This article was originally published by The CITY on Nov. 8
A green awning stands out among an inconspicuous strip of car body shops in Astoria: “STEINWAY CAFE-BILLIARDS,” it reads, namesake of the bustling commercial street that anchors the neighborhood. Large street-level windows peer into a room of 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 67-year-old owner Georgios Nikolakakos.
“We had the idea to open a place with windows on the street level so people can see inside and women can come in,” said Nikolakakos, who worked as a waiter and taxi driver before opening Steinway Cafe-Billiards.
Business boomed, Nikolakakos recalled, even before it was supposed to officially open, as strangers kept looking in and he simply opened the doors and let them play.
But after the city banned indoor smoking in 2003, traffic got slower. And when the city ordered all non-essential operations to halt at the peak of the pandemic in March of 2020, Nikolakakos struggled to make rent. These days, the pool hall is open and surviving month to month as a rent dispute case pends in court.
Looming over this one-story neighborhood mainstay, 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 commercial space and — including a glass tower rising from the land that the pool hall sits on now.
If and when that would happen depends on an imminent City Council vote. All eyes are now on the neighborhood’s Councilmember, Julie Won — who has so far opposed the plan she says doesn’t provide sufficiently affordable housing — as the council tradition of “member deference” generally means the local member has an effective veto on land use projects in their district.
In the meantime, commercial tenants like Steinway Cafe-Billiards, who occupy spaces where landlords have made purchase option agreements with entities under the development’s consortium of developers — 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 gonna give us” to vacate, 37-year-old manager Athena Mennis, who has worked at the pool hall for 22 years, told THE CITY. “But we’re assuming that the moment that the [construction] permits are issued, then maybe we have three months.”
Over the decades, Steinway Cafe-Billiards has attracted top talents to this mostly industrial block in western 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 major governing bodies.
The neighborhood staple has hosted the likes of Efren Reyes, Shane Van Boening and Ronnie O’Sullivan — who, by various measures, currently rank among the sport’s best. Earl Strickland, considered one of the best nine-ball players of all time, was the in-house pro from 2011 to 2018, offering lessons and drawing crowds as he drained one shot after another in his afternoon practice sessions.
While there were no table legends in attendance when THE CITY visited on a recent Monday night, spectators watched a weekly nine-ball tournament as reggaeton music blasted overhead. Long-time patrons were absorbed in games of chess and tavli, or Greek backgammon, in the elevated area surrounding the pool tables, where people socialize until late into the night. Inside the pool table pit, red landline phones hung along the walls, hardwired to call the bar directly.
Nikolakakos stood behind the bar, glancing over at its maroon carpet. “I want to change that carpet now,” he said in a deep raspy voice, articulating his words at a relaxed pace and in a Greek accent. “But I cannot do anything because I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
While the pool hall has five-and-a-half years left on its 35-year lease, Nikolakakos said, the possibility that his business might be forced to shutter has been on his radar since his landlord approached him in 2017, when Innovation QNS’ opponents say developers had started to make their rounds along the five-block strip to explore property purchase options.
“He asked us how much we wanted to finish 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 make us a better deal, but they didn’t want to do anything so we had to go to court.”
Over the 10 months that the billiards cafe was closed due to the city’s shutdown, Nikolakakos accumulated over $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 violated the lease, they would have had to keep us for another five years or make us an offer.”
‘This Is Home’
Bobby Patron — whose name is tattooed inside of a tequila bottle on his left biceps — walked up to the bar to greet Nikolakakos with a tight handshake. “Don’t be jealous,” Nikolakakos joked as he redirected his attention back to the interview.
Patron said he has been visiting Steinway Cafe-Billiards for about a decade, since his friend — a pool pro — first introduced him. “This guy looks after me,” Patron said, noting that Nikolakakos always took care to cut him off when he had too much to drink and even reminded him not to buy drinks for strangers after having a few himself.
“I really don’t drink anymore but I still come here,” Patron said, “because this is home”— never mind the tattoo on his right forearms that says “Brooklyn.”
Nikolakakos chimed in, pointing to Patron’s tattoo: “When he first came, he had the ‘Brooklyn.’ And I said, ‘I gotta call across the street and buy you a GPS, because this is Queens.’”
“He’s that influential,” Patron replied, pointing to a tattoo on the other side of his forearm of the Unisphere that anchors Flushing Meadows-Corona Parks.
On a different afternoon that THE CITY visited, Mennis, the manager, was there to greet customers, almost all men and some talking to her in Greek, who had been trickling in throughout the day.
“These guys, they’re old timers,” Mennis told THE CITY, as she pointed over to a group of men. “None of them could afford the rent here — they’re all on social security. They come in, they get their $3 coffee, and they stay the day.”
Many Efstathiou, who lives on Long Island but has been visiting the pool hall for more than 15 years, ordered a drink from the cafe in Greek before returning to watch his friends play a game of tavli. A soccer game featuring Greek teams played overhead on the flatscreen TV.
“It’s like the Greek community center,” Mennis told THE CITY. “This is what we feel bad for — our old timers.”
Efstathiou, for one, said he is not sure where he’d gather with his friends if the billiard cafe were to close down.
“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, though, said he is still optimistic about the future of the pool hall — because “why not?”
He said that he hadn’t thought about how he’d feel closing the doors a final time after 32 years because “I don’t worry about things before I know they are going to happen.”
Then he hinted that his daughter might be interested in relocating the pool hall elsewhere as he slips into retirement life.
As Nikolakakos glimpsed toward the future, Mennis recalled the past and the day, 22 years ago, when she first met her husband.
“I met him here. He asked me to marry him here. And while I was working here, he passed away too,” Mennis said, her eyes beginning to swell. “So it’s, you know, everything was memorable for me — and for a lot of people.”
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