AIKEN, S.C. -- City Billiards has been around for nearly 50 years, and it is possible, from the looks of it, that in that time there hasn't been an upgrade or modernization of any kind.
Still, Michael Allen says people "are beating on the door at 10 a.m." when his place opens.
Allen's patrons, 75 percent of whom are repeat customers, don't care that the place is dark and dank and lacking in upscale ambience. It's food they want, and being able to play a little pool after a great burger doesn't hurt.
Aikenites who work in town eat here, some in business suits, and families make an evening of dinner and pool. City Billiards closes officially at midnight, but if people are having a good time at the pool table, Allen will keep the place open until they finish.
"Everybody calls it a 'Cheers' bar," Allen says, referring to the longtime television show, "because everybody knows everybody else. We have lots of visitors from all over the country, but for the most part, our customers are the regulars."
The food is so basic as to be boring, if it weren't for the taste, that is. The recipe for City Billiards chili is so protected that no one except Allen and a few chefs and waitresses knows it.
"You're not going to get the recipe for the chili here no matter how hard you try," says Allen, who bought the restaurant in 1994. "I had to buy the recipe," he jokes. "The restaurant was free."
You can't even order a bowl of the chili. It comes only on other things, such as hot dogs or hamburgers.
Chili dogs, which cost $1.85, are the most popular item here. Allen sells 67,000 of them a year -- in a small town of about 25,000. (Allen acknowledges he may have to raise prices a bit because "the price of meat has skyrocketed; it's out of sight.")
The City Billiards hamburger is legendary. It was developed before Atkins, South Beach, or Jenny Craig diets became popular. For $3.60, you get 6 ounces of one of the "juiciest, greasiest, most delicious hamburgers you've ever tasted -- we call it 'a heart attack on a plate,' " says Barbara Gassman of the Aiken Chamber of Commerce.
City Billiards is not where members of the Winter Colony would eat after fox hunting in the Hitchcock Woods or a polo match. For a fancy meal, they can retire to the massive old front veranda of the Willcox and the dining room there for elegant ambience and a wonderful meal.
But if you crave great and funky food and an evening of shooting pool, dress down and head over three blocks from the Willcox, to City Billiards.
City Billiards, 208 Richland Ave. West, Aiken, S.C. 803-649-7362. Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-midnight; dishes $1.50-$5.50.