The owner of what is believed to be the largest billiards parlor in the United States likes to joke that the key to success is found in low expectations. And not because the three-month-old pool palace is located in one of the least-populated states in the union.

From the outside, the nearly 29,000-square feet building looks like another Quonset hut on the frozen plains of North Dakota. On the inside, it's a Vegas showroom with hardwood floors, fashionable lighting, original artwork and bathrooms with floor-to-ceiling tiling, granite countertops and stainless steel sinks.

"It doesn't fit Fargo at all," college student Courtney Homen said one night between games of 9-ball. "But everybody really loves it."

The $3.7 million Fargo Billiards & Gastropub is the dream business of former North Dakota State University professor Mike Page, 52, who decided he wanted to teach billiards instead of chemistry and physics. The massive parlor with 58 tables includes a pro shop and classroom that's home to the Fargo Billiards Academy.

As serious as that sounds, Page's target audience is bad pool players. The centerpiece is the Gastropub, a 3,000-square feet elevated restaurant and lounge in the middle of the hall. Page worked with the city of Fargo to create a new liquor license that requires him to sell more in food, equipment and table rental than alcohol.

"I knew that to introduce new people to the game I really needed to have good food and a comfortable environment that people would come to without deciding to play pool," Page said. "They come in for other reasons and slowly get exposed to the game."

The restaurant features a steak called the Fargo Ribeye, an appetizer plate called the Gastropub Gaggle, portions to match the size of the hall, and 24 beers on tap.

Prominently displayed on its own near the entrance is Page's prized possession, a 9-foot pro-cut Diamond brand table with the tightest pockets in the parlor. Most of the other 57 tables are grouped into five separate areas, including a section for players under 21.

There are three private event rooms with tables named after prominent pool players Allison Fisher, Willie Mosconi and Mark Twain. Former professional pool player Mike "Chewy" Chewakin is available to entertain groups with a trick shot exhibition.

"It's very big as billiard parlors go. But I don't think it has a sense of being big," Page said. "Wherever you are in here, you're in almost a neighborhood with its own sense of intimacy."

Billiards Digest lists the parlor as the largest in the country by total area. It's located near the intersection of Interstate 29, which straddles the North Dakota-Minnesota border, and Interstate 94. That puts most of the people in a metro area of 200,000 within 15 minutes of the building.

The Fargo campus of Seattle's Microsoft Corp., one of the area's largest employers, is located about half a mile from the parlor. Brian Schulz, 42, a manager of customer relations, said he's brought his employees and Microsoft visitors from around the world to the pool hall.

"The word has definitely spread around Microsoft," Schulz said. "It's fun to hang out, have some beers and play some stick. We make it our team-building event."

Page, who grew up playing pool in the suburbs of New York City but didn't get serious until he was 40, said he got pieces of ideas for the business from playing in hundreds of pool rooms across about 30 states. He originally thought he could get it built for about $2 million, but said the price tag increased because of "quality decisions" along the way.

"Mike decided, 'Let's do it right and make it ours. Let's not use something somebody else had,'" said Ben Hill, the Gastropub's food and beverage manager.

"Utopia. It's the most beautiful thing I've seen," said resident pro Rory Hendrickson, 40, who has traveled around the country playing tournaments. "For being a pool player and enjoying the game, this is it."

Page has spent the first three months of operation giving lessons, helping with leagues, working on the books and doing all the little things for a business with 55 employees. He's confident in the parlor's survival and said he's hoping to enjoy the benefits of ownership now that it's on the map.

"Right now I own a billiard parlor and I don't play pool. I own a restaurant and I don't eat," he said, laughing.


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