Fewer and fewer locals can remember Rancho Bowl when it first opened its doors in 1959, but the proud band of customers who swill black coffee at the coffee shop counter each week sure do. Much has changed since those early years—including the addition of DJ nights, 24 state-of-the-art bowling lanes, and ongoing remodeling throughout—but the loyal old-timers will also tell you that just as much has stayed the same.
“Most people who have lived in the Santa Maria area forever really grew up in this bowling alley and knew owners Mili and Barbara Acquistapace,” Brenda Vasquez said. “They were just amazing people. Everyone who works here has been here for at least 10 years, and some have been here more than 35. There’s a reason for that.”
The old-school, Santa Maria-style barbecue and banquet room where local folks routinely wed up and party down, the retro-chic bar adorned in black-and-white photos, and the family-owned-and-operated feel keep the spirit of the late owners alive and well.
And then there’s the food, which is neither completely fixed in the past nor surging into the future. If you ask Vasquez, the bowl’s executive chef and manager, the menu (which features breakfast, lunch, and dinner) is a blend of mid-century diner comfort and modern culinary creation.
With entrees like the Mac Attack burger—laden with crispy mac-and-cheese balls that take a good two days to make, shredded sharp cheddar, warm cheese sauce, and spicy house Sriracha ketchup on a local Edna’s Bakery bun—or appetizers like the Original L.A. Dirt Dog—a quarter-pound hot dog swathed in bacon and served with beer-soaked caramelized onions and more cheese—it’s evident that there’s way more to sink your fingers into around here than a bowling ball.
Not quite in the mood for red meat and a pitcher of 805? There are also plenty of greens to be had, and we’re not talking about bagged iceburg here. Vasquez’s Asian chicken salad is bursting with super fresh greens plucked from the family’s own lettuce farm. Fun fact: Before Mili Acquistapace erected the bowling alley, he farmed the land beneath it. His daughter, Victoria Murray, now owns and operates the bowling center along with her son.
“I pickle my own cucumbers, and we use grilled chicken with our own Rancho Bowl seasoning, famous for the past 40 years,” Vasquez said. “Our new barbecue pork egg roll is stuffed with shredded pork, spicy slaw with apple, jicama, cabbage, serrano pepper, and shredded red onion, with our homemade barbecue sauce. I don’t even know the recipe for that sauce—it’s a family recipe.”
Regardless of this secrecy, Vasquez is certainly part of the Rancho Bowl family. She grew up in Santa Maria and worked at the bowling center’s bar and restaurant for six years before attending the Culinary Institute of Arizona. There, she worked under renowned chefs at The Sanctuary Resort and Elements restaurant, honing her skills and refining her craft. When Vasquez received a call about six months ago detailing structural renovations and a menu overhaul, she was ready to come home to Rancho Bowl.
“I was so happy to come back; these people are like my family,” Vasquez said. “They flew me out and said, ‘Show me a menu.’ So I showed them a menu. This is now a 90-percent-from-scratch kitchen, and I am dedicated to keeping the homemade feel. I love fine dining, and I am very passionate about food, but I also want to be making food that makes people happy.”
With a bit of helpful advice from Chef Ryan Gromfin of Moxie fame, the chef worked to create an original menu that’s all at once delicious, high quality, and palatable to a family-friendly Santa Maria market. Food sales have tripled as of late, while some aspects of the bar—like the swanky lounge—have never needed much advertising.
“The bar is part of the community and has become almost a landmark,” Assistant Bar Manager Charlie Kim said. “You get kids who grew up here, their kids’ kids. … We have DJs every night of the week and live music as well. With the Memorial Day Weekend car show, we have a huge event here at Rancho Bowl, with bands playing out on the lanes.”
A trip to Rancho Bowl would not be complete without chatting up one of the establishment’s longtime employees. Karen Cobb has worked at the bowling center for more than 20 years and remembers when a drive-in movie theater used to sit a stone’s throw from the lanes (then in a location considered “out of town”). She now brings her 4-year-old grandson to the bowling center to try his luck.
“We will always have that loyal following from the older people, but now we are seeing that new generation and younger kids come in,” Cobb said. “We want this to be a place where people can come out and bring their small kids and really enjoy their time together.”
Now, that enjoyment can span a strike, a cocktail, or a killer open-faced sando smothered in onions and house-made chili.
Added Bar Manager Ryan Funk, “Right now, we want all of Rancho Bowl to be a draw, not just the bar or bowling, but the food as well. We don’t want it to be a best kept secret.”
Hayley Thomas is still terrible at bowling. Contact her at [email protected].