Coke.”

Not every outdoor alternative need be as high concept as White Lotus or Nacional. Sometimes a patio works just fine as long as it captures the spirit of the indoor original. Powerhouse, a dive-y drinking den with a biker-bar feel also in Hollywood, always draws its share of rebellious-looking types -- gruff men in leather vests who you wouldn’t expect would bend to anyone’s rules. Yet when it’s time for a smoke, they get off their stools and walk through the open door at the back. The Powerhouse patio is an alley behind the bar, and it works just fine. On a good night, there’s even a plastic chair or two next to the coffee can ashtray. It couldn’t be more architecturally perfect.

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Some bars and restaurants didn’t have to change a thing to accommodate the new wave of outdoor smokers. They already had gorgeous patios, but the ban breathed fresh life into them. At the Cat and Fiddle on Sunset, the patio heaves seven nights a week. The Spanish-style courtyard is perfect for a casual drink beneath leafy trees, a huge fountain gurgling away in the background of the Brit-inspired pub. On a recent Tuesday, Dominique Mameczko, a British transplant, nursed a pint of Bass with three of her ex-pat friends. The 34-year-old film distributor was worried L.A.'s smoking ban would put a crimp on her 20-a-day habit. “But you can smoke pretty much everywhere,” she says.

Looking across the vast courtyard, she muses, “You’d never get this in London. There’s just no space, so you end up in crowded pubs smoking everybody else’s cigarettes as well as your own. It’s much more pleasant to smoke outside.”

For alfresco ambience that’s a few notches above pleasant, it doesn’t get much more opulent than the Buffalo Club in Santa Monica. The tented terrace at the back of this upscale supper club is swathed in silk fabrics, lighted by antique Chinese lanterns, and enormous urns of fresh flowers dot the landscape. It’s the kind of place that serves Cristal by the glass, where well-heeled men savor Cohiba Esplendidos while expensive-looking blonds dangle Marlboro Ultra Lights from their manicured fingertips. Vincent Tuck, a 32-year-old landscape designer from Pasadena doesn’t smoke, but most of his friends do.

“It’s kind of irritating when your friends leave you every 15 minutes to go have a smoke,” he says. “I’d rather just go to places with patios so I don’t have to stand there looking like I’ve just been stood up in a crowded bar.”

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To avoid crowds altogether, some discerning patio-philes are choosing to splurge on private cabanas -- one of the trendiest new offshoots of the patio world. At the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, 28-year-old writer Lilla Zuckerman, a stunning redhead in a plunging Dior halter top, is flanked by about 10 of her closest friends in a booth enclosed by white curtains.

Zuckerman paid $500 for the privilege of separating herself from the masses, but she thinks it’s worth it. “I’m celebrating tonight,” she says, hoisting a chilled bottle of Dom out of the silver ice bucket. “My first book was just published, so I really wanted to do it up,” she says.

Since the Viceroy is across the street from the beach, it seems a shame to keep the curtains closed all night, and after about 20 minutes of exclusivity, Lilla and her friends pull back the curtains so they can see -- and be seen at one of the Westside’s most up-market meat markets.

After you’ve made your way through L.A.'s nighttime patios, Moonshadows in Malibu offers the perfect end to an open-air weekend. Each Sunday from 2 to 10 p.m., DJs spin slow, deep house music, casting a chilled-out vibe across the spacious deck that hangs over the Pacific Ocean. By 5 p.m., it’s packed. An eclectic but in-the know set lounges on deck chairs and squeezes into canopied booths to watch the sunset, some having driven from as far east as Echo Park.

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Moonshadows has been around for more than 20 years, but this hip new status is relatively recent. It was just another forgotten paradise until the collective consciousness finally got it: Whether you smoke or not, in L.A., it’s actually better outside.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

No smoking here

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1979

All U.S. airlines required to have designated smoking areas.

1989

Smoking banned on domestic airline flights of six hours or less.

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1990

Smoking is banned from interstate buses.

1993

Dodgers ban smoking in seating areas, establish designated smoking areas.

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1995

California bans smoking in restaurants and workplaces.

1998

State smoking ban extends to bars and nightclubs.

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2003

Santa Monica bans smoking in city parks, except in designated areas.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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The best places to be outside

A selected list of great patios and other outdoor areas.

Standard Downtown

550 S. Flower St.

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This rooftop extravaganza is a must-see for the jaw-dropping views alone, but it’s not cheap. Beware of the $20 cover charge Thursday-Sunday and extortionate $15 parking fees every day. Word to the wise: Call the “rooftop hotline” at (213) 892-8080 to make sure they’re not hosting one of their seemingly nightly private parties before schlepping to downtown L.A.

Nacional

1645 Wilcox Ave., Hollywood

The wood-burning fireplace in Nacional’s atrium casts a flattering glow on everyone -- plus its cozy scent helps mask the wall-to-wall cigarette smoke.

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Ivar

6356 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

You might have to wait in line to get into this white hot club, but once inside, there’s no problem getting out to the no-frills patio at the back -- it’s the biggest in Hollywood.

Goldfingers

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6423 Yucca St., Hollywood

This roomy back patio has its own bar and is perfect for chilling after shaking your thang to the (mostly house and hip-hop) music inside.

Formosa Cafe

7156 Santa Monica Blvd.,

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Los Angeles

The back patio can get a bit cramped on weekends, but all summer long, the huge roof deck is open -- the perfect place to enjoy the night air with sweet young Hollywood.

Moonshadows

20356 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

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Every day of the week is patio paradise at Moonshadows’ oceanfront deck, but it’s best is on lazy Sunday afternoons, when Mick Cole spins delicious ambient mood music for a cool crowd coming down after a hard-partying weekend.

Trocadero

8280 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles

Recent update of the classic Hollywood cocktail lounge had to include a patio, and this sidewalk terrace is fantastic for people-watching on the Sunset Strip. Plus, half-price drinks from 6 to 8 p.m.

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Cat and Fiddle

6530 W. Sunset Blvd.,

Los Angeles

Huge courtyard serves great beer by the pint, British food (sausage rolls, fish and chips) and is a favorite for a young casual crowd who want a kick-back atmosphere, as well as a smattering of ex-pats.

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Red Lion Tavern

2366 Glendale Ave., Silver Lake

German beer garden attracts trendy Silver Lake types -- plus comely waitresses in full-regalia German-style dirndls.

Bar Marmont

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8171 Sunset Blvd.,

West Hollywood

Outdoor seating right off the entrance, so you can keep an eye on who’s coming and going while sipping one of their world-famous chocolate raspberry martinis.

Buffalo Club

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1520 Olympic Blvd, Santa Monica

A secret garden tucked away in a neighborhood of industrial buildings. Who knew? $10 cover on weekends to dance to cover bands or DJs who play music you can recognize.

Arsenal

12012 W. Pico Blvd., Santa Monica

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On the Westside, it doesn’t get much hipper than the newly revamped Arsenal, and comfy loveseats on the patio invite fly boys and girls to get a little closer under the stars.

Viceroy

1819 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica

On weekends, this posh patio simply heaves with hotties, heavyweights and high rollers. Feeling flush? $500 gets you your own private cabana.

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Summit House

2000 E. Bastanchury Road,

Fullerton

High on a hill with a panoramic view of city lights at night and mountains during the day.

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Terrace Cafe

425 S. Pacific Coast Highway,

Laguna Beach.

In a town filled with patios, the Terrace Cafe at the Hotel Laguna remains a favorite with its two-tiered patio and expansive ocean view.

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Julia Gaynor can be contacted at weekend@latimes.com.


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