It seemed like the 1980s. About a dozen people sitting in a lounge, talking quietly, drinking beer and smoking excellent cigars.

The Calabash Cigar Cafe, 425 Western Ave., South Portland — in the same shopping plaza as Staples and Burlington Coat Factory — is the only public place in Maine where you can smoke a cigar, drink a beer and even have a meal.

Ali Bahmani, the owner of Calabash, said he is exempt from the 2004 Maine law banning smoking in bars. That is because Calabash is a cigar shop that is allowed to sell beer and wine as well as food, and is not a bar.

Bahmani said beer and wine sales at Calabash are about 18 percent of his total sales, well under the limit under the law.

“If a customer comes in and buys a box of cigars for $400, he would have to drink a hell of a lot of beer to equal that,” Bahmani said.

And the cigars dominate more than the sales of the beer. To the left, as soon as you walk in, is a room-sized humidor, kept at the proper temperature and humidity to keep cigars fresh. For the rare cigar smoker like me — usually only north of or within walking distance of U.S. Route 2 while fishing or camping — the humidor was rather daunting; there were hundreds of choices.

But with help, I came away with a Churchill-style cigar by Kristoff, which was excellent.

The shop is small, Bahmani said, because it has to be less than 2,000 square feet to meet the smoke-shop exemption to the law. But the smoking area includes a leather couch and several tables with excellent chairs. The front of the shop includes a bar and cash register.

Bahmani carefully selects his beers — except for the ubiquitous Budweiser and Miller — to be local and strongly flavored enough to stand up to cigar smoke.

“I would say that 80 percent to 90 percent of my beers are local,” Bahmani said. “I deal a lot with Allagash and Kai Adams at Sebago, and they bring me all of their new stuff that would match well with the cigars.”

He also enjoys matching the color of the cigars to the color of the beer, just for the visual appeal.

The limited space limits the number of kegs Calabash has. The night before I went, the Allagash Curieux keg had emptied, and he hadn’t received a new delivery.

I went with Sebago’s Hell Awaits Porter, strongly flavored and slightly sweet, and strong enough to stand up to cigar smoke. I had had some Hell Awaits at the Portland Brewers Festival, and loved it then.

Before the law prohibiting smoking in bars took effect, Calabash also sold distilled liquors. But selling hard liquor would have made Calabash a lounge under the law, and cigars would not have been allowed.

Calabash is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — closing earlier than most places that serve beer and wine — but that is, again, because it is mostly a cigar shop.

“I have to set up my hours according to this plaza, and that is 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.,” Bahmani said. “And I can’t pick up the store and move it because of the exemption.”

He did say, though, that if people have come in and are enjoying their cigars and some beer, he will stay open until 10 or 10:30 p.m. so they can finish.

Serious cigar smokers can join a Calabash Cigar Club. They will get a discount on all cigars purchased there, and they can store them free in Calabash humidors. The store also sells humidors and other cigar paraphernalia.

Maybe the opening line about going back to a 1980s bar was inaccurate. Maybe it is a 1950s men’s club.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

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