Steinway Cafe-Billiards, Iconic Astoria Pool Hall, is one shot away

A green awning stands out among an understated strip of body shops in Astoria: “STEINWAY CAFE-BILLIARDS,” it reads, namesake of the bustling commercial street that anchors the neighborhood. Large windows at street level overlook a room with 26 pool tables, unusual visibility for a pool hall that opened in 1990 when most of the others were in basements or up a flight of stairs, according to the 67-year-old owner, Georgios Nikolakakos.

“We came up with the idea of ​​opening a place with windows at street level so that people could see inside and women could come in,” said Nikolakakos, who worked as a waiter and taxi driver. before opening the Steinway Cafe-Billiards.

Business boomed, Nikolakakos recalls, even before it was supposed to officially open, as strangers kept peeking inside and he simply opened the doors and let them play.

But after the city banned indoor smoking in 2003, traffic slowed down. And when the city ordered a halt to all non-essential operations at the height of the pandemic in March 2020, Nikolakakos struggled to make rent. These days, the pool hall is open and survives month to month while a rent dispute is pending in court.

Towering above this one-story pillar of the neighborhood, alongside this legal battle, is QNS Innovation – a five-block, $2 billion mixed-use development plan providing for 2,845 apartments and 200,000 square feet of retail space and – including a glass tower rising from the land on which the billiard room currently stands.

If and when that would happen depends on an impending vote by the city council. All eyes are now on ward councilor Julie Won – who has so far opposed the plan which she says does not provide sufficiently affordable housing – because the council’s tradition of ‘member deference’ usually means that the local member has an effective veto over land use. projects in their neighborhood.

In the meantime, commercial tenants like Steinway Cafe-Billiards, which occupy spaces where landlords have entered into option-to-own agreements with entities from the development’s developer consortium – Silverstein Properties, BedRock Real Estate Partners and Kaufman Astoria Studio – are stuck in limbo.

“We haven’t been told when and how long they’re going to give us” to leave, 37-year-old manager Athena Mennis, who has worked at the pool hall for 22 years, told THE CITY. “But we assume that the moment the [construction] permits are issued, so we have maybe three months.

Local legend

Over the decades, Steinway Cafe-Billiards has attracted top talent to this mostly industrial western block of Queens. According to Mennis, it’s the only pool hall in New York certified to hold tournaments by the Billiards Congress of America, one of the sport’s top governing bodies.

The neighborhood staple has hosted Efren Reyes, Shane Van Boening and Ronnie O’Sullivan – who by various metrics currently rank among the best in the sport. Earl Strickland, considered one of the greatest nine-ball players of all time, served as the in-house pro from 2011-2018, delivering lessons and drawing crowds as he drained shot after shot during his afternoon workouts.

Dilenia Sessar prepares to hit a cue ball at Steinway Billiards.

Although there were no table legends when visiting THE CITY on a recent Monday night, spectators watched a weekly nine-ball tournament as reggaeton music blared overhead. Long-time customers were engrossed in chess games and tavli, or Greek backgammon, in the raised area surrounding the pool tables, where people socialize late into the night. Inside the pool table pit, red landline telephones hung along the walls, wired to call the bar directly.

Nikolakakos stood behind the bar, glancing down at his brown rug. “I want to change this carpet nowhe says in a deep, hoarse voice, mouthing his words at a relaxed pace and with a Greek accent. “But I can’t do anything because I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

With the pool hall still five and a half years on its 35-year lease, Nikolakakos said, the possibility of his business being forced to close has been on his radar since his landlord approached him in 2017, when QNS Innovation Opponents 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 complete the 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 give us a better deal, but they wouldn’t do anything so we had to go to court.”

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

“Even though it was the pandemic, we got screwed,” Mennis told THE CITY. “If we hadn’t breached the lease, they would have had to keep us for another five years or make us an offer.”

‘It is the house’

Bobby Patron – whose name is tattooed inside a tequila bottle on his left bicep – approached the bar to greet Nikolakakos with a tight handshake. “Don’t be jealous,” joked Nikolakakos as he redirected his attention to the interview.

Patron said he’s been visiting Steinway Cafe-Billiards for about a decade, since his friend – a pool pro – first introduced him. “This guy takes care of me,” Patron said, noting that Nikolakakos was always careful to cut him off when he drank too much and even reminded him not to buy drinks for strangers after he drank a few himself. same.

Steinway Billiards owner Georgios Nikolakakos hung out behind the bar on a busy Wednesday night, November 2, 2022.

“I really don’t drink anymore but I still come here,” Patron said, “because this is my home” — not to mention the tattoo on his right forearm that reads “Brooklyn.”

Nikolakakos chimed in, pointing to Patron’s tattoo: “When he first arrived, he had ‘Brooklyn’. And I said, ‘I have to call across the street and buy you a GPS, because this is Queens.’

“He’s so influential,” Patron replied, pointing to a tattoo on the other side of his forearm of the Unisphere that anchors Flushing Meadows-Corona Parks.

On another afternoon THE CITY visited, Mennis, the manager, was there to greet customers, almost all men and some speaking to him in Greek, who had arrived throughout the day.

“These guys are old timers,” Mennis told THE CITY, pointing to a group of men. “None of them can afford to pay the rent here, they are all on social security. They walk in, they get their $3 coffee, and they stay all day.

Many of Efstathiou, who lives on Long Island but has frequented the pool hall for more than 15 years, ordered a drink at the Greek cafe before heading back to watch his friends play a game of tavli. A football match with Greek teams played overhead on the flat screen TV.

“It’s like the Greek community center,” Mennis told THE CITY. “That’s why we feel bad – our elders.”

Efstathiou, for his part, said he did not know where he would meet with his friends if the pool cafe had to close.

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know – we’re trying to find another place,” Efstathiou said. “But [they’re] not like here.

Nikolakakos, however, said he was still optimistic about the future of the pool hall – because “why not?”

Antonios Ntre plays pool with friends at Steinway Billiards in Astoria on November 2, 2022.

He said he hadn’t thought about how it would feel to close the doors one last time after 32 years because “I don’t worry about things until you know they’re going to happen”.

Then he hinted that his daughter might be interested in moving the pool hall elsewhere as he slips into retirement life.

Screenshot/Ginky Memorial 2018/YouTube

As Nikolakakos looked to the future, Mennis reminisced about the past and the day 22 years ago when she first 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 passed away too,” Mennis said, his eyes starting to swell. “So, you know, everything was memorable for me – and for a lot of people.”

About Walter Bartholomew

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