"Hookah bars?" my father said incredulously, when I announced I was going to write a story on the subject. "No -- women don't go to hookah bars."
His reaction was predictable, at least to me. At 60 years old, he's spent more than half of his life living in and traveling around United Arab Emirates, Syria and Iran, places where hookah pipes (also known as shishas, narghiles, or hubble-bubbles) have been primarily smoked by men for hundreds of years.
"It's different here," I countered.
He seemed unconvinced. We made a deal: I would write my story. He would go with me to the bars.
Armed with a list of local spots, we began our quest. Upon entering Prince Cafe on Prospect Street in Georgetown, my father looked surprised. I was relieved: The noisy, vibrant bar was filled with dozens of men -- and just as many women. "It's so different here," said my father. "I've never seen this in my travels."
As we continued our journey, I learned more about what had initially struck me as an exotic pastime. Sure, hookah bars tend to be boisterous at night, with many offering live music and belly dancing. But those that open up during the day are quiet, even peaceful, retreats. Some customers are smokers, yes, but many others aren't: They come to play cards, work on their laptops or just sit back and enjoy leisurely conversations.
What makes hookahs different from any old pipe is the flavoring. The tobacco isn't flavored, but the molasses that's added before you light up can taste like anything from apples to chocolate. On a less appetizing note, some folks believe that because a hookah pipe filters tobacco through water, it's more healthy than smoking cigarettes. That's a myth -- according to the American Cancer Society, several types of cancer have been linked to hookah smoking.
Perhaps that's why my father seemed alarmed when I ended our adventure by buying my very own hookah at Al Nakheel (334 Maple Ave. W., Vienna, 703-938-4220), a Middle Eastern store that sells them along with prepared foods and meats. There, I purchased a small pipe with a beautiful base crafted from blue glass. "You're not going to smoke, are you?" my father asked, surprised. No, I wasn't -- I just wanted a souvenir of this father-daughter adventure.
Alf Laylah. This restaurant, whose name translates to "thousand nights," opened in Chantilly nine months ago. Palestinian-born owner Sam Ayesh has created a cozy space that includes a small dance floor, traditional floor seating with pillows and a mural of a village scene by a local Egyptian artist. On weekdays, it's packed with regulars playing backgammon and cards; on weekends, there's belly dancing and live jazz. Fifteen flavors of tobacco ($9 each) are offered, including apricot, mango and mint. 13975 Metrotech Dr., Chantilly. 703-378-6677.
Chi Cha Lounge. Hookahs aren't the exclusive provenance of Middle Eastern restaurants. Case in point? Chi-Cha, owned by Ecuadorian Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld and named for a drink consumed by the Incas. The swanky spot offers a full tapas menu, plus hookah pipes ($20 each); flavors include grape, strawberry and orange. Live Brazilian, Latin, Moroccan and Flamenco music will have you tapping your feet, while ornate beaded chandeliers and tiny candles make the space as fashionable as it is comfortable. 1624 U St. NW. 202-234-8400.
Lebnan Zaman. This spot offers Lebanese-style fast food and hookahs ($8.95 each) in the evenings. That's proven to be a winning combination for its bevy of regulars -- men and women of mostly-Middle Eastern descent -- who congregate on the outside patio to chat or inside to surf the Web over plates of falafel and chicken shwarma. 8411 Old Courthouse Rd., Vienna. 703-748-1400.
Prince Cafe. This local restaurant chain serves up Middle Eastern, Indian and Pakistani dishes to a trendy crowd (if you're not wearing designer denim, you may feel out of place). All the locations remain open until 4 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday and until 6 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. More than twenty flavors of tobacco are offered, ranging from cappuccino to peach ($8.95 each). The Prince Palace (part of the cafe at the Wisconsin Avenue address) also has belly dancing nightly during dinner and a late-night show with live music on Fridays and Saturdays. 3205 Prospect St. NW, 202-625-6400; 1042 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-333-1500; 4629 41st St. NW, 202-362-0080; 8145-A Baltimore Ave., College Park, 301-513-0800; 3821-D S. George Mason Dr., Falls Church, 703-931-8200. www.cafeprince.com.