Hookah Bar Becomes the 'Anti-Loudoun'

The hookah bar didn't draw the expected Middle Eastern clientele, but the lounge and its waiters have become
The hookah bar didn't draw the expected Middle Eastern clientele, but the lounge and its waiters have become "like a cult thing" to a college-age crowd. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

During their weeks-long winter break, young suburbanites returned home to their Northern Virginia subdivisions after initial forays into college and the world and discovered a new place where they can while away the hours until they leave again.

At the 12-table Shisha Cafe and Lounge in Sterling, a waiter with a Mohawk delivers lemon-drop- or strawberry-flavored tobacco in elaborate brass hookahs, or water pipes, a different deejay spins every night and crowds of college students gather to kick back and chill.

"Coming back from college, Virginia seems kind of uptight and strait-laced and really suburban. This is just the opposite of that," said Matt Greeson, 18, exhaling a cloud of smoke. The Loudoun County High School graduate was back in Reston for the break after his first semester at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

"It's the anti-Loudoun," said his friend Liz Marshall, 18, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

At Shisha, you have to be 18 to order the tobacco and 21 to order alcohol, but you don't have to flash an ID to get in the door. And for many college-age people who have seen all the movies listed on the marquee at the nearby theater and want somewhere to go after hours, it's there or the IHOP.

On a recent Thursday night, a 25-year-old belly dancer known as Asharah, who learned her first moves as a Princeton University student, winds her way up and down the narrow aisle between tables, snaking her arms through the air and eliciting catcalls with her Turkish drop, which takes her from a 90-degree backbend to the floor.

Co-owner Shumon Ahmed greets the stream of young faces at the door oftentimes with hugs and collects cell phone numbers for a long waiting list of people who hope to get in.

"This job is like hosting a party every night," Ahmed said. His professional duties on any given night could include calling an emergency staff meeting if a favorite song by Sublime or another artist comes on so that they can sing along, and responding to waving customers at the corner table, not because they have a complaint, but because they bought him a sake bomb.

Ahmed and his two elder brothers opened the hookah lounge in January 2004, when the tech boom was waning and Shumon, a trained network engineer, was trying to find alternative ways to make a living. The family refinanced its Sterling house to pay for it, and the 760-square-foot cafe became a culmination of their talents. The eldest brother, Palash, an internationally known deejay, set the musical standards; Shimul, a trained chef, came up with the menu of kabobs and meatball sandwiches; and Shumon, a born host, used his skills to turn customers into friends.

The brothers, originally from Bangladesh, thought the hookah bar would be popular with the Middle Eastern communities in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, but something about the jungle rhythms and electronica music didn't resonate with the mostly older men, and the place became a hit with the younger crowd instead.

The first year, the lounge was packed during winter and summer breaks with students who had returned home. But gradually, it began to fill year-round. People from George Mason and George Washington universities and Northern Virginia Community College started coming as word of the new haunt spread by word of mouth and by ether.

One regular customer created a Web page on MySpace.com for Shisha'ites, now a group of 135 members who log on to post pictures from the night before or to rehash adventures from a few hours earlier. "I was there tonighttttt. rawkn it," wrote one Ashburn female identified as LivingItUpIn*OZ*. Her fellow bloggers proceeded to brag about who goes to Shisha most often.

Now the restaurant draws a loyal base of customers from such places as Centreville, McLean and Vienna, and many people have become not just regular customers but somewhat reliant ones who depend on the social outlet Shisha provides.

On Christmas Eve this year, the Ahmeds decided to close the restaurant, thinking it might be a slow night. "I got so many calls on my phone that night," said Shumon Ahmed, each with the same desperate plea: "I've got to get out of the house. I can't hang out with my family any more."

He said he invited everyone over to his Sterling house, where he and Shimul live with their mother. By the end of the night, they had 15 guests playing poker.

With the popularity, tables are hard to come by, and so are jobs. Many who regularly dedicate their evening hours to Shisha vie for positions on staff, which can bring them a certain kind of acclaim, said Johnny Mandracchia, 21, a waiter.

"This girl was checking me out at Abercrombie and Fitch. . . . She came up to me, and she was like, 'You're the guy from Shisha,' " said Mandracchia, who lives with his parents in Purcellville and plays in a metal band called One Bullet Short of a Massacre.

"We're becoming like a cult thing," he said.

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