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Where to Recapture the Roaring Twenties in Modern-Day L.A.

Millenium Biltmore | Christi Nielsen / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Spend enough time in Los Angeles, and you'll realize how full of secrets it really is.

The sprawling city may provide glimpses into its dusty corners and underground passageways –– but seeing all it has to offer requires taking a good, long, hard look.

It’s not surprising, then, that many of its historic locations would have their own trap doors, password-protected entranceways and hush-hush staircases that lead to the most closely held secrets of the last 100 years.

That’s especially true for landmarks that date back to the 1920s and early 1930s –– when the Temperance Movement prevailed and the teetotalers banished booze with the passing of the 18th Amendment.

It was a dark chapter in Los Angeles history. But thankfully, the city was never really dry.

Some L.A. landmarks that didn’t just survive Prohibition –– they thrived, running wetter than ever.

Here are five of the best that remain today (though there’s no guarantee there’ll be a bottle or a barrel waiting for you on the other side).

1. Millennium Biltmore, Downtown L.A.

Millenium Biltmore | Christi Nielsen / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Millenium Biltmore | Christi Nielsen / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When The Biltmore Hotel opened in 1923, it provided world-class accommodations in an area of Los Angeles that was burgeoning: Downtown. Combining Greco-Roman and Spanish Renaissance styles, the country’s largest hotel west of Chicago was extravagant and elaborate –– successfully catering to both overnight guests and partiers just passing through the “Host of the Coast” (including Academy Awards ceremonies in the 1930s and early 1940s).

That was already two years after the passing of the Volstead Act, which outlawed alcoholic beverages until 1933. Like many other businesses, though, the Los Angeles Biltmore found a way around that –– ushering tippling guests into the Gold Room (known then as the “Palm Room”) through a hidden door and out onto Olive Street via a secret exit (now sealed off). There was also a place to hide liquor in the Presidential Suite, which –– as its name suggests –– hosted six U.S. presidents as well as a number of mobsters.

You could, of course, book a room at the Millennium Biltmore for a staycation to gain full access to the property. Or, join one of the walking tours offered by Los Angeles Conservancy Sundays at 2 p.m., which takes you into the Gold Room as well as the Galleria, Music Room, Emerald Room (a.k.a. the “hunting lodge”), and Crystal Ballroom. Stay for a drink at the Gallery Bar and Cognac Room, where it’s perfectly legal to enjoy a classic cocktail and a snack.

You may also reserve your spot for “high tea” in the three-story-high, cathedral-like Rendezvous Court (a.k.a. the original registration lobby) by calling the hotel at (213) 612-1562 or booking online.

2. Highland Park Bowl, Highland Park

Highland Park Bowl | Courtesy of Highland Park Bowl
Highland Park Bowl | Courtesy of Highland Park Bowl

Prohibition was also in full swing when Highland Park Bowl originally opened in 1927 – and it was one of the few speakeasies of the time that also featured a bowling alley. Now L.A.’s oldest operating bowling alley, Highland Park Bowl was reintroduced to Figueroa Street when 1933 Group –– so named for the year Prohibition ended – took over the space that had become Mr. T’s in 2016 and brought it back to its former 1920s-era glory.

Before the 21st Amendment was enacted –– thereby repealing Prohibition –– you could get your drink on at Highland Park Bowl simply by visiting the doctor’s office upstairs, getting a “prescription,” and filling it at the “pharmacy” in the front down below. Fortunately, medicinal whiskey could get you just as tipsy as illegal moonshine.

Take one of the eight wooden lanes (with magnificent exposed mechanical workings) for a spin, or just stop in for a craft cocktail, a pizza, or a show in the concert space, now known as “Mr. T’s Room.”

Advance reservations are highly recommended unless you’ve got a lot of time to kill –– and drinks to imbibe –– while waiting for a lane to open up. Reserve one lane for up to 6 people for an hour by calling (323) 257-2695.

3. The Fonda Theatre, Hollywood

Fonda Theatre | Sandi Hemmerlein
Fonda Theatre | Sandi Hemmerlein

The Fonda Theatre first opened in 1926 as the Carter DeHaven Music Box (later shortened to just the Music Box). Back then, it operated as a musical comedy theatre with Ziegfeld-style revues. But because Prohibition was well underway, there was something else you could find behind that Spanish Churrigueresque-style facade: a speakeasy!

Actually, you’d have to climb all the way up to the open-air “roof garden,” located way above the lobby, to get to it. And it’s still there, though not as enshrouded in secrecy. To find it, just look for the colonnade that leads to an enclosed rooftop pavilion. It still provides a nice respite for all that's happening in the concert venue down below.

Unfortunately, at this time you’ll need a ticket to the show to access the stunning rooftop views and drink like 1933 can’t come fast enough. But follow the calendar of Blue Palms Brew House, located just east of the Fonda Theatre entrance –– because the craft beer den has been known to invite its patrons upstairs.

4. Cartwheel Art’s Underground L.A. tour, Downtown L.A.

Want to get into some of the most notorious former speakeasies and underground tunnels that Downtown Los Angeles has to offer? Cartwheel Art has gained exclusive access to storied Prohibition-era spaces – some of which have been totally sealed off until recently.

Offered most Saturday afternoons and led by historical writer Hadley Meares, the tour meets at L.A.’s oldest public house, Cole’s French Dip –– a former Mickey Cohen haunt that boasts its own modern speakeasy in the back, The Varnish. (No password required.) There, you’ll also see the Red Car Bar, where a long-time Cole’s bartender kept the business going during Prohibition by substituting the real stuff with bitters (at 3 cents a shot) and "near beer" (at 10 cents a glass).

From there, the tour journeys past Skid Row and the city’s former “red-light district,” alongside more modern interpretations of the city’s hidden watering holes. Along the way, you’ll hear sordid stories of slashers, suicides, corruption and more. The exact locations on the tour are held as well-guarded secrets, so you’ll have to buy your ticket, and take the tour to find out all the juicy details.  

5. “The Great Scot” at Tam O’Shanter, Atwater Village

Tam O'Shanter | Sandi Hemmerlein
Tam O'Shanter | Sandi Hemmerlein

There may be no shortage of speakeasy-style cocktail dens in Los Angeles with their own unique “secret” entrances ­– whether through a refrigerator, a fake porno video store or a door with way too many knobs. But few of them are housed in actual historic buildings or are hosted by businesses that were actually open during Prohibition. 

That’s where the monthly speakeasy at Tam O’Shanter really stands out. Founded in 1922 by brothers-in-law Lawrence Frank and Walter Van de Kamp (of Lawry’s and Van de Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakeries fame) with Joe Montgomery as Montgomery's Country Inn, the restaurant began as a roadside diner on a dirt road in the old Los Angeles River floodplain. In those days, it was more focused on offering burgers than booze.

Now, however, the Tam offers Scottish-style dining in an Old World atmosphere, replete with spirits –– in both the dining room and pub, where you can sidle up to the Ale and Sandwich Bar for a bevy of alcoholic beverages. At the speakeasy event, however, a bar cart makes the rounds and offers plenty to choose from –– between classic cocktails and modern classics (including some that have been aged in barrels).

Follow Tam O’Shanter on Instagram or Facebook for announcements of upcoming dates (usually the third Friday) and details of how to RSVP. Limit 50 people per event, so get ready to pull the trigger quickly. With password in hand, you’ll arrive via a separate entrance, marked only by a red light, in an annex that dates back to the 1930s. There’s no cover charge, but a two-drink minimum is required.

Bonus: £10 (a.k.a. Ten Pound) at Montage Beverly Hills

£10 (Ten Pound Speakeasy) | Courtesy of Montage Beverly Hills
£10 (Ten Pound Speakeasy) | Courtesy of Montage Beverly Hills

Jazz Age speakeasies were probably never very glamorous – not if you were hiding away in a musty basement or squirreled away in an underground tunnel. But our rear-view romanticism of Prohibition has given birth to some larger-than-life (and better-than-reality) recreations of the speakeasy, despite the fact that it’s been perfectly legal to drink out in the open for the last 86 years.

That’s perhaps nowhere evident more than £10 (a.k.a. “Ten Pound”), a reservation-only bar that caters to single malt Scotch aficionados by hand pouring The Macallan over a frozen sphere of water imported from the Scottish Highlands. Some selections have been aged as long as 64 years – and are some of the rarest and most prized pours available anywhere in the world. Here, they’re paired with aged cheese and “premium bacon.”

Call or text (310) 906-7218 to secure your reservation for Tuesday through Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight (last seating at 10:30 p.m.). Upon arrival, you’ll sneak through the kitchen and ascend a hidden staircase to the second floor of the hotel, where you’ll find private lounge spaces overlooking Beverly Canon Gardens. There’s a required $50 minimum per person – no problem, considering the dram prices start at $45 and rise through the thousands. Cocktails are also available, ranging from $35 to $80.

Top Image: Millenium Biltmore | Christi Nielsen / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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