Sheesha cafés in London

Wafting way beyond the Edgware Road as far as Clapham and the Trocadero centre, Middle Eastern sheesha café culture has become a London addiction. But how will booming bubble-pipe businesses beat next year‘s ban on smoking in public? Time Out investigates.

  • Five London lounges where you can get happy with a hookah

    As if the competition posed by cheap six-packs from the supermarket or the profits to be made by converting failing locals into flats weren’t bad enough, it seems traditional London pubs face another threat: the sheesha. Also known as the hookah, nargileh or hubble bubble, Middle Eastern-style sheesha cafés and lounges have been spreading not just throughout London but across the UK. Where once the sheesha was limited to a handful of expat-Arab coffee shops on the Edgware Road, they’ve now reached as far afield as Glasgow and Guernsey. There’s even a sheesha lounge at the Sheraton Skyline Hotel at Heathrow.

    At Mamounia Lounge on Queensway, a twinkly Oriental den of soft cushions, rug-covered walls and filigree lanterns, sandwiched between parties of Middle Eastern gents are Simon and Amar, two English schoolboys, both aged 17. ‘We don’t like going to the pub,’ says Simon, ‘because it can be a bit edgy and full of people getting pissed.’ A sheesha café, they reckon, is much more appealing. They are regulars, visiting every couple of weeks, either as a prelude to a night out or as a post-pub or club wind-down. ‘You come here with four or five mates and you share a sheesha and just chat.’ Amar says his parents would go spare if he smoked cigarettes, but they don’t mind him smoking sheesha. He’s bought his own pipe, as have several of his school friends, and they take them to the park for a group session. ‘It’s really relaxing,’ he says, ‘like having a sauna or a massage.’

    If you’ve never smoked a sheesha, it’s a lot less harsh than cigarettes. The tobacco sits in a little clay pot on top of the pipe, covered with a piece of tinfoil on which pieces of glowing charcoal are placed. When you suck at the pipe, air is drawn through the charcoal, becoming hot and causing the tobacco to give off smoke. The smoke is drawn down to swirl around a glass chamber where it’s cooled by the water that fills the bottom. Traditionally the tobacco is sweetened and moistened with honey or molasses – this is the mix that’s smoked throughout the Middle East, and particularly in Cairo, the sheesha-smoking capital of the world.

    Back in the 1980s Egyptian tobacco companies began experimenting with fruit additives as a way of appealing to women and the youth market; now, in a smokers’ version of alcopops, sheesha comes in all kinds of flavours from the relatively pleasant apple, cherry and mint to the frankly nauseating raspberry, cappuccino and rum-and-raisin. Places like Dar Marrakesh, the gigantic, youth-oriented sheesha lounge in the West End’s Trocadero, don’t even sell the plain molasses-tobacco mix (known as zaghloul or salloum) because, according to manager Kemal Copkungoy, it’s just too pungent and you can’t get the smell out of the room.

    But of course, tobacco smoking is not what sheeshas were originally invented for, as examples of water pipes in art and archaeology predate the discovery of the pernicious weed. Back then, flavours were one of two: opium or hashish (remember the Caterpillar in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’?). David Lodge was just adhering to tradition, then, when at Clapham North’s Café Cairo from 1996 until just three years ago he provided sheeshas and a tented chill-out space for customers who brought their own grass. Interviewed in 2002, Lodge said, ‘I suppose I could be busted at any time, but somehow it never happens. I can only think that the police have an order from on high that we should stay open. I think they probably view us as a kind of experiment.’ The experiment has now ended: Café Cairo still does sheesha, but it’s strictly fruit and herbal.

    Lodge, who used to run festival chill-out tents before settling on Landor Road, SW9, can claim to be the first non-Arab to open a sheesha café in London. However, the man who really took up the pipe and ran with it is Keri Remes, who runs a business called High-Life Hookahs ( In 2001 he returned from a spell as a diving instructor in Egypt with a bag full of trinkets that he attempted to flog from a Camden Market stall. At the end of the first day he’d sold precisely one item when a bloke asked if he had any sheesha pipes. As it happened, he had five at home so he took them to the market the next day and easily sold the lot. He now imports and distributes a range of custom-made pipes and sells about 3,000 a year – and business is growing all the time.

    But the big question for Remes and his customers is: will it all go up in a big puff of smoke when the public ban on smoking comes into effect in June 2007? The Department of Health defines smoking as ‘Being in possession of lighted tobacco or any other substance in a form in which it can be smoked’, which is pretty unambiguous in its phrasing and would definitely seem to put the dampener on the sheesha. Given that many cafés around Edgware Road and Queensway rely almost exclusively on smoking for their income, this has some serious implications. ‘It will kill their businesses,’ says Ibrahim El Nour, chief executive of the Edgware Road Traders Association. He is heading a campaign lobbying the House of Lords in an attempt to get sheesha exempted from the new regulations. ‘Many members of the Muslim community don’t like their children to frequent bars and nightclubs. Sheesha cafés provide a safe alternative.’ Advertisement

    Five London lounges where you can get happy with a hookah

    Café Cairo

    It opened as an Amsterdam-style coffee shop back in 1996, but now the only sweet fumes come from fruity tobaccos. However, Café Cairo’s still unusual for being a proper bar with draught beer and cocktails and for offering sheesha at just £5 – about half of what you pay at most other places. The decor remains totally trippy – The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers do the souk.Café Cairo, 88 Landor Rd, SW9 9PB (020 7771 1201) Clapham North tube. Open daily 6-11pm.

    Dar Marrakesh

    Where the keffiyeh meets the hoody – the off-Leicester Square location means that the crowd is half Middle Eastern, half East End. The place is vast, the music loud, the atmosphere shouty and brash. But it is hugely successful. We’re told the owner (who got his start-up money through a Lottery win) is looking for a new site at Canary Wharf.Dar Marrakesh, Trocadero, Rupert St, W1D 7DH (020 7287 0479) Piccadilly Circus tube. Open Mon-Thur, Sun 10am-12midnight; Fri, Sat 10am-1am.

    Mamounia Lounge

    Situated at the Hyde Park end of Queensway, Mamounia Lounge is Moroccan-owned and it shows – the place looks like a Marrakesh carpet merchant’s lair. It’s very relaxed, though, with a colourful mix of burly African businessmen, holidaying Gulf Arabs and cute Lebanese teens.Mamounia Lounge, 8 Queensway, W2 3RX (020 7221 0202) Queensway tube. Open daily until 1am .

    Mô Tearoom

    The sheesha tent that used to sit incongruously across from the Alexander McQueen concession at Selfridges is now gone, but this annexe to Momo’s original restaurant is still a hot destination, especially on a warm evening when smokers can spill out on to Heddon Street. Food includes North African-style salads and pastries; to drink there are fruity cocktails laced with spices.
    Mô Tearoom, 25 Heddon St, W1B 4BH (020 7434 4040) Oxford Circus or Piccadilly Circus tube. Open daily 12noon-11pm.

    Al Shishaw

    A vast Egyptian-style ahwa (coffee shop) with an incredibly OTT interior of mother-of-pearl and coloured stone. Al Shishaw has a pull-down big screen and risks riots twice or more each year when Ahli play Zamalek (Cairo’s two top football teams). Very much of the old school – for intrepid sheesha-smokers only.Al Shishaw, 51-53 Edgware Rd, W2 2HZ (020 7262 6212) Marble Arch tube. Open Mon-Thur 5am-1am; Fri, Sat 24 hrs; Sun 5am-12midnight.