Stale Cigarettes

Girl’s Weekend October 2023

In recent years there has been talk about how we’re losing certain words and even accents in our lexicon as language adapts and changes. One thing I hadn’t considered was lost smells, or at least fading smells. Over the last weekend I was in DFW to visit some friends and after we’d spent some time browsing and becoming over stimulated with the Christmas décor at Decorator’s Warehouse, we were all lamenting how we should have eaten lunch before embarking on our shopping excursion. Now, I eat on a fairly regular schedule, as Chris will attest to, so I knew better than to leave our campsite without eating lunch. But my friends all seemed to be full from a late breakfast and ready to move on with the day. We were all regretting that choice so when we pulled into Pantego Books a short ways down from Decorator’s Warehouse, we found ourselves conveniently next to Campo Verde. We all looked at each other and decided chips, salsa, and a light mid-afternoon snack was in order before browsing books.

Forest was maybe 3 or 4 the last time I was in the parking lot for Campo Verde. It must have been winter because it was dark early and we were up visiting my family. As is usual, maybe less so in these more expensive dining out times, we often go for Tex-Mex while in town, hitting up our local favorites in the area. I believe it was my sister-in-law Stephanie or maybe my brother who mentioned Campo Verde as a diversion from our usual options, but by the time we arrived over there Forest was asleep, the parking lot was full, and the line was out the door of the restaurant. Needless to say, we ditched Campo Verde and drove over to Mexican Inn on East Lancaster. I don’t recall much about that dining experience other than Forest was rather groggy and cranky while we tried to eat our plates of Tex-Mex.

So, when I realized where we were on Saturday afternoon I was excited to finally try this restaurant I’d missed out on years ago. That changed when we walked in the door and was hit with the stench of four decades of stale cigarettes embedded into the walls, carpet, and upholstery of the restaurant. It was the smell of a bar: mountains of chain-smoked cigarettes and too many pitchers of Coors. I looked around for wood paneled walls and a pool table because it was such a transporting smell. I don’t and haven’t hung out in many bars in my life but I’ve been in enough that when I entered Campo Verde it immediately transported me to a bar in Golden, Colorado. I have no idea why, scents and memories just do that, right?

The bar in Golden wasn’t anything special, just on the main drag in that sleepy tourist town. I’d gone with a coworker and some others who were taking a GIS class with me back in the mid 2000s. Then after my memory was satisfied reminiscing over that experience, one I’d all but forgotten about, it dipped on over to the bar everyone went to in college near The Strand in Galveston. The one I dunked my Aggie ring at. I didn’t go to that one very often, only a few times with one of my friends who was a regular there every week. I wasn’t a beer drinker (ew) and mostly a teetotaler before I turned 21. Still, once you’ve been in a few you know the essence of what a bar smells like, especially one from a Very Particular Era. This bar is either playing Mazzy Star or Led Zeppelin.

Even the scent of stale cigarettes that we would smell on a regular basis in restaurants is mostly gone these days. The wisps of smoke wafting up from perched cigarettes on ash trays while people took bites of food or sat drinking cocktails before dinner is almost nonexistent in mainstream restaurants. My dad used to come home from work smelling like smoke, long after he’d quit smoking, because his office even allowed smoking well into the 90s. It might even have been the early 2000s before that stopped. But now? How often do we really interact with that pungent aerosol unless we ourselves are smokers or know someone who smokes? For me, almost never.

It was such a jarring realization that this is a scent many kids born today won’t experience on a regular basis, or really at all. I almost wrote “get to experience” but in reality, they don’t need to experience that smell, or any of that second-hand smoke. But it’s a smell of a particular era that is fading, one that they won’t experience unexpectedly in their 40s and be thrown back to growing up when it was so common to smell cigarettes permeating everything in its proximity.

We sat to eat in the stale smoke and I hoped it wouldn’t be embedded in my fleece and hair when we left. Our food was mediocre–I don’t recommend their “queso”, which really looks like they poured it from a restaurant sized can of Rico’s. But the chips are reminiscent of HEB’s hijole bakery tortillas chips, though not as spicy, and thus not terrible. Go for the excessive Christmas lights, and don’t forget to bring body spray to cover the eau de cigarette when you leave.

Further Reading: The Tex-Mex Christmas-Light Institution, Campo Verde, Gets a Reboot (And Dusted) via Dallas Observer.

Suggested Soundtrack: Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See


  • shoreacres

    It took me a while to figure out that you weren’t talking about ‘Camp Verde,’ the historic hill country town! Now, I’m with the program. There’s nothing worse than stale smoke, or the way it can coat things after years and years. Some friends bought a boat that had been owned by a smoker, and it took forever to get all that brown tar off the interior. On the other hand, white vinegar in bowls will get rid of the smell, just like it does the odor of spilled diesel fuel. It’s a life hack I hope never to have to use (again), but at least I have it tucked away in my mind.

  • Patrice La Vigne

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE when a smell transports me or brings back memories. I wish it happened more often, but of course it is out of our control, which makes it more special.

    Your realization of lost smells is so true! If you ever need to smell stale ciggies again, go to my mom’s house in NJ. At 78, she has been smoking for 60 years. We used to joke that when we opened a package from her in the mail, the smell would waft into the air. Whenever I go to visit, the smell embeds in everything I own. It is oddly cute though that my niece and nephew have this association of that smell with her. They love it, and I suppose it’s also because it’s so unique and not prevalent in their world.

  • Curtis

    That’s one of the reasons I eat here. That and the chips. Definetly skip the queso. There is a reason it’s “free.” Let’s face it, it’s Christmas lights, and garland that draw many people here.
    Did you venture into the bathrooms? The sink situation (at least the men’s) looks like they were pulled from a home built in the eighties. Like ours before mom and dad upgraded. Complete with scalloped soap holders.
    My smoking of cigarettes these days has taken a back seat to the vape, but the smell of stale cigarettes still brings me back to days gone by. When the four of us would visit El Rancho Grande, a Mexican Inn or a Bennigan’s, circa 89-95. Or coming in from playing outside all day to Dad leaving one burning in the ash tray next to the recliner. Before actually having responsibilities. It’s a gross smell, but it always bring me back to childhood.

    Do you remember going to the Lancaster location of Mexican Inn WAY back in the old building, and it was the dead of winter and they had a space heater plugged in near the front entrance. I’m pretty sure we met with Kim and Kevin and Randy.

    Miss you. Love you.


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