Santa Ynez Billiards & Café is owned by a Syrian family and located on the main entry road into the tiny town. | Credit: Courtesy

Being on the frontline of restaurant news, I’m often aware of openings, closings, and notable changes to establishments before the general public. This is especially true for well-funded eateries — such as those inside resorts, whose press releases hit my inbox with a frequent fury — and for those that enlist the services of effective public relations pros who understand my interests and process. 

Amid that barrage, the harder stories to find and prioritize are about those smaller, family-run restaurants that quietly do their thing while amassing crowds of mostly local fans. They’re not spending money on marketing; they don’t have time to send me an introductory email (though that’s shockingly simple too:; and they’re sometimes even too busy to want much more attention anyway. 

Covering those under-the-radar restaurants requires a bit more old-fashioned, ear-to-the-ground, gumshoe reporting. My research typically begins when I get a tip from other food industry insiders, and then I follow up with anonymous visits to test the waters before deciding to dive into telling the tale. 

That’s how I found myself earlier this week parking in a mostly empty lot around noon at Santa Ynez Billiards & Café, located at 1000 Edison Street on the tiny town’s main entry road. Inside, as advertised, were a few pool tables — no one was shooting — as well as a short bar and casual walk-up food counter, with a large menu scrawled atop. There was a collection of standard Central Coast eatery items — sandwiches, burgers, salads, chicken wings, fish ’n’ chips, etc. — but the Middle Eastern offerings of falafel, shawarma, and tabouli were why I’d come.   

Falafel wrap and tabouli salad are just two of the Middle Eastern menu items at Santa Ynez Billiards & Café. | Credit: Courtesy

I first heard about this place from someone who heard about it from a certain Los Alamos restaurateur, so I started checking out its menu online in recent weeks. It certainly wasn’t flashy, but it was definitely unlike most of the other food in the Santa Ynez Valley, where the ongoing culinary renaissance leans more toward pricey Euro and Cali farm-to-table than affordable Levant. 

So when I finished up meeting with Âmevive winemaker Alice Anderson at the nearby Ibarra & Young Vineyard right around lunch time on Tuesday, the billiards joint came to mind. She knew it well and recommended the falafel. 

Like everything else — aside from the burger patties, chicken wings and tenders, and fish & chips — the falafel is handmade by Ray and Amal Abdulaziz, the Syrian couple who moved from Michigan to open the café in 2015. Originally, according to their son, Matt Abdulaziz, they planned to just run a pool room and sports bar, encouraged by extended family who owned many, perhaps most, of the small markets around the Santa Ynez Valley, including the Rio Market across the street. 

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But one day, Matt encouraged patrons — who were otherwise unenthused by the small menu of lifeless bar food — to try his parents’ chicken shawarma. He’d take it off their bill if they didn’t like it. Of course, they loved it, and suddenly people were specifically requesting the shawarma.

The menu grew, as did the popularity. “Now, it’s more of a restaurant,” said Abdulaziz. “All of our business is food.” Almost no one plays pool anymore. 

They’ve considered tossing the billiards, moving the bar, adding more tables, and doing special entrees, but that would mean more employees and higher prices. “People know us as the really funky, hidden-gem spot,” said Abdulaziz, and they’ll stick with this format for the time being. “It kind of works.”

My humble falafel wrap, to which I added hummus, was fantastic. Tightly wound with a pliant pita into a dense tube, its golf-ball-sized falafel was crunchy and savory, its pickled turnips and Persian cucumbers tart and snappy, its hummus soft and comforting. I could tell the tabouli salad’s parsley had been recently hand-chopped, as it remained stiff and fresh in the side dish. I wished I had ordered even more. 

All that, with a pint of Guinness, was just $25, minus tip, and you could get out of there for $12 if you needed to. I’ve been known to drop $50-plus rather easily for lunch at fancier spots around the corner. 

There’s much more to the Santa Ynez Billiards & Café story, but I’ll write that up in a proper feature down the road. After all, I still need to try the lamb kebabs, chicken shawarma, spicy garlic paste, and lentil soup. (Update: You can read that feature here.)

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