Two years on from the smoking ban, licensees have used ingenuity and creativity to create welcoming shelters for customers that want to light up. Emma White takes a look.
It seems clear by the ominously dark clouds in the sky and the rain slashing round my ankles every time I venture outside that summer is well and truly over. As the autumn sets in it'll become increasingly common to see small groups of people huddled together outside pubs, bars and restaurants. They will, of course, be indulging in a cheeky fag, post smoking ban.
It seems clear, whatever the original objections, that the ban is here to stay, but so too are smokers, so rather than making them feel like social pariahs, some establishments have used ingenuity and creativity to satisfy these two opposing needs.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of smoking areas created by licensees determined to look after their smoking customers following the 2007 ban. "There's nowhere else like the Secret Garden smoking area in Edinburgh. You're outside but you feel like you're inside," says Jenny Halliday, marketing manager at the Hawke and Hunter bar and restaurant.
Opened nearly a year ago, the heated room is set behind the main town house building and features a bar, a scattering of cushioned seating areas, wooden flooring, music pumped through from the main bar, occasional live bands and dramatic lighting at night. The centre piece - three extraordinary high-backed wicker chairs positioned around a low-set round table - can be interpreted in different ways, much like a Rorschach ink blot test. Is it an open seed pod in the Secret Garden or perhaps just a lost spaceship from Star Trek?
The British Beer and Pub Association's stance on the issue is clear. "Providing an attractive space for smokers is something all pubs should be doing," says communications manager Neil Williams. "Pubs have invested £100m on outside smoking areas since the ban. We always said many would close but it is also true that those that have adapted by focusing on food, changing their opening hours, offering afternoon tea, internet access and, of course, improved smoking areas, have been insulated from the effects," he adds.
Cigar culture has always been big business. At London's Lanesborough hotel, which offers over a hundred different cigars - including one Cuban variety, a Cohiba Behike, costing a cool £1,500 a stick - it was imperative that it quickly adapted to the ban.
Bring forward the splendid Garden Room, set just below ground level on Hyde Park Corner. In true why-have-cotton-when-you-can-have-silk style, the management created a cosy, heated wood-panelled room with custom-made leather furniture, carpeting, soft lighting and music. An open fire, flowers, bar and pashminas for the ladies complete the fit-out.
"Our customers want to sit down for a good hour to smoke their cigars so it was important to get it right," says executive assistant manager Ajaz Sheikh. "Guests have been known to transfer from other London hotels to the Lanesborough on the strength of our smoking area," he adds.
Hotel chain Hotel du Vin also caters for its cigar-smoking clientele with "Cigar Shacks", located in the gardens of several sites across the country. The sociable, cosy wooden structures have under-floor heating, warm air curtains and plasma gas fires. "The huts are intended to continue the feel of the hotel with antique tables and leather armchairs. Residents use them to smoke in or just to relax, read a paper or sip a coffee," says Matt Strawford, deputy general manager at Hotel du Vin in York.
In Worcestershire, the smoking shelter at the four-star Dormy House hotel has a Danish feel to reflect the heritage of owner Philip Sorensen. With views over the putting and croquet green, it has heaters, music, dimmable lighting and blankets from Denmark.
Fun combined with practicality is clearly the name of the smoking shelter game at Geronimo Inns' London pubs. The group's Prince Albert pub in Battersea sports design-led, space-saving wicker furniture, large umbrellas and heaters, while the Eagle in Shepherd's Bush has lined its gardens with train set-style carriages with swinging wooden chairs and green canopies.
Jo Clevely, design director and wife of Geronimo's owner, Rupert, said the outside areas are designed to appeal to smokers and non-smokers alike. "I don't think smokers should be made to feel like criminals," she says, adding: "Social smokers have evolved because of the ban. They pop outside for a cigarette and a quick chat and then they return inside for a drink."
David Cowham, owner of the Clarendon pub in Hertfordshire, agrees that smokers deserve respect. "I was sick of smokers being classed as vermin so I invested in a quality shelter rather than half an oil drum with some crappy umbrella. It even has an intercom buzzer so that guests can order drinks straight from the bar," he says.
The traditional brick-built shelter features velour, corduroy-covered bench seating, music, overhead heaters hung from beams and an open wood-burning fire.
"We've had a huge number of compliments - even to the point that non-smokers sit in the shelter and wonder why other guests are lighting up," he laughs.