“Heya, Chip!” a patron yells jovially to the bartender. “Can I get a perfect trifecta? A beer, a deck of cards and a cribbage board, please?” Within seconds, the bartender slides a Coors down the length of the bar with the man’s two other requests. Outside, a wintry mix starts to mellow as cars whoosh through the slush.

At Ernie’s Pool & Darts on Forest Avenue in Portland, there are eight pool tables in a room as long as a bowling alley. The ceiling is low and emerald light fixtures hang over each table. Two TVs are mounted at opposite ends of the room, but no one seems to pay any attention to them. In a room of 50 or more people on any given night, the focus is almost always on the green-felted game.

Wall space is decorated mostly with vintage black and white photos of men playing pool and some beer paraphernalia, such as a Bud Light clock and a Shipyard Brewery mirror. If cigarettes were still allowed in bars, this is the kind of place that would likely be permeated with smoke, but the air is clean and the mood is light.

While a handful of people play a round of cards at a side counter, or a solitary game of digital poker at the bar, there’s a steady din of billiard balls cracking against each other, and an occasional “nice shot” mumbled under breath. Somewhere out of sight, there’s a jukebox playing a snappy country song, but when the music cuts off and there’s nothing in the queue, Ernie’s is, believe it or not, rather quiet.

The bartenders are friends or family members of owner Ernie Rouleau, and if you’re a new face, they’ll welcome you with a warm smile and quick run-down of the menu. There’s no happy hour, but none of the drinks are more than $4 (Natural Light and Busch Light are always $1 on tap) and the bar food – like the steak ’n cheese and meatball sub – are all made to order (unless you grab a bag of chips or a candy bar for a $1). The kitchen space is small, but there might be some steak sizzling on the grill, a handmade personal pizza cooking in the oven and a soft pretzel plumping in the microwave.

As people finish a game or wait a turn, they come up for another round, a snack or to pay their tab.

There’s a half-hour minimum per pool table. The prices range from $4 to $10 per hour, depending on how many people are playing. Ping-pong is $6 an hour.

Every Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m. there’s a pool tournament with a $10 entry fee. And on Dec. 29 there will be a Christmas party and Yankee Swap at 2:30 p.m.

When the jukebox kicks on again, the room comes back to life – the tension of the game breaks and people are laughing and cracking jokes. There’s a community at Ernie’s, but not one that will dismiss newcomers. Ernie’s is enjoyed best with a group of friends looking to drink cheap and play.

When one of the bartenders gets off shift and another takes over (Ernie’s is open late, after all), she grabs a cue stick and joins a team.

Above the refrigerators, which are stocked to the brim with beer bottles and wine, a sign reads, “Welcome to Ernie’s, where the fun never stops.”

Claire Jeffers is a Portland freelance writer.

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