CLEARWATER — In 1993, architect David Spears designed his first hookah bar in Chicago.
"Back then, most people didn't have a clue about what a hookah bar was," says Spears, 56. "They thought it was something about drugs."
There is something mysterious and exotic about the strangely shaped device sometimes associated with hashish smokers and dark dens. And one can't help but wonder why that hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland was such an odd shade of blue.
But Spears, who has designed 14 hookah lounges in the Chicago area, said his new establishment, Mr. Hookah, at 801 Cleveland St. in downtown Clearwater, is an upscale place — one you could bring grandma to.
"I am the only hookah lounge serving families," he says. "The others, you get the feeling of illegal."
All ages are admitted, but smokers must be 18. No alcohol is served. The menu options include smoothies, non-alcoholic beers, fresh juice, special coffees and herbal teas, cooler drinks and cake slices.
There's even a dress code for men: no flip flops, sleeveless shirts, baggy attire, tank tops or hats.
In the tidy kitchen are about 40 varieties of hookah tobacco with flavors that include blueberry, citrus mint, jasmine, guava, melon and rose. Hookah tobacco is made from the leaves of the fragrant trees and bushes, then mixed with tobacco and glycerin, Spears said.
"This is not traditional tobacco," he said. "They call it tobacco because it is smoked like tobacco."
Prices range from $10 to $30 for a smoking session.
On its website, the American Lung Association warns users not to assume that hookah smoking is any safer than cigarette smoking. Since a typical hookah session lasts 40 to 45 minutes, versus a few minutes for a cigarette, exposure to dangerous chemicals may be increased with hookah use, the site says.
Spears has a disclaimer on his menu that reads: Hookah pipes are not a safe alternative to cigarette smoke.
Spears hails from Egypt, where he started smoking at age 9. Hookah cafes are popular there. The ancient tradition of hookah smoking began in India and Persia centuries ago.
With a hookah, also known as a water pipe or "hubbly bubbly," flavored tobacco is heated with a hot coal. The smoke is cooled as it passes through water and into a flexible tube.
Spears' hookahs "are built specially for me in Egypt — my own design," he said. "They are stainless steel welded with silver so they never rust. The other kinds, they are made in China."
He said his hoses, unlike others made of plastic, come from goat skins, just like they did hundreds of years ago. "Plastic affects the flavor," he said.
And, he says, not only are the hookahs washed carefully after every use, but the tobacco is washed too for a smoother taste.
"It's how we do it in my country," he said.
Mr. Hookah is on the corner of Cleveland and Myrtle Avenue in a space previously occupied by a coffee shop and car rental business. Inside, it is well-decorated with cozy groupings of upholstered couches and chairs. A few fake tigers mill about the room.
Geri Campos Lopez, Clearwater's director of economic development, said the Mr. Hookah lounge is a welcome addition to the Cleveland Street District.
"It brings in the 20- and 30-year-olds," she said. "It adds a diverse element, which we're happy about since many of our events tend to attract young families and baby boomers."
Rachel Hinson, 21, and Tanner Budda, 20, both of Panama City, were recently celebrating her 21st birthday and looking for something new to try when they spotted Mr. Hookah.
"We saw another one on the way here that looked dingy, but this place is really nice," she said.
They chose the watermelon flavor of tobacco. They inhaled. They blew smoke bubbles with a special wand and then popped them with their hands.
When manager Ashley Love brought them a lighted piece of birthday cake, Hinson blew out the candle with a large plume of smoke, just like a dragon.
"This is a relaxing way to spend a birthday," she said. "I like the flavor. It's all good."