Burning to open

City’s first hookah lounge offers unique experience, but encounters delays

Josh Pennell Josh.pennell@thetelegram.com
Published on July 8, 2014
Mohamad El Bakri of Aladdin’s Hookah Lounge sits at a booth in his business with a hookah. El Bakri’s business will be the first and only hookah lounge in the province. — Photo by Josh Pennell/The Telegram

Perhaps the hardest thing for people to get past with hookah bars is the thought of them being like some ancient opium den where the only thing shadier than the lighting of the place is the characters who hang out there. But as the owner of the province’s first hookah lounge tells The Telegram, these places are all about community.

Aladdin’s Hookah Lounge on Water Street is very much a legal operation and is very much ready to open. It’s also been delayed from doing so.

Mohamad El Bakri is the co-owner of the business with his friend, Tareq Yousef. El Bakri came here seven years ago to attend school and had the idea for a hookah bar since then. From Palestine, El Bakri says where he comes from every neighbourhood has a hookah lounge.

 Like a coffee shop

“It’s like the hangout place, you know. That’s where people from different kinds of ages and different kinds of interests hang out. It’s like going to a coffee shop with the addition of the hookah and the atmosphere,” he says.

That atmosphere doesn’t involve alcohol, but a selection of hot and cold beverages. This city’s hookah hot spot will include offerings of Turkish coffee, Arabian tea and some Middle Eastern desserts.

Then, of course, there’s the hookah itself — an aromatic and flavoured herbal-based tobacco smoked through an apparatus where the smoke passes through a water chamber.

“The smoke is not really like smoke. It’s more like water vapour. So it doesn’t stink. It doesn’t stick to you. It smells good. It tastes good. It comes in different flavours,” says El Bakri.

El Bakri plans to have 10 or more flavours available. For $14.95 you come in and purchase a hookah which may be shared. That will last a good hour or more, he says. If a refill on the herb is wanted, it will be cheaper than the initial order. If a pair comes in and splits a hookah and has a beverage and a dessert, they’ll lay down $20, he says. Smoking a hookah does give a bit of a “buzz”, says El Bakri, but it’s not a high. It’s similar to the buzz somebody might get from a cigarette or cigar. So the experience is a unique blend of aromas from the hookah, beverages and desserts — a place where people of various ages and backgrounds collect, relax and converse.

“You put all these things together and you have a different experience that’s not comparable to anything else,” says El Bakri.

It’s a different experience and it’s becoming widespread in parts of Canada. The business duo have installed a top-shelf ventilation system, but El Bakri swears even without it the smoke wouldn’t linger in the lounge. The hookah lounge is for people who aren’t even into the hookah, he says.

“You’re not going to walk in and see a cloud of fog.”

People who know what it is are anxious to see it open and people who are unsure are still curious. For those who don’t know what it is or may have a false impression of it being illegal, El Bakri and Yousef have met the falsehood head on.

“We just take the time to explain to them what it is and we offer them to try it,” El Bakri says. “The feedback we’ve been getting is great.”

In the meantime, weeks of potential sales have been going up in smoke and not at all in the way the pair had hoped. Their lounge is fully decorated and ready to go, but El Bakri says there are some other things the city wants done to the building before they can open. They’re just waiting to hear what they are so they can get them done, but as of now the city hasn’t communicated exactly what the issue is. The Telegram contacted city hall but there was no response as of deadline.

El Bakri is telling customers to keep an eye on the Facebook page for Aladdin’s Hookah Lounge for when the opening date will be. It will likely be very short notice because as soon as they get word from the city, they plan on having the requests done very quickly. Meanwhile, even if the opening date has turned out to be something of a slow burn, El Bakri is keeping a very clear focus on his hookah future.

“Things are looking bright,” he says.