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Iconic Astoria Pool Hall Gets a Second Shot at Survival

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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This article was originally published by The CITY on Dec. 4

Steinway Cafe-Billiards will stay put for now and eventually get a new lease on life one block over, according to manager Athena Mennis.

The 32-year-old Astoria pool hall — located at the heart of the incoming $2 billion, five-block development Innovation QNS — was at risk of being shuttered and displaced after City Council approved the project on Nov. 22, and as a COVID-related rent dispute lawsuit with its current landlord pends in court.

But the neighborhood’s local Council member, Julie Won, stopped by the billiards cafe to deliver good news on Thursday, Mennis said — three weeks after THE CITY reported on what appeared to be the imminent end of the local mainstay.

“She said she read your article and that made her make sure we were the first place to be taken care of,” Mennis added. “She mentioned your article, like, three times.”

The business will be able to stay in its current location for another three to five years while construction for Innovation QNS begins, according to Mennis — effectively ending a weeks-long search for a new, affordable location. The pool hall will also have the option to relocate into Innovation QNS under a rent discount once the development is complete, Mennis said Won told her.

“We just feel relieved that we can plan for the future,” Mennis, who’s worked at the pool hall for 22 years, told THE CITY, noting that the majority of the business’s profits come from hosting tournaments. “Now I can put up a whole schedule for the season.”

Won did not provide specifics about the rent discount, Mennis said. But she said the Council member did tell her that a lawyer negotiated a deal that will allow the pool hall to settle its $500,000 in back rent and fees under a payment plan once property ownership is transferred to the developers from its current landlord.

If that bill is covered, the pool hall’s survival would then come down to ongoing negotiations over a community benefits agreement — a pact between local organizations and the project’s three developers, Silverstein Properties, BedRock Real Estate Partners and Kaufman Astoria Studios — that will determine the exact terms of relocation assistance efforts outlined under the deal approved by the Council, including a $2 million anti-displacement and anti-harassment legal support fund.

Haidee Chu/THE CITY

“She told us ‘you have nothing to worry about, we are going to save your location,’” Mennis recalled of her conversation with Won. “We’re very happy we’re here.”

In a conversation shortly after this article was published, however, Won stressed that her office could not resolve the pool hall’s back rent issues with their landlord or commit to a timeframe in which the pool hall could remain during the construction of Innovation QNS or to a definite location in the project after its projected opening in a decade. “This can only be resolved in the courts,” she said, referring to the poolhall’s backrent issues with its current landlord and noting that those are unrelated to Innovation QNS or its developers.

‘Like a Family’

When THE CITY visited on Friday, Steinway Cafe-Billiards was full of Greek backgammon players, $3 coffees and pool games between long-timers. Some patrons cheered on team USA as the Mosconi Cup — an annual nine-ball tournament between a pan-European and an all-American team — played on the TVs overhead.

“Sid, I have great news for you,” Mennis told 93-year-old Sidney Chaklal as he walked up to the bar. “We’re not closing! You’re not losing your homeroom!”

“I heard! Frankie told me,” Chaklal responded, gesturing to his good friend Frankie Belts.

93-year-old Sidney Chaklal practices his shot ahead of a game with his friend, Frankie Belts, at Steinway Billiards. Haidee Chu/THE CITY

Chaklal, a patron of more than 15 years, said he visits the billiards cafe from his Roosevelt Island home five days a week, spending two to three hours each time practicing pool.

“This is the only sport a 90-year-old person can play,” Chaklal told THE CITY. “This is a perfect place for me.”

Neil Paxon, a 61-year-old patron of more than 20 years, is also pleased to hear the good news — despite his usual chit-chats suggesting otherwise.

“Everytime he comes here — ‘I’m leaving! I hate this place. I’m going home,’” Mennis said, mimicking Paxon. “Three hours later, ‘I’m leaving.’ Five hours later, ‘I can’t stand this place. I’m going home.’”

“That’s not true!” replied Paxon, who was in the pool hall when THE CITY arrived around noon and was still there when the reporter left at about 8 p.m. “I’m happy that they’re staying open, honestly. Because in these areas, the developers — you know, the big money people — they just want to keep putting up all these high-rise buildings, which are unaffordable anyway.”

Affordability had been the top concern of Mennis and owner Georgios Nikolakakos as they’d raced to a new site for the pool hall, with each possible location asking $40,000 a month or more. Whether they can relocate into Innovation QNS when it opens in a few years, Nikolakakos noted, will depend on the details of the rent discount.

“We have good rent here because of the previous owner. But from what I see around here, the rents they’re asking are high,” Nikolakakos said. “It’s hard with the rent right now.”

In the meantime, 44-year-old in-house pro Zion Zvi — who learned the ropes of the game for free as a 14-year-old by attending odds and ends at a snooker place in his native Israel — is happy that he’ll get to stick around for a little longer after a decade in residence.

Zion Zvi, Steinway Billiards in-house pro, shows off the machine he uses to repair cue tips. Haidee Chu/THE CITY

Zvi — who now splits his time between the pool hall and being a full-time handyman — has traveled internationally to compete and sometimes upset legends of the games. But he said he likes to “stay local” and low key these days because “it feels like home” and “more safe.”

“Everybody knows everybody, because it’s the same people you’re gonna see all the time. It’s like you’re going to the gym — you’re gonna go, and you see the same faces,” Zvi said of Steinway Cafe-Billiards. “I don’t have family or friends [in New York]. But this environment is like a family for me.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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