Billiard halls are flourishing again in town

At the age of eight, Evangelos Pitsadiotis served his first coffee in his father’s pool hall, Danforth Avenue. By age 11, he had developed a second-hand smoker’s cough.

Back then, Billiards Academy and Sports Lounge had no televisions, no liquor licenses, and the air was laden with nicotine clouds. “It was what you would think of a typical pool hall,” says Pitsadiotis. « It was like in the movie ‘The Hustler’, where a bunch of guys were playing pool for money. There wasn’t much noise, because they were playing a serious game. Once in a while, a guy would freak out because he’d lose his rent money or something.

When his father, Andreas Pitsadiotis, bought the place, he had no idea what institution it would become. It’s not that Andreas was new to the sport: he had been playing pool since immigrating from Corinth, Greece, to Toronto in the mid-1960s, and owned and operated a pool hall in Guelph before becoming the third owner of the Academy in 1971. It’s just that at the time, Billiards Academy was nothing extraordinary.

“(It was) a community staple even before Greektown became Greektown,” says Evangelos, who now runs the venue. The Billiards Academy in the 70s was just one of many blue collar establishments, including social clubs and bowling alleys, on the Danforth. “Guys worked all day in the factories and came after,” he says. “It was a tough neighborhood. As a kid, I grew up really fast, was exposed to this culture and saw that real life was not sugar coated.

Now the oldest pool hall in Old Toronto, Billiards Academy has witnessed the changes the sport of pool has seen over time: the rise in popularity of the 80s; the drought period of the mid to late 1990s; the difficulties after the Toronto smoking ban came into force in 1999; and more recently, the lockdowns and restrictions that have accompanied COVID-19. Now, billiards not only survives, it thrives in Toronto.

Members of the billiards community largely credit Martin Scorsese’s 1986 film, « The Color of Money, » starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, which popularized billiards in North America, Pitsadiotis says. After the film was released, women also started playing pool, he adds, « and the stigma that came with pool halls started to fade. »

Anita Arsenault was one such woman. “In the 1990s, my best friend and I would go to the local bar and shoot pool at their coin-operated tables,” says Arsenault, sales manager at Dynamic Billiard in Mississauga. The women put their pieces on the rail of the pool table and waited their turn to face the winner of the game already in progress. A player who challenged Arsenault is now her husband of 25 years. Pitsadiotis and his two sisters all met their partners at Billiards Academy, and they attended a dozen weddings of people who had met there.

During Arsenault’s three decades in the industry, she noted changes in popularity and attitude towards tail sports. In 1992, the population of pool players was mainly made up of men between the ages of 18 and 35, and men over the age of 50 for snooker (which is played on a larger table with smaller pockets). They have since become “coveted and loved by everyone” games, she says. “Women have now become avid pool players, and going to the local pool hall has become a popular nighttime activity where women can feel confident to win their fair share of games. The atmosphere has definitely changed to become more inviting and inclusive.

Pictures of Andreas Pitsadiotis adorn the wall of the billiard room.

For Billiards Academy, things started to change after wealthy professionals moved to the area in the early 90s. allow all pool halls in Ontario to apply for liquor licenses – leading to a more recreational crowd at Billiards Academy.

But the place had to withstand difficult times. In the mid to late 1990s, « when no one was playing pool, » says Pitsadiotis, the focus has been on the venue’s restaurant and bar. The pandemic strength Billiards Academy will close for 18 months, pausing many in-house teams and a league with the Canadian Billiards Players Association, which have yet to resume play.

During the lockdown, however, the demand for home pool tables has increased dramatically, according to Arsenault.

“Many of our customers have expressed the need to find an activity that would distract their children and teens from staring at their device screens,” she says. « Having a pool table at home encourages informal conversations among family members. »

Jack Herman, who designed pool tables like the president of Paragon Billiards & Interiors of Toronto for 35 years, agrees. « It was difficult to keep up with the demand, » says Herman, who sold about 200 American-made pool tables last year. « Demand has increased by 40 to 50%, » he says, « and wait times went from eight to 40 weeks.

Evangelos Pitsadiotis says Billiards Academy was a "staple in the community even before Greektown was Greektown."

One of Herman’s custom tables will define a buyer from $6,000 to over $100,000 (his clients include celebrities and star athletes), but elsewhere tables can be had for much less. « You can buy one online for $1,000, » says Herman, with the caveat that cheap tables can have issues, including the level and quality of felt.

There is still no replacement for the pool hall experience. « It’s one of the oldest social networks, » says Pitsadiotis. “You can watch the Jays or Leafs score on TV and talk to other people. When immigrants arrive in a new town, they go to a pool hall and meet people from their community. People help newcomers find their first job.

Sure enough, the pool’s popularity — and the number of people trying it out for the first time — surged once everything reopened after the peak of the pandemic. “People were eager to do something,” says Pitsadiotis, who has been establishing a new customer base with people who have been coming for decades. And they play side by side.

« We get a lot of newbies, » he says, « so a few of our regulars will give directions on how to hold the line or how to stand. »

He expects these interactions to increase once the freezing weather arrives. “Winter is long, cold and wet in Toronto, and people are looking for things to do indoors,” he says. « What’s better than going inside with friends and banging balls for an hour? »

Where to play

Big Slick Bar & Billiards, 1965 Britannia Road. O., Mississauga

“Great atmosphere and reasonable prices for playing pool and dining.” —Arsenault

twisted tail, 75 Lakeshore Road E., Mississauga

“Upscale pool lounge with delicious food, good vibes and well maintained pool tables.” —Arsenault

twisted tail, 3056 Bloor Street West, Etobicoke

« Very family oriented and in the business for about 30 years. » —Hermann

Corner Bank Sports Bar & Grill, 925 Warden Ave, Scarborough

« Well maintained quality tables and knowledgeable owners who have been in the industry for many years. » —Hermann

Billiards and the JJQ lounge, 3055 Dundas Street West, Mississauga

“A large pool lounge with well maintained pool tables and great food.” —Arsenault


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