Nightclubbing: Petra Cafe and Hookah Lounge, a People-Watching (And Bubble) Mecca on South Grand

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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.

A Petra patron blowing a smoke bubble. - Diana Benanti
Diana Benanti
A Petra patron blowing a smoke bubble.

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