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12-25-2003, 03:51 AM
Recreation Billiards remains true to its character(s)
- Ed Bumgardner
Thursday, December 25, 2003


Character. That's what Recreation Billiards, a fixture on Fourth Street since 1949, is all about.

The place reeks of it, among other things, and God knows it has catered to a few. It's a joint, a place to unwind, shoot some stick and discuss ... life. It's the kind of place, at least in the movies, where nobody knows your real name.

To more conservative types, Recreation Billiards may seem out of place in the "revitalization" of gentrified downtown. To others, it is the one true part of downtown Winston-Salem that still exists. It boasts history. It boasts a sense of place and purpose. The lack of pretension in the place is noticeable and appreciated. It is a neighborhood bar without a neighborhood, but with neighbors and, on occasion, hoods.

Rec Billiards, as the place is popularly known, is old. Owner Pete Bambalis - his father George started the business - is determined to keep it the way he found it when he took over in 1960.

"I'm old, this place is old, and I'm proud of it," Bambalis said during a recent visit. "We ain't going anywhere, and we ain't changing anything."

And he means it. Walking into Rec Billiards is like walking into a time warp. There is nothing remotely contemporary in the room, except for a CD jukebox (and even that is well-worn and filled with old music). An ancient-looking cooler keeps the beer - largely American, by golly - at polar temperature. An archaeological artifact of a cigarette display keeps an assortment of smokes at the ready. Financial transactions are tilled in an old cash register. No cell phones. No computers. No yuppies.

The area behind the bar and the room's wooden walls are papered with memorabilia - from vintage posters and photos of vintage aircraft - and wonderful pictures of Bambalis and his father in military service - to old FBI wanted posters, a history of John Dillinger (for educational purposes only) and ads for Carolina Street Scene - a long-defunct street festival.

Everything in the bar, like the room itself, is used and comfortable, a feast of memories. The wooden bar is long and battered, its stools well-polished by the tailgates of generations of pool players and suds sippers.

The room is dim - the only light stems from the lamps that illuminate the four well-maintained pool tables. It always seems smoky, even when nobody is smoking, which is rare. And there was a time, years ago, when traveling pool sharks would float through in search of fattened pigeons. But those time are gone. The hustlers are a dying breed. These days, people shoot pool to pass the time.

Then there is the name.

"Don't nobody play billiards here," Bambalis said, looking flabbergasted at such a notion. "Just pool, and some people don't do it well."

So much for truth in advertising.

Where are you: Recreation Billiards

Address: 412 W. Fourth St.

Phone: It wasn't visible on a recent visit, but there is a number: 725-6006.

Web site: In a nook and cranny, and made by spiders.

What it's known for: Recreation, which includes playing pool and toning biceps doing 12-ounce Budweiser curls.

The crowd: When Recreation Billiards opened in 1949, Bambalis said that the bar's patrons were largely white-collar workers who came in to relax, have a drink, play a little eight-ball and discuss the events of the day. Times change, even if the bar doesn't. These days, the clientele is largely blue-collar, ethnically mixed. Bambalis said that the place is a lure for veterans. Men far, far out-number women. Chances are great that some unaccompanied females found in the room will not be there for the pool.

The music: Whatever is playing on the radio, or selections from the CD jukebox.

The stuff: Pool tables. Not billiard tables. Not snooker tables. Pool tables.

The scene: This may be a bar, and a great bar, but it is not Cheers. Think film noir. Think Edward G. Robinson. Do not think Paul Newman. It is dark. It is smoky. The beer is cold, cheap and bottomless.

Dancing: Only the Victory Dance and the Loser's Shuffle.

What people wear: Blue-collar fashion and thrift-store chic is all the rage.

Eats and drinks: Pickled eggs, peanuts, potato chips and beer. No mixed drinks. Just beer and cigarettes - perfect for folks on the John Mellencamp diet.

relish staff writer ebumgardner@wsjournal.com

This story can be found at: http://www.journalnow.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=WSJ%2FMGArticle%2FWSJ_RelishArt icle&c=MGArticle&cid=1031772764783&path=!entertain ment!general&s=1037645508970