By Michael Aushenker
The underground bars of the Roaring ‘20s come back to life on Dec. 5 — 80 years to the day since the repeal of Prohibition — with the revival of the era’s music and libation habits at a venue that once housed an actual speakeasy.
The Repeal Day Celebration at the basement-level Del Monte Speakeasy features the ragtime music of Brad Kay and his Regressive Jazz Quartet, tastings of period drinks and a talk by noted cocktail historian Richard Foss, The Argonaut’s restaurant critic.
The current owners of The Townhouse are only the third family to care-take this historic establishment since it opened in 1915. In 1921, The Townhouse became a grocery store with a speakeasy downstairs.
Whether the market part operated in earnest or was only a front is hard to say, but “I don’t think the cared if they did or didn’t [sell groceries],” said Brandon Ristaino, beverage director at The Townhouse and Del Monte Speakeasy as well as the director of operations for the ownership group Temple Bar Concepts.
Aside from a few cosmetic changes that have since been reversed to restore the lower-level’s original ambiance, the Del Monte Speakeasy “hasn’t changed,” Ristaino said. “The bones of the bar are still intact. It changed a bit and we brought it back in.”
Ristaino said the last six or seven years preceding the Prohibition became “the tail end of the golden age of the cocktail” in America. When alcohol became illegal and everything went subterranean, it not only disrupted the flow of alcohol but stemmed the creative flow of the art of cocktail-making. But during the Prohibition, some amazing cocktails were being created overseas in places such as Cuba, London, Paris, Singapore and Japan.
Foss, the California curator for the Museum of the American Cocktail and on the board of the Culinary Historians of Southern California, will deliver a talk titled “How Prohibition Changed America.”
His first book, “Rum: A Global History,” was published by Reaktion Books in 2012, and his next, “Food in Flight From the Zeppelin Era to the Space Station,” will be released in next year by AltaMira Publishing.
“The Del Monte will be the perfect place for this lecture,” said Foss. “It is the second-oldest remaining bar in Los Angeles (after Cole’s in downtown L.A.) and the downstairs room where this lecture will be given was a speakeasy in the 1920s, complete with tunnels under the street to a nearby hotel to facilitate illegal liquor shipments.”
Also, “I particularly like lecturing about cocktails while people drink them,” he said.
For the $25 admission price, attendees will get to try the very cocktails Foss will be historically dissecting, including pisco punch, Irish whiskey punch and at least one gin drink.
“I’m going to have a hard time working,” said Ristaino, the evening’s mixologist. “I want to sit down and listen to Richard and enjoy the music. It’s going to be a blast.”
The Townhouse Repeal Day Celebration takes place Dec. 5 at Del Monte Speakeasy, 52 Windward Ave., Venice. Cost is $25, including cocktails. Call (310) 392-4040 or visit townhousevenice.com.