By Jesse Wood
While Country Retreat Family Billiards & Grill is known far and wide as offering the highest-quality pool experience minus the booze and second-hand smoke, its grill is one of those best-kept secrets in the High Country – one that probably isn’t a secret anymore.
“I’ll tell you this, he’s got the best hamburger in the High Country,” said regular Joe Van Zandt, who has been going to the pool hall to play and dine for nearly 10 years.
When owner Chris Aldridge, a life-long pool player, decided to open a pool hall in Foscoe in the summer of 1996, he didn’t expect the food portion of the business to dominate sales like it has.
“I really planned to operate more of a pool room,” Aldridge said. “[But food is] my main business. I pretty much didn’t plan it that way, but that’s the way it’s worked out.”
In 2006, Aldridge told High Country Press that 50 to 60 percent of his business was food, 20 percent from pool table rentals and 20 to 25 percent from sales of pool tables and pool-related merchandise. Today, he estimates that up to 85 percent of his business comes from the kitchen.
Aside from quality and taste, some of the allure of Family Billiard’s grill could be chalked up to consistency. Chef Barnett Blair has cooked at the pool hall for the past 14 years, and Aldridge said the menu has barely changed in the past 19 years.
“Most of our customers are regulars. I think we have a very good reputation for having good quality food,” Aldridge said. “We are largely famous for our burgers and sandwiches and salads and Barnett’s daily specials.”
Aldridge was born in Asheville and raised in Princeton, N.J. His parents bought a pool table for Christmas when Aldridge was 5 – and he never stopped playing. Because his father was from Foscoe, Aldridge set his sights on Appalachian State University, where he played pool in a college-associated program and graduated with a degree in psychology in 1978.
According to the business profile in 2006, Aldridge worked in the mental health field up North for several years before becoming “burned out” and returning to the High Country. Eventually, he decided to follow his dream of opening a pool hall.
While the great food is the majority of the business, Family Billiards has a strong core of pool-player regulars. It truly is an exceptional place to play. The tables are of the highest quality – understatedly better than any pool tables you’ll find in some of the bars around town.
Family Billiard’s tables are real tables that feature one-inch think slate imported from Italy or South America underneath the fine, tightly-woven cloth – as opposed to MDF or another poor-quality, lighter and cheaper substitute found at bars.
“As far as high quality nine-foot pool tables, we’re the only game in town,” Aldridge said. “That’s just because there isn’t a lot of demand for pool halls like there has been in the past. I don’t expect much competition.”
On Sundays, which is the only day that Family Billiard’s is closed, Aldridge will spend his time vacuuming, brushing and polishing the tables. He keeps the place spotless and tables in excellent condition.
“I am pretty neurotic about keeping them in very good condition,” Aldridge said.
Van Zandt, the regular who is from Wisconsin before moving to the High Country 10 years ago, said that he’s played in pool halls all over the Midwest when he was younger and now all over the Southeast.
“I would say that Family Billiards is right up there at the top,” Van Zandt said.
Just a testament to how serious he is about the quality of pool at Family Billiards: it’s not unusual to see professional players hanging out at Family Billiards while vacationing in the mountains.
“On a Tuesday night, you might see Alison Fisher, the best female player in the world, there,” Van Zandt said. “He’s friends with a lot of top professional players. A lot of people don’t know this. North Carolina is home to probably half of the great pool players in the world. For some reason, they all gravitate to North Carolina, and he knows most of them.”
Van Zandt has nothing but raving reviews of Aldridge and his business – the food and the pool. He loves the handicapped tournaments each Monday at 7 p.m., where players of all skill levels have a chance to win. He likes the family-oriented atmosphere that is conducive to children learning the game. He likes that Aldridge will lend a hand to novices unprompted – and for free.
“If you are a new player, he doesn’t charge you anything. He’ll come over and give you advice on how to hold the cue and what you are doing wrong and right,” Van Zandt said.
Over the years, the popularity of pool has dwindled. The younger generation doesn’t play pool as much as older folks. Aldridge used to sell pool tables, but he’s not a dealer anymore. He’ll still keep an eye out for used tables on the market and sell them to customers if he knows a person is in need of a pool table.
Family Billiards will also breakdown and move tables for people that are buying one or are moving somewhere, and it will provide installation services, re-clothing or repairs to pool tables.
Family Billiards is located at 9021 N.C. 105 in Foscoe. The pool hall and restaurant is open from 11:00 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The grill shuts down at 8:30 p.m.