The smoke wafts up and down Westwood's Broxton Avenue. But it smells like melon, apple, banana, mango, vanilla and coconut. Is a fruit stand burning? No, it's the aroma from hookah bars.

Ten years ago, you hardly saw any in Los Angeles. Today, it's estimated there are 150 of them at Middle Eastern restaurants across the county.

"I'm saving people the cost of a ticket to Egypt," said Saad Fathi, 55, a native of that country and proprietor of Westwood's Habibi Caf & #233;. It draws as many as 400 customers a night, mostly after 9 p.m., for both smoke and food.

"It's very relaxing; if you're in a hurry, this will slow you down," Fathi said.

The effect is created by the ritual of puffing flavored tobacco, called "shisha," from traditional Arabic pipes, called hookahs. The tobacco is heated with charcoal on top of a water pipe, and the smoker draws the fumes through a tube that extends from the pipe.

In many Middle Eastern countries, hookah smoking has been a popular social custom for centuries. Both Fathi and Joseph Melamed, who runs the Gypsy Caf & #233; across the street, claim pioneering roles in bringing the practice to Los Angeles. Now it's easy to find restaurants offering water pipes with flavored tobacco countywide, from Persian places in the San Fernando Valley to Lebanese eateries in the San Gabriel Valley.

"It's part of Mediterranean cuisine," said Sebouh Nalbandian, the Lebanese-American owner of the Patio in Arcadia, a restaurant with an upstairs hookah bar. "It's social, like a cigar lounge; people smoke and chit chat with friends."

Typically that costs about $10 to $16 for a bowl of tobacco lasting up to an hour.

The boom in hookah bars has meant good business for Fathi, who said that his business was growing 10 percent annually until the recession.

"I like the vibes," said Zachary Lainer, 21, enjoying a bowl of mango-flavored tobacco with a friend visiting from Chicago on a recent Tuesday night at Habibi. "This is my go-to place to entertain."

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