July 23, 2015

Townhouse and the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice, California

Townhouse and Del Monte Speakeasy booths

photo by: Melissa Fuller

During Prohibition, a grocery store on the upper level was a front for a basement-level speakeasy, called Menotti’s Buffet. Today, you can order cocktails upstairs at Townhouse or in the basement at Del Monte Speakeasy.

As you might imagine, it wasn’t easy to get into Menotti’s Buffet during Prohibition -- and I mean that in many senses of the word. First, you had to know that the speakeasy even existed there in the basement of a Venice, California, grocery store. Plus, you also had to know the bartender. And then there was the part about actually getting down to where the alcohol was served. That required going through a trapdoor and into a tiny two-person, rope-operated dumbwaiter.

But in its 100 years, this bar -- the oldest bar in Venice, and one of the oldest in the greater Los Angeles area -- has always kept the party going.

Caesar Menotti opened his bar in 1915. Though this drinking establishment is now called Townhouse, with the Del Monte Speakeasy in the basement, you can still see its early name, Menotti’s Buffet, in tile near the front door.

Townhouse and Del Monte Speakeasy bar and lounge

photo by: Melissa Fuller

A trapdoor led to a basement speakeasy during Prohibition. Today, you can take stairs down to the Del Monte Speakeasy.

It was a popular local gathering place since its opening, but when Prohibition began in 1920, Menotti had to get creative. He turned the upper level of his business into a grocery store, laying out displays fruits and veggies. His bar set-up, meanwhile, was moved down to the secret basement location.

Getting liquor to his basement speakeasy required another level of secrecy, but again: Menotti got creative. He relied on a nearby pier and a network of underground tunnels to transport hooch to his illicit operation. You see, by law, alcohol couldn’t come within three miles of the coast. So Menotti would instruct his liquor ships (many of which came from Vancouver) to park just behind that three-mile point.

Smaller boats would then transport the goods underneath the pier, where there was a maze of maintenance tunnels that wound through downtown Venice -- and through Menotti’s basement. Once delivered to Menotti’s Buffet, Menotti would deliver liquor to the hotels across the street.

The police, it seems, turned a blind eye to these operations.

Townhouse and Del Monte Speakeasy grand piano

photo by: Melissa Fuller

Del Monte Speakeasy, in the basement below Townhouse, features live music and performances most nights.

The speakeasy ran until Prohibition ended in 1933. After the repeal, the grocery store was scrapped and the bar re-opened in the upstairs area. The downstairs area became Club Del Monte, a performance space.

There were some ownership changes in the following decades, as well as name changes. And a few structural changes, too -- for instance, in 1968, then-owners Frank and Annie Bennett added a staircase down into the basement, in lieu of the old trap door set-up.

Townhouse and Del Monte Speakeasy bottles

photo by: Melissa Fuller

Bartenders at Townhouse and the Del Monte Speakeasy serve classic cocktails, including their famous Moscow Mule.

Then in June 2007, local husband and wife duo Louie and Netty Ryan took over the bar and renovated the space. They restored the basement area, turning it into an elegant speakeasy that looks like it’s straight from the Prohibition era. There’s live music and entertainment most nights. Upstairs, there’s the Townhouse. Both floors serve hand-crafted cocktails. And both floors make it easy to think you’re back in Venice in the early 20th century.

Location: 52 Windward Ave., Venice, CA 90291

Hours: Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 2 a.m. Happy Hour runs 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

You’ll Have: The Moscow Mules here are famous. The key ingredient is the homemade ginger ale.

Look Out For: Ghosts! Legend has it the ghost of longtime owner Frank Bennett, who died in 2003, sits in his favorite corner booth.

Best Yelp Reviews: “George was my bartender, thought he was super sweet, was really knowledgeable of all the cocktails he made, had a great story behind each.”

“Walking in, I felt like I was in a movie set. Very comforting, cozy, relaxing, time [warped], yet I felt good.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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