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Rack up the good times

At a time when pool is gaining popularity, a new ''gourmet pool hall'' offers patrons a place to unwind - just like at home.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 18, 2002


First came the gourmet restaurants. Then the gourmet coffee shops.

[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Even though it's only been open a week, The Rack is drawing good reviews from patrons who enjoy the upscale atmosphere.
Now the gourmet pool halls.

The Rack opened last week in the former Blue Gardenia restaurant on W Platt Street. The stylish decor and creative cuisine seek to squash the stereotypical image of dark, dingy billiard rooms.

Goodbye beer signs, bar stools and pub grub. The Rack sports oil paintings, leather couches and marinated tenderloin. The cooks call the menu eclectic.

"It's like hanging out in your living room," said Adam Lambert, a bartender at the nearby Hyde Park Cafe.

The Rack comes at a time when pool is gaining popularity in South Tampa and beyond. Although serious shooters still head to Baker's Billiards, Fatso's and other pool halls in North Tampa, just-for-fun players have their pick of places on the south end of town.

Rack owners Tom Golden and Greg Anastasas came up with the "gourmet pool hall" idea during -- surprise -- a game of eight ball. They were at the Tiny Tap, griping about the long wait for a table.

"We said, 'Let's do what we want to do and create a fun atmosphere with good food and good service,"' said Anastasas, who owns Zudar's Deli Cafe across the street.

The Rack is a reincarnation of the Blue Gardenia, which Golden opened with his wife, Emily, in 2000. The upscale bistro suffered after the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, and couldn't keep up with all the new competition.

During the two years in business, Golden qualified for food stamps.

"We had to evolve or die. We chose to evolve," he said.

The Rack has nine tables, 13 televisions, two Golden Tees, two dart boards and a juke box.
Re-emerging as a pool hall seemed like a sure shot. The game is a fixture in many South Tampa night spots.

The Rack has nine tables. The new Mac's Sports Pub on Howard Avenue has four. So does Kahunaville at International Plaza's Bay Street.

And four more arrive later this month at Whiskey Park SoHo.

Longtime pool player Dick Giorgianni isn't surprised. As head of the American Pool Players Association in Hillsborough county, he has seen the number of teams jump from 18 to 132 in the past six years.

Florida's heat keeps the stripes and solids rolling.

"A lot of the time it's so hot outdoors. People enjoy getting out after work and having a few beers and shooting some pool with friends," he said.

Nationally, pool has become the second largest participatory sport, steadily gaining on bowling. Some day, it could become an Olympic event.

"More young people are getting into it," said Ron McKinney, owner of Stix Billiards in St. Pete Beach. "It appeals to everyone."

Pool combines geometry, physics, strategy and showmanship. Betting, though officially a no-no, ups the stakes.

Many barflies see the game as a fun distraction from cheesy pickup lines and mindless beer guzzling. It gets the blood circulating but seldom builds a sweat.

Taylor Rice takes a shot with friends Sunday at Mac's Sports Pub on Howard Avenue. Mac's has four tables for pool.
Chris Hardy, 30, hits Mac's about once a week for buck-a-game pool with his childhood buddies. They like the sports atmosphere and buckets of beer.

His only complaint: "It's 1 mile to the bathroom."

The financially challenged find themselves at the Tiny Tap, South Tampa's favorite hole in the wall. At 25 cents a game, the bar on Morrison Avenue offers the cheapest pool in town -- and probably the smokiest.

Drab brown paneling, temperamental air-conditioning units and beer holsters create a gritty, no-nonsense ambiance.

"Where else can you find a 30-year-old beer sign on the wall that still works?" asked Brian Wolfe, a 1995 Plant High School graduate. "It's heritage."

Wolfe can't imagine sinking the eight ball at any other bar and scoffs at the notion of a "gourmet pool hall." After all, what else can you get for a quarter? A gum ball? A cigarette in jail?

Gotta love pool table talk.

Friends of the American Lung Association like it back at The Rack.

The restaurant has a nonsmoking bar and three nonsmoking pool tables. Owners hope customers remember the smell of the kitchen, not the cigarettes.

Golden beefed up the menu to include Blue Gardenia favorites, such as The Chairman of the Board filet mignon, and new bar-crowd pleasers, such as Jim Kelly Honorary "Can't Lose" Buffalo-style chicken wings. Salads, pasta, sandwiches and entrees round out the choices.

photo
Beach Park resident Kimberly Babcock lines up a shot at The Rack, which has a full bar and a food menu that does include junk food.
No fried junk food, says Golden, the author of many of the recipes.

The Rack added a full bar featuring more than 20 kinds of rum. It has 13 televisions, two Golden Tees, two dart boards and a juke box. To make room for the nine pool tables, the owners took over the former karate studio next door.

Old Blue Gardenia fans seem to approve of the changes.

"The food is a lot better than you get at pool halls," said Rick Pajot of Davis Islands.

The owners designed the place with the recreational pool player in mind but may open it to leagues if someone inquires. The Rack charges by the hour, not the game, so friends can play all night.

Paintings of flowers, nude women and cafes adorn the orange and yellow plaster walls. Mahogany tables with purple felt and woven leather baskets add flair.

The house cabernet comes in oversized wine glasses, served on coasters.

"South Tampa needs a place like this," said Kimberly Babcock of Beach Park. "There's really not a nice pool hall. I think it will be pretty fun."

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

Plenty of parlors

Itching for a game of eight ball?

Here's a partial list of South Tampa area pool spots.

AMERICAN LEGION

  • Address: 5535 W Prescott St.
  • Phone: 839-5119
  • Tables: one
  • Cost to play: 25 cents per game
  • Extras: full bar; burgers, wings, sandwiches.

BAKER'S BILLIARDS

  • Address: 1811 N Tampa St.
  • Phone: 226-6541
  • Tables: 14 regulation and two snooker
  • Cost to play: $3 per hour, $2.40 for league players
  • Extras: full bar; short order menu.

CHAMPIONS SPORTS BAR

  • Address: 700 S Florida Ave.
  • Phone: 221-4900
  • Tables: two
  • Cost to play: $8 per hour
  • Extras: full bar; wings, burgers, seafood, salads, hotdogs.

DEMMI'S MARKET ON 7TH

  • Address: 1816 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City
  • Phone: 248-2356
  • Tables: one
  • Cost to play: $1 per game
  • Extras: full bar; pizza.

ELMER'S SPORTS CAFE

  • Address: 2003 E Seventh Ave.
  • Phone: 248-5855
  • Tables: 2
  • Cost to play: 75 cents per game
  • Extras: full bar; wings, seafood, burgers, salads.

GAMEWORKS

  • Address: 1600 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City.
  • Phone: 241-9675.
  • Tables: three
  • Cost to play: $2 per game
  • Extras: full bar; burgers, pasta, steak, chicken.

HATTRICKS

  • Address: 107 Franklin St.
  • Phone: 225-4288
  • Tables: one
  • Cost to play: $1 per game
  • Extras: full bar; snacks.

KAHUNAVILLE

  • Address: International Plaza
  • Phone: 348-2011
  • Tables: four
  • Cost to play: $8 per hour. Free to reserved parties of 10 or more.
  • Extras: full bar; chicken, pasta, steak, burgers, seafood.

MAC'S SPORTS PUB

  • Address: 808 S Howard Ave.
  • Phone: 258-9785
  • Tables: four
  • Cost to play: $1 per game; free during happy hour, 4-7 p.m.
  • Extras: full bar; ribs, wings, salads, chicken.

MASQUERADE

  • Address: 1503 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City
  • Phone: 247-3319
  • Tables: two
  • Cost to play: $1 per game
  • Extras: full bar.

M.J. Q CLUB

  • Address: 4057 Henderson Blvd.
  • Phone: 289-5598
  • Tables: nine tables, three carom
  • Cost to play: $5 per hour
  • Extras: soft drinks only.

PETE'S PLACE

  • Address: 4145 Henderson Blvd.
  • Phone: 282-9039.
  • Tables: 2 tables
  • Cost to play: 75 cents per game
  • Extras: full bar; no food.

PINARAMA BOWLING LANES

  • Address: 5008 S Dale Mabry Highway
  • Phone: 835-7665
  • Tables: one
  • Cost to play: $1 per game
  • Extras: full bar; boiled peanuts, hamburgers, pizza, chicken fingers, fries, nachos.

POP CITY

  • Address: 615 Channelside Drive
  • Phone: 229-2489.
  • Tables: seven
  • Cost to play: $7 per hour
  • Extras: full bar, burgers, pizza, wings.

POTBELLIES

  • Address: 3826 S Himes Ave.
  • Phone: 835-7363
  • Tables: two
  • Cost to play: 50 cents per game
  • Extras: full bar, wings, burgers, chicken tenders.

PRESS BOX SPORTS EMPORIUM

  • Address: 222 S Dale Mabry Highway
  • Phone: 876-3528
  • Tables: one
  • Cost to play: 75 cents per game
  • Extras: full bar, wings, burgers, pasta, steaks.

THE RACK

  • Address: 1809 W Platt St.
  • Phone: 250-1595
  • Tables: nine
  • Cost to play: $8 first hour, $6 additional
  • Extras: full far; gourmet menu (lobster, steak, chicken, pasta, appetizers).

RED DOG BAR & GRILL

  • Address: 3311 W Bay to Bay Blvd.
  • Phone: 835-4347
  • Tables: two
  • Cost to play: 75 cents per game
  • Extras: beer and wine; burgers, sandwiches, salad, wings.

RICK'S ON THE RIVER

  • Address: 2305 N Willow Ave.
  • Phone: 251-0369
  • Tables: four
  • Cost to play: $1 per game
  • Extras: full bar; burgers, sandwiches, appetizers.

THE SPORTS SHAK

  • Address: 3814 W Neptune
  • Phone: 258-4200
  • Tables: one
  • Cost to play: $1 per game
  • Extras: full bar; wings, burgers, sandwiches.

TAMPA BAY BREWING CO.

  • Address: 1812 N 15th St.
  • Phone: 247-1422
  • Tables: one
  • Cost to play: 75 cents per game
  • Extras: beer and wine; steaks, seafood.

TAPPER PUB

  • Address: 3836 Britton Plaza
  • Phone: 839-7845
  • Tables: two
  • Cost to play: 50 cents per game
  • Extras: full bar; deli sandwiches.

TINY TAP TAVERN

  • Address: 2105 W Morrison Ave.
  • Phone: 258-5212
  • Tables: two
  • Cost to play: 25 cents per game
  • Extras: beer and wine; no food.

WAREHOUSE BAR & GRILL

  • Address: 4023 Gandy Blvd.
  • Phone: 831-9747
  • Tables: four
  • Cost to play: 50 cents
  • Extras: full bar; salads, wings, sandwiches, burgers, fish, pasta.

WHISKEY PARK SOHO

  • (Opens Oct. 29)
  • Address: 720 S Howard Ave.
  • Phone: 259-9669
  • Tables: four
  • Cost to play: undecided
  • Extras: full bar, eclectic American cuisine to include wings, seared tuna, chicken tenders, Mexican dishes, steaks.

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