We’ve all felt it—that delicious moment of exhilaration and relief when a pandemic-shuttered favorite spot reopens. So it was with Smoke, the classic jazz club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which began welcoming patrons again this past summer after being closed for more than two years.
In this case, I had that other feeling too: apprehension over whether the nightspot would live up to my memories. During the dark times, Smoke announced it was going to expand when it reopened, and I was concerned that growth might conflict with its intimate setting, terrific music and the warm camaraderie of fellow jazz enthusiasts and happily surprised tourists from all over the globe.
I needn’t have worried. When it comes to Smoke, more is more. The original venue, which could accommodate just 40 people between its closely packed tables and bar, left barely enough room for the musicians to strut their stuff on a small stage, and the tight environs meant that the sounds of cocktail-making and -shaking, as well as of friends yammering, often fused uncomfortably with the music. Paul Stache and Molly Johnson, the couple who own Smoke and met there during its early years—it opened in 1999—have taken a gamble by doubling the seating capacity of what they call the club’s Listening Room and separating it from the bar and lounge area. The remodel has been well worth the effort.
Sets on many nights have been sold out, starting with their very first musician at the expanded club. That performer was very same saxophone giant who opened Smoke 23 years ago: George Coleman, now 87 and even more of a legend. “George let us know that he would be ready whenever we were,” says Stache. He didn’t disappoint.
The lounge area is where the old jazz room used to be, but now without a stage and with plenty of room to move about. The long wooden bar is also exactly where it has been for decades (including in Smoke’s predecessor, a jazz club/dive bar called Augie’s). The bathroom, which guests formerly had to muscle to get to between bar patrons and the tables, is also where it was, but now there’s plenty of room to reach it or the new ADA-compliant bathroom built as part of the expansion. The Listening Room is actually in the building next door, separated from the lounge by a thick structural wall that nonetheless has a generous opening, allowing patrons to move easily between the spaces; the wall shields performers and clubgoers from intrusive bar sounds and conversation. Patrons who arrive early or between sets can hang out at the bar until their tables are ready, and the bar remains open during sets for those who want to enjoy a drink or order from the small but well-curated menu, with appetizers such as autumn kale salad or jumbo shrimp cocktail, and entrées that include a perfectly cooked Faroe Island salmon and flavorful braised short ribs. (Tiramisu for dessert, anyone?) There’s also a good chance that one of the musicians may stop at the bar to schmooze with fans and friends between sets.
For now, Smoke is closed Monday and Tuesday. The lounge is open 5pm to midnight Wednesday through Sunday. Seating in the Listening Room begins at 5pm, with sets at 7pm and 9pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and a 10:30pm set is added on Fridays and Saturdays. Typically, the weekly featured artist plays Thursdays through Sundays with a separate artist booked on Wednesday nights.
Smoke rejoins a burgeoning jazz club scene in Manhattan, but it is an anomaly on the Upper West Side. Classic older joints like the historic Village Vanguard, the Blue Note and Smalls are all in Greenwich Village, and Birdland, on West 44th Street off Broadway in the Theatre District, migrated there from a large restaurant space next door to Smoke in 1999. (The restaurant now in that spot is called The Ellington, evoking the memory of jazz giant Duke Ellington, who once owned homes on Riverside Drive near West 106th Street, the block that has been renamed in his honor.)
Advance ticket purchases for Smoke are recommended and can be purchased through the club’s website, which also has a calendar listing upcoming artists.
Peter Slatin is an accessibility consultant, jazz aficionado and one of Smoke’s longtime regulars. To see the club’s weekly schedule, visit smokejazz.com.