Farewell to the 18th Amendment. Seventy-nine years ago today, on Dec. 5, booze in the United States flowed freely again. Celebrate the repeal of Prohibition at the longest continuously running bar in Los Angeles. “We never technically closed during Prohibition,” General Manager and Beverage Director Brandon Ristaino says, referring to Townhouse and the Del Monte Speakeasy below it, on Windward Ave. in Venice.
Menotti's Buffet (now Townhouse) opened for business in 1915, and when Prohibition began, owner Cesar Menotti turned his downstairs into a grocery store — and pop-up speakeasy. Small Canadian boats smuggled whiskey and rum from the Abbot Kinney Pier through tunnels that ran under Venice Beach to his basement. In a back room a cemented tunnel entrance supposedly leads to downtown's King Eddy Saloon (which will close on Dec. 16 to change ownership).
In 1972, Ronald and Annie Bennett bought the building, now named Grady's Town House, and shortened the name to Townhouse.
Current owners Louie and Netty Ryan took over in 2007, adding the bar to their growing list of successful ventures: Temple Bar, Little Temple, Zanzibar. The husband-and-wife team wanted to spruce up the joint while retaining the soul of Venice. The duo tapped Ristaino (Thirsty Crow, Big Foot West) to launch a classic cocktail program. Townhouse serves over 100 whiskeys, primarily American, and offers the largest American whiskey selection on the Westside.
“It wouldn't fit to drop a molecular mixology type program upstairs,” Ristaino says. That is better suited for the downstairs speakeasy, which reopened late last year and boasts a craft cocktail program, highlighting in-house syrups and juices. The staff visits farmers markets several times a week, and Del Monte changes its menu every season. The menu (Ristaino's fifth) this fall features Grapes of Wrath (vodka, muddled red grapes, lemon, and Grenache syrup), Cinnful Harvest (Genever, date syrup, grapefruit juice, lemon, cinnamon), or the biggest seller, Notorious F.I.G. (Scotch, fig, Absinthe, basil, lemon, egg white, soda).
“A year before I got here the top six selling cocktails were Jägerbomb, Car Bomb, Redheaded Slut, Kamikaze shot, Vodka Red Bull Vodka and Margarita,” says Ristaino. “Now, it's Old-fashioned Bourbon, Old-fashioned Rye, Manhattan, Sazerac, Tom Collins and French 75.” Ristaino says customers' orders have become more sophisticated, though he never wants to intimidate anyone.
That's a tall order for a connoisseur who reads one cocktail book a week. Ristaino has done his research. His menu pays its respects to another bar with similar reductionist philosophies. The Moonlight (Bonded Apply Brandy, lemon, soda, Gala apple, served Collins style) is courtesy of Dutch Kills Bar in Long Island City, NY, which in turn borrowed a page from the Savoy Cocktail Book of 1935.
Del Monte Speakeasy features a burlesque and comedy show every Wednesday and scores high-quality music acts thanks to Sly Stone's daughter Novena Carmel and Carlos Niño, who book talent like Talib Kweli, Feist, Raphael Saadiq, and DJ Mayer Hawthorne. It's only fitting from the venue where Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction performed, and clientele like Charlie Chaplin, Charles Bukowski and Jim Morrison chilled (and in Morrison's case, were often thrown out).
This Wednesday, wax nostalgic at Townhouse's Pig n' Punch Party. Swing like it's 1933, especially with drink prices frozen in time from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Dustbowl Revival will bang out the tunes, while you sip $5 Prohibition Punch and sample free pig roast.
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