The Illegal Years of the Del Monte Speakeasy | KCET
The Illegal Years of the Del Monte Speakeasy
One of the hot new trends in bar construction these days -- an offshoot of the whole let's-pretend-we're-living-in-the-1920s design element that's taken over the business -- is creating a small side room in the corner, throwing up a sliding door with a peephole on it, giving it some exotic hours of operation, and calling it a speakeasy.
These are not speakeasies.
A speakeasy, by definition, is an establishment that serves alcohol without a license. Obviously, all of these expensive Neo-Prohibition Era joints make sure the i's are dotted and t's crossed in their liquor licenses before opening. These cute bits of design are nice nods to the past, when people were chugging booze under the cover of darkness, a constant threat of police raid hovering over. But they're fun, not real. A bit of bar Disneyfication to justify charging 14 dollars for a cocktail.
However, there's also a second group of bars that also claim to have speakeasies. These are establishments that have been around for so long, they have actual rooms on their premises that once housed places where you could get illegal hooch during that terrible time between 1920 and 1933. Walking into these living pieces of history is like stepping through a time machine. Even though the bars now serve alcohol legally, they just have a more legitimate feel to them. They're allowed to use the word "speakeasy" without shame. They've been grandfathered in.
The Del Monte Speakeasy, below the Townhouse in Venice, is one.
Opened in 1915 by Italian immigrant Cesar Menotti, the Townhouse was one of the more popular drinking posts on Venice's Windward Avenue. America's version of Venetians would flock into his saloon to get their snippets of town gossip and sense of community while swigging whiskies and rums. But when Prohibition hit, Menotti did what any self-respecting bar owner would do: He flat-out ignored it.
As a cover, Menotti laid out some food upstairs (currently where the Townhouse sits) and changed the bar proper into a grocer. "Yeah, we're a grocery store now," he'd tell the town's residents. "Sure, get your groceries here." But fruits and vegetable sales were but a small percentange of Menotti's income. Beneath the stands of produce was a basement full of booze, one that could only be accessed through a trap door, lowered on a rope-operated dumbwaiter two people at a time.
"There was a lot of bad hooch going around in those days," says George Czarnecki, 20-year veteran bartender of the Townhouse and resident historian. "Bathtub gun, moonshines, homemade wines. Monetti didn't deal with that."
Instead, Monetti brought his own. Back in those days, a giant pier with a spacious auditorium and dance hall jutted out into the Pacific near Abbott Kinney. National law stated that you couldn't bring alcohol within three miles of the coast, so Menotti would instruct his liquor ships -- coming down mostly from Canada -- to park the requisite distance and wait. Smaller boats would collect the booze and disappear under the pier into the labyrinth of maintenance tunnels that ran underneath Venice in those days. They'd stop at the Menotti's speakeasy first, before unloading the rest of their illegal stock to the rest of town.
"The cops just kind of turned a blind eye," says Czarnecki. "The Townhouse became a conduit for liquor all through Venice."
With 1933 and the end of Prohibition, Monetti dumped his produce stands and turned the upstairs back into the main working bar. But the downstairs speakeasy remained, mostly used as a performance space Monetti would open when he felt like it. That trend continued with the bar's second owner, Frank Bennett, who made one of the most dramatic structural changes to the building in 1968: Getting rid of the trap door in lieu of actual staircases.
Bennett lived upstairs, the bar acting as an extension of his living room. As Czarnecki tells us, the addition was less about drawing new customers as much as simply making the Townhouse a better place to live. "I used to say, this isn't a bar," says Czarnecki. "This was a club of one, and Frank was the only member." As such, Frank was not worried about putting money into advertising to bring more strangers into his home, believing instead in the power of word-of-mouth testimonials. "He'd say, 'George, if the people find us, that's good,'" says Czarnecki. "'If they can't find us, fuck 'em.'"
As you can imagine, this was not the hip and friendly establishment it is today, but instead a rough and rowdy place. "Frank never hired bouncers," says Czarnecki. "He'd say, 'I'd be damned if I was going to put a man at the door standing there with his thumb up his ass.'" The bartenders had to police the grounds on their own, a demanding job in the '70s and '80s when the area was ground zero for experimental drug use. "I assure you, every day I had people coming into that bar that were not of this planet. They were from a galaxy far, far away." The drug-addled clientele added to the dangerous texture of the local dive. "Sometimes it was a little tense in there," says Czarnecki. "You'd have some of the local wannabes mingling with the unsuspecting tourists mingling with the people who were really a little bit, there's no other kind word for it, deranged."
As Frank got older, his body ravaged with illness, he'd open the downstairs speakeasy less and less. Sometimes it would sit dark for a month or more. "He simply didn't want to monkey with it," says Czarnecki. After Frank passed, his son Dan took over the Townhouse for a few years before eventually putting the business up for sale. Money started creeping out of the woodwork from investors wanting to tear the building down and make it a commercial structure. "I was about to start looking for work," says the 67-year-old Czarnecki, "which, at my age, well, I haven't hit the bricks in a long time..." Luckily, Louie and Netty Ryan -- the husband-and-wife team responsible for Little Temple, Temple Bar and The Virgil -- stepped in.
They had their eyes on the place for awhile, particularly for the potential of having an actual, legitimate speakeasy on the premises. "Louie went to the designer [Natalie Chappelle] and said, can you decorate this so if Cesar Monetti himself stepped into it, he'd know where he was," says Czarnecki. "And I believe the old man would."
Now it's classic whiskeys upstairs, and craft cocktails downstairs. ("I am not the kind of person who does that," admits Czarnecki. "That's why they keep me upstairs.") The subterranean Del Monte Speakeasy offers a full calendar of entertainment programs, from a Wednesday night comedy show that LA Weekly named the "Best Comedy Show Below Sea Level" this past year, a weekly burlesque show, and bands and DJs of every sort.
"Some of the old-timers will complain about how they prefer the bad old days. 'George, it used to smell different in here.' Yes. It smelled like plumbing that hadn't been replaced since 1915, and cat urine from the feral cats that would use the place as a cat-box," says Czarnecki. "And I will tolerate that complaining for awhile. But then I have to bring them up short and point out that if it wasn't for Louie Ryan, we would probably be sipping Starbucks on that property instead of whiskey."
Thankfully, the Ryans don't follow old Frank Bennett's mindset when it comes to hiring security. "We don't have the crazies there anymore, the bewildered and bewildering people," says Czarnecki. They've instead been replaced by a younger crowd of artists, writers, and film industry folks. "The clientele comes in here as they always did, to cut deals, meet other people, sometimes to just sit alone and drink and think," says Czarnecki. "And sometimes just to drink. And we honor that, as we've done for 97 years."
There is another big difference at the Del Monte from the days when Cesar Monetti slung his illegal hooch. "Now, you don't have to know the password to get in."