For years, Zeeba Lounge has been in a league of its own.
When it debuted in 2004, it was Baltimore's first hookah bar. Even though a handful of other hookah bars have sprung up around town, Zeeba is still the city's swankiest spot for puffing flavored tobacco through big glass water pipes. And it's indisputably in demand: On Friday and Saturday nights, lines routinely snake out the door and onto the sidewalk.
A few years back, a hookah bar called Three Kings of Egypt opened right across Light Street from Zeeba. Three Kings put substance over style: The hookahs were inexpensive but the decor was low-rent. Three Kings felt more like a deli or carryout than a fancy lounge - which was fine if you wanted a cheap, low-key place to relax. It was more of an alternative to Zeeba, not a competitor.
A couple of months ago, Three Kings became Arabian Nights, a more upscale hookah lounge that's clearly gunning for the Zeeba crowd. Ladies and gentleman, a hookah bar fight has begun. In one corner, we have the scruffy upstart, hungry for victory. In the other, the undefeated champion.
The only way to fairly gauge the two is to hit them both on the same night. And that is exactly what we did. Last Friday, my fiancee, Amie, a couple of friends and I bounced back and forth between both of South Baltimore's hookah bars. And, after a rocky little saga, we have a winner. But first, the back story.
We knew ahead of time that you can bring your own wine, beer or liquor into Zeeba Lounge. You're charged a fee for drinking there, but it's reasonable: $1 for each beer and $8 for a bottle of wine or liquor. So if you buy a six-pack of something decent (say, Yuengling) and drink it there, you're still going to be paying less than you would at a bar.
But when we arrived at Zeeba at about 10:30 p.m., the bouncer told us it would be 30-45 minutes before we could get a table. Bah, we thought, and I went across the street to see what the deal was at Arabian Nights. The gentleman standing outside Arabian Nights introduced himself as the owner and told me not only did he have one table of four open, he only charged $10 for all four of us to bring in our own beer and wine. Score!
Sure enough, we nabbed the last open table inside Arabian Nights. The tables there are low to the ground and surrounded by cozy black couches and ottomans, and a black scrim hanging from the ceiling separates the lounge from the kitchen. It's fancier than Three Kings, but still not as nice as Zeeba Lounge. Call it a slick imitation Zeeba Lounge. One complaint: Arabian Nights feels cluttered by all the furniture, and there's not much room to move around when all the tables are full.
Arabian Nights has the bigger selection of shisha, the name for the flavored tobacco smoked with hookahs. We settled on mint chocolate ($15), which cost a couple of bucks more than other choices, but tasted divine. Some people at the table next to ours ordered hummus, and it looked so appetizing we asked our server for some. It was scrumptious.
After we'd smoked the shisha and eaten the hummus, we left Arabian Nights satisfied and strolled across the street to Zeeba Lounge. Again, the bouncer told us it would take 30 minutes to get a table. We decided to stick it out, and ended up sitting at a table outside for about 20 minutes before inside seating was ready.
The owners of Zeeba Lounge know better than to change a good thing. With the rugs on the walls, plush couches and ottomans and small, round tables, Zeeba Lounge looks largely the same as it did when it opened four years ago. You can unwind in a corner with some friends or get up and dance if you want.
We ordered a hookah with double apple-flavored shisha, which cost $12 and came quickly. We smoked it for a while, then asked for our check. That's when the trouble started.
Our server told us the check would be $40, not $12. Turns out, Zeeba has a $10 minimum per person policy. Our server showed us the notice on the menu, and said it was also posted outside the front door. She was right - there are 12 signs on the front of Zeeba Lounge, and two of them state this policy. We missed them both, and that was our fault.
However, if you're going to make people pay at least $10 just to sit down inside your lounge, you owe them the courtesy of telling them this before they order anything. Right when we sat down, our server should have said, "Just so you know, there is a $10 charge per person, so keep that in mind when you order." Or, the lounge could do away with this impudent fee and make patrons pay a cover charge instead.
We were outraged. Our server flagged down a manager, who wrangled with us for a few minutes. Finally, to get us off his hands, he agreed to only charge us for the hookah. We left $12 on the table and walked out.
We got about a block before the bouncer chased us down, bill in hand. Turns out, we forgot to pay the 72-cent tax on our hookah. The place sent a bouncer after us for 72 cents. Sigh.
On our way home, we contemplated the evening spent at rival hookah bars. Arabian Nights needed more elbow room and better wall dressings. The shisha there cost more but tasted better. The fee for drinking alcohol inside better suited our party of four. And the service was decent.
Zeeba Lounge had far better decor, slightly less of a shisha selection and a higher per-bottle fee for drinking alcohol inside. The service was good, but that $10 per person minimum is ludicrous.
I now pronounce Arabian Nights the winner - of this round.
There's no doubt, Arabian Nights has promise. Now, let's see if the city's newest hookah bar will give Zeeba Lounge a run for its money, or go up in smoke like its predecessors.
if you go
Zeeba Lounge is at 916 Light St. Hours are
6 p.m.-midnight Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and 6 p.m.-4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Call 410-539-7900 or go to zeebalounge.com.
Arabian Nights is at 1027 Light St.