Iconic Astoria Pool Hall, Steinway Cafe-Billiards, Is One Shot from the End

A green awning stands out among a low-key strip of Astoria body shops: “steinway cafe-pool,” it reads, namesake of the bustling shopping street that anchors the neighborhood. Large street-level windows overlook a room with 26 pool tables, unusual visibility for a pool hall that opened in 1990, when most others were in basements or up a flight of stairs, according to georgios nikolakakos, 67 year old owner.

“We had the idea to open a place with windows at street level so people can see inside and women can go inside,” said nikolakakos, who worked as a waiter and taxi driver before opening steinway café-billiards.

Reading: Cafe billiards

business boomed, nikolakakos recalled, even before it was supposed to officially open, as strangers kept staring and he just opened the doors and let them play.

but after the city banned indoor smoking in 2003, traffic slowed down. And when the city ordered all non-essential operations to stop at the peak of the pandemic in March 2020, Nikolakakos struggled to pay her rent. these days the pool hall is open and surviving month to month while a rent dispute case is pending in court.

Hovering over this mainstay of a one-story neighborhood, along with that court battle, is innovation qns: a $2 billion mixed-use five-block development plan envisioning 2,845 apartments and 200,000 square feet of retail space and, including a glass tower rising out of the ground on which the billiards hall now sits.

If and when that will happen depends on an impending city council vote. All eyes are now on neighborhood councilwoman Julie Gon, who has so far opposed the plan, which she says doesn’t provide sufficiently affordable housing, as the council’s tradition of “member deference” generally means that the local member has an effective veto over the use of the land. projects in her district.

meanwhile, commercial tenants like steinway cafe-billiards, which occupy spaces where the owners have entered into purchase option agreements with entities under the development’s consortium of developers (silver properties, bedrock real estate partners, and kaufman studio astoria) are stuck in limbo.

“They haven’t told us when or how long they’re going to give us” to vacate, manager Athena Mennis, 37, who has worked at the pool hall for 22 years, told the city. “But we assume that by the time the [construction] permits are issued, we might have three months.”

local legend

for decades, steinway cafe-billiards has drawn top talent to this mostly industrial block in western queens. according to mennis, it is the only pool hall in new york certified to hold tournaments by the billiards congress of america, one of the main governing bodies of the sport.

The neighborhood staple has been home to the likes of Efren Reyes, Shane Van Boening and Ronnie O’Sullivan, who by various measures are among the best in the sport today. Earl Strickland, considered one of the greatest nine-ball players of all time, was the in-house pro from 2011 to 2018, offering lessons and drawing crowds as he rushed shot after shot in his afternoon practice sessions.

See also: How to Order Café con Leche at Starbucks

While no table legends were in attendance when the city visited on a recent Monday night, viewers caught a weekly nine-ball tournament as reggaeton music played overhead. former patrons were engrossed in games of chess and tavli, or Greek backgammon, on the raised area surrounding the pool tables, where people socialize late into the night. inside the pool table, red landlines hung on the walls, wired to call the bar directly.

nikolakakos was behind the bar, looking at the maroon carpet. “I want to change that rug now ,” he said in a deep, rasping voice, enunciating his words in a relaxed rhythm and with a Greek accent. “But I can’t do anything because I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Although the pool hall has five and a half years left on its 35-year lease, Nikolakakos said, the possibility of his business being forced to close has been on his radar since the owner approached him. him in 2017, when opponents of the qns innovation say developers had begun making their rounds along the five-block strip to explore property purchase options.

“He asked us how much we wanted to end our lease, and when we told him, he offered us peanuts,” nikolakakos told the city. “So during the pandemic, when we were closed, we asked them to treat us better, but they didn’t want to do anything, so we had to go to court.”

During the 10 months the pool cafe was closed due to the city lockdown, Nikolakakos racked up more than $340,000 in unpaid rent, fees and taxes, according to court documents.

“even though it was the pandemic, they screwed us over,” mennis told the city. “If we hadn’t violated the lease, they would have had to hold us for another five years or make us an offer.”

‘this is the house’

bobby patron, whose name is tattooed inside a tequila bottle on his left bicep, walked up to the bar to greet nikolakakos with a hearty handshake. “Don’t be jealous,” nikolakakos joked as she turned his attention back to the interview.

The client said he’s been visiting steinway cafe-billiards for about a decade, ever since his friend, a pool pro, first introduced him. “This guy takes care of me,” the patron said, noting that Nikolakakos was always careful to interrupt him when he drank too much and even reminded him not to buy drinks for strangers after he’d had a few.

“I don’t really drink anymore, but I still come here,” said the patron, “because this is my home,” never mind the “brooklyn” tattoo on his right forearm.

nikolakakos chimed in, pointing to the client’s tattoo: “when he first came in, he had the ‘brooklyn’ on it. and i said, ‘i have to call across the street and buy you a gps, because this is queens'” .

“He is that influential,” replied the patron, pointing to a tattoo on the other side of his forearm of the unisphere that anchors the corona meadows-parks.

See also: 16 beneficios y propiedades del café verde

On another afternoon visiting the city, Mennis, the manager, was there to greet customers, mostly men and some speaking Greek to her, who had been arriving slowly throughout the day.

“These guys are veterans,” Mennis told the city, pointing to a group of men. “none of them could pay rent here, they are all on social security. they come in, get their $3 coffee and stay for the day.”

many efstathiou, who lives on long island but has been visiting the pool hall for more than 15 years, ordered a drink at the cafeteria in greek before returning to watch his friends play a game of tavli. a soccer match with Greek teams played from above on the flat screen TV.

“it’s like the greek community center,” mennis told the city. “This is what we feel bad about: our veterans.”

efstathiou, for his part, said he’s not sure where he would meet his friends if the billiards cafe closed.

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, we’re trying to find another place,” said efstathiou. “but [they] aren’t like here.”

nevertheless, nikolakakos said he’s still optimistic about the future of the pool hall, because “why not?”

She said she hadn’t thought about how it would feel to close the doors for the last time after 32 years because “I don’t worry about things before I know they’re going to happen.”

He then hinted that his daughter might be interested in moving the pool hall elsewhere as he retires.

As Nikolakakos glimpsed the future, Mennis reminisced about the past and the day 22 years ago when she met her husband, pool pro George Sansouci.

“I met him here. He asked me to marry him here. And while I was working here, he also passed away,” Mennis said, her eyes beginning to swell. “so, you know, it was all memorable for me, and a lot of people.”

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