Past a large Victoria’s Secret display featuring scantily clad supermodels jets out a simple maroon sign. Easy to miss for those who aren’t looking for it, but a beacon to a very New York form of entertainment.
Under the sign and through the narrow door, ascending 32 gray-carpeted stairs brings you into Eastside Billiards and Bar. Established in 1990, the 16-table billiards hall located on E. 86th St. is simple, as pool halls of old were. An employee greets you from behind a small bar to your right. Drinks are straightforward. Food is uncomplicated. Paying to play is easy.
“It’s got a hidden-gem quality to it,” says Ray, the lone employee this snowy midweek evening. “It’s not a sharkish place. It’s for anyone and everyone.”
Eastside Billiards doesn’t have a lot of flair. It’s similar to the pools halls of yesteryear, like those featured in the iconic 1961 film The Hustler. There are no neon lights, fancy cocktails, or loud music.
It’s simple. It’s billiards.
“A place with a DJ is basically a lounge with pool tables,” Ray says as he goes to check on a pizza. “You’re not at a pool hall at that point.”
Pool halls in New York City are as varied as its population. Each has its own amenities and appeal in an effort to attract a crowd.
Eastside is at the simpler end, while Space Billiards, located on W. 32nd St. in Koreatown, is its flashier foil. Amsterdam Billiards sits more toward the traditional with wooden columns and leather couches complementing its 25 Brunswick tables. Located on E. 11th St. after relocating from its original location on the Upper West Side, Amsterdam Billiards is billed as “New York City’s original upscale billiard club.” Society Billiards + Bar, located on E. 21st St. in the Flatiron District, is more comparable to Space Billiards and the flashier pool halls. It’s a polished subterranean venue with 19 Diamond billiard tables, professional DJ equipment, ginger jalapeño martinis, and croque monsieur sliders.
Located in Midtown West, Space Billiards is a mix of east meets west with sake, neon lights, and techno music. The facility opened in 2006 as more of a traditional billiards hall, but underwent a significant facelift five years later.
“We turned it more into a club,” said manager Jay, whose uncle Mr. Lee was the venue’s founder. “We were trying to change our target customers. We wanted to look more like a club or bar than pool hall.”
Space Billiards is on the top floor of its building located in Koreatown. The elevator button for the 12th floor is in the shape of an 8-ball to make it stand out, though it has competition with The Spot Karaoke & Lounge’s microphone-shaped button on the ninth floor.
After stepping out of the elevator and into Space Billiards, you aren’t sure if you’ve walked into a pool hall. Neon lights flash all around, upbeat dance music thumps from the speakers, and fancy cocktails flow from the bar. Even the bartenders have electronic scrolling name tags that you have to time in order to read “JOSEPH” properly before it resets and you think his name is “SEPH”.
“One of the perks of the job, you can say,” Joseph says from behind the bar with a laugh.
Space Billiards has 11 tables, each fit with electronic call buttons that alert the bartenders someone is in need of a new drink or has another request. Most of the patrons, Jay says, are non-Korean; the demographic they had been striving for with the renovations, trying to make it equally as inviting for tourists, locals, and Koreans alike. He says the venue is a “blend of Korean culture and American culture.”
Fitting with its location and the vibe of K-town, Space Billiards offers more than just pool. Jay said Space Karaoke is expected to open on the building’s 11th floor in the spring and they’re looking to expand into Space Bowling in a nearby location in the future.
“The location is awesome,” he said. “We’re the only pool hall in Midtown.”
Despite declining interest in the United States, pool halls remain an integral part in New York City’s nightlife. More traditional billiards halls like Eastside still exist in their quiet, simple fashion, appealing to a crowd looking for just that, while the flashier establishments like Space Billiards are becoming more popular in an effort to appeal to tourists and a younger crowd.
And in a city with some of the most critically acclaimed nightclubs in the world, billiards is a welcomed departure from the status quo.
This story is part of the Culture Trip collection: New York After Dark.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.