“‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.
“This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.”
It seems to be a perfectly encouraging opening for an article, however, particularly one on the growing (if still somewhat underground) fad that seems to be popping up near college campuses in Denver and across America: The hookah bar.
I’m fairly convinced that the Caterpillar in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was smoking opium (Carroll never specified what exactly was in the hookah), but hookah bars in America serve shisha — it’s a perfectly legal, non-narcotic blend of tobacco and dried fruit, often with other sweeteners like honey, sugar or molasses, and it comes in a variety of flavors: mango, peach, rose, jasmine, apple or cedar, as well as dozens more.
The shisha is smoked from a hookah (also known as a water pipe) with one or more hoses attached; it’s not uncommon to see four or five people sharing one hookah in the middle of a table. Smoking a hookah seems to be more about who you smoke with than actually smoking; it’s about friendship and sharing a table more than the buzz (and, yes, there is a sizeable, mellowing buzz).
Hookah bars are especially popular with the college crowd — those old enough to smoke but too young to socialize at a bar — but there’s no age ceiling. So, I called a friend, Chase, and we set off to check out a few of Denver’s hookah bars, just to see what the buzz is all about.
When we walked into the Hookah Cafe near Wash Park on South Downing Street, a group of Middle Eastern friends was sitting to one side of the door. One, from Israel, was a friend of a friend; a couple of girls were the only other customers. A hookah sat on the floor next to the girls’ table, and at one point during the meal I watched them flip through the pages of a Bible.
Ahmed Khodr, the owner, sat down at the table with us after bringing a couple mugs of sweet tea. He was an incredibly patient host, taking time to answer our questions about the hookah in his heavily accented English. Originally from Lebanon, he’s been in Colorado four years.
The cafe (really a restaurant that has a full menu of excellent Lebanese cuisine) had less than a dozen tables on the pale hardwood floor; matching paneling reached halfway up the walls, which were decorated with framed artwork and hanging rugs. An American flag hung near the entrance to the kitchen; next to it the flag of Lebanon.
We ordered a hookah with a mixture of peach and melon shisha. The atmosphere was quiet and relaxing, with only the low murmur of conversation to listen to (no music here). Hookah Cafe isn’t for rowdy college crowds; come here if you want a comfortable place to kick back and enjoy authentic Lebanese food. And it’s cheap, too: we paid $16 for two gyro sandwiches and a hookah.
Marrakech Cafe on South Colorado Boulevard was an entirely different experience. A sign on the door announced in big letters that customers must be 18 with valid I.D., and it looked as if most of the teenagers barely made the age requirement. The music was loud, huge speakers pumping hip-hop and dance tunes at a volume too loud to talk over; you shout when you’re here. More than a few people stood from their chairs and danced at random moments during the evening.
Chase and I paid $15 for a mango hookah (only a buck less than our meal and hookah at Ahmed’s place) and found a couple of empty seats at a table with an older Middle-Eastern gentleman who sat quietly smoking his hookah. The hookah bar was packed; most of the tables were full, and all of them were pitted with burns from the coals.
Marrakech looked like a converted deli with dingy white walls and a scuffed linoleum tile floor. A sword hung on one of the sparsely-decorated walls, as well as a few pieces of artwork.
Marrakech draws a different crowd than Ahmed’s Hookah Cafe: if you’re young and looking for an unpretentious place to listen to popular music like Akon’s “Smack That” at a loud volume with your friends, this is the place for you.
Pita Jungle, near the University of Denver, struck a moderate balance between Marrakech and Hookah Cafe. Long, padded leather benches lined the walls of the spacious restaurant; the terracotta-colored walls were accented with tall, narrow mirrors and high shelves lined with hookahs.
A few groups of as many as eight friends were sharing some hookahs; one girl sat in the corner by herself, reading and smoking; two girls with laptops shared a couch. It’s as much a place to do homework as chill with friends.
Pita Jungle plays hip-hop and Middle-Eastern techno music at a decent level — loud enough to get your toes tapping, but not too loud that you can’t talk over it. I leaned back into the seat, sipping some water while Chase blew smoke rings. The hookahs at Pita Jungle (we went with grape shisha) are $11.99 for up to three people. Pita Jungle also has a full menu of delicious Mediterranean food.
Every hookah bar has a different atmosphere — some strive to be posh clubs with dress codes, others are restaurants where you have to order dinner to get a hookah — but whatever you’re looking for, there’s probably a hookah bar you’ll enjoy.
If You Go
Hookah Cafe, 270 S. Downing St., Denver (303) 722-4100
Marrakech Cafe, 2266 S. Colorado Blvd., Denver (303) 691-1660
Pita Jungle, 2017 S. University Blvd., Denver (720) 570-1900
Other Colorado Hookah Bars include:
Aladdin Cafe and Grill, 2594 S. Colorado Blvd., Denver (303) 759-9778
Noir Hookah Lounge, 1533 Market St., Denver (303) 893-3655
The Hubbly Bubbly, 16850 E. Mississippi Ave., Aurora (303) 667-7854
Ishtar Hookah, 10310 W. Colfax Ave., Lakewood (303) 274-8219
Narghile Nights, 621 S. College Ave., Fort Collins (970) 484-2530
Algiers, 120½ B W. Laurel St., Fort Collins (970) 495-6722
Hooked on Hookah, 124 E. Cheyenne Rd., Colorado Springs (719) 630-7024
The 40 Thieves Hookah Lounge, 1524 N. Academy Blvd., Colorado Springs (719) 591-8315
Josh Bishop, a native of Michigan, is a graduate of Metropolitan State College of Denver’s journalism program.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.