It's a Tuesday night and we almost can't get a table at Petra Cafe and Hookah Lounge. The patio is full, every bar stool is occupied, and there's not a single empty chair inside. Most of the other bars on South Grand are empty; it's too hot to think, let alone drink. The obliging, apologetic server rustles up some chairs, as a few people leave their still puffing compatriots.
Petra co-owner Mike McDonough says Tuesdays are getting to be as crazy as the weekends. The small establishment has been open about three years, but McDonough and his partner. Emily Ebeling. bought it last November and reopened it a month later with a new look and a decidedly different attitude.
"It's getting like this a lot more," McDonough says. "We spent a lot of time reworking the vibe of this place, my partner and I put a lot of soul into it, and people seem to be pretty receptive to it."
Spray-painted on the wall above the bar is the phrase "We smoke, fuck off," while the walls are lined with subversively beautiful art by local artist and Petra regular, Albert Kuo, who also came up with the most excellent Petra playlist. (On the night we went, Bjork, Massive Attack and the Smiths, with a little world flavor mixed in.)
Petra isn't the only place for hookah on the stretch of Grand between Juniata and Connecticut; The Vine Restaurant and Hookah Lounge is two doors down. Still, McDonough stresses that they don't compete for business. In fact, they look out for each other: When McDonough was closing up shop earlier this week, he saw two men break in to Al Waha and immediately called the police. The men were caught, and McDonough identified one of them in police line-up the next day.
"Ali, the [The Vine] owner is a very good friend of mine," McDonough says. "He wholesales me my tobacco, [and] we have a great relationship. He's a Lebanese Muslim, so it's against his faith to retail any sort of alcohol. He's a restaurant, whereas we're certainly a bar."
McDonough looks out for his customers too. A patron spilled water on her watch (spills are common when you're passing the hookah hose) and McDonough pulled $10 out of his wallet and gave it to her to buy a new one.
Petra has a variety of hookah flavors, including rose, honey, vanilla latte and several house blends. The prices are very reasonable: $10 for a small hookah, $13 for a large. They have a small menu of inexpensive Middle Eastern dishes ($5 for a chicken pita and a mound of hummus) that they serve up to an hour before close, or later if the crowd so desires.
Something that's totally unique to Petra: They give you a cup of bubbles and the top half of a cut off plastic water bottle. Customers dip the open end of the bottle in the bubbles, drag off the hookah and blow the smoke into the bottle top, creating baseball-sized bubbles filled with perfumed smoke that waft above the crowd like crystal balls uninhibited by gravity.
"What I hear, and in my own experience, they're all pretty traditional," McDonough says about other hookah bars in town. "I think we offer something a little more hip and more in touch with young American culture." (In fact, their real claim to fame, according to McDonough, are their popular bi-weekly drag shows on Thursdays.)
Be forewarned, though: Depending on the night, the crowd can trend a little young -- and by young, I mean people born after 1990. Petra is 18 and up, and hookah is a popular alcohol free past-time for those newly minted 18-year-olds. While some nights this may be a drag, on my visit, it was a selling point. The tables of rambunctious teens were more entertaining than television (and, dare I say, way more entertaining than a bar full of beer-addled adults).
At one point, a party bus parked out front to let its inebriated passengers out to smoke cigarettes. They descended on the patio and made friends quickly, and provided us with a solid 45 minutes of uninterrupted amusement. Even if hookah isn't your thing, their patio is prime real estate for al fresco people watching.
Petra Cafe and Hookah Lounge 3177 South Grand Hours: Sunday to Wednesday, 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. Thursday - Saturday, 4pm to 1:30am Events: Tenacious trivia n Mondays, bi-weekly drag shows on Thursdays -- and the venue might be hosting the official after-party of the World Naked Bike Ride in August