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Nightlife: Santa Monica's Basement Tavern at the Victorian a hidden pleasure

The 'speak-easyish' bar inside a space that caters to weddings is less about high-end drinking and more about neighborly spirit.

July 16, 2010|By Charlie Amter, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Santa Monica is an easy place to find a good drink, with its myriad pubs, beloved dives, upscale lounges and casual wine-centric hangs. But speak-easy-style bourbon bars in basements of grand 19th century homes? Not so much.


FOR THE RECORD:
Basement Tavern: The Night Life article in Friday's Calendar section about the Basement Tavern at the Victorian in Santa Monica said that parking was free with validation. That service is not yet available.


Earlier this month that all changed as managers of Main Street's restored two-story house-for-hire, the Victorian — now mostly known as a wedding and events venue — quietly opened up a subterranean drinking den dubbed Basement Tavern at the Victorian, accessible only to in-the-know denizens who enter through a parking lot.

"We thought it was such a cool space that we wanted not only wedding guests but the general public to experience it," said leaseholder Garner Gerson earlier this week, from inside the handsome mahogany-laden hideaway near the California Heritage Museum.

"The property has been our family's for over 20 years, and it's always been utilized for events, but the public, aside from wedding guests, have never been allowed down here," Gerson said. He and his partners remodeled the space in June and added a back entrance to accommodate those lucky enough to stumble upon the space, which is decked out in basement-appropriate studded leather chairs, lighted candelabras and chandeliers.

For years, Gerson had kept hushed about the approximately 2,000-square-foot room (once partially a private wine cellar at the Victorian), mostly because of the steady parade of weddings that took place there every year.

But now the 27-year-old says he and his partners don't mind if weekend wedding guests upstairs co-mingle with casually dressed neighborhood drinkers downstairs.

"We do that with our other properties," Gerson said, alluding to his family's open-to-the-public Malibu Cafe at Calamigos Ranch, which also holds multiple nuptials on busy Saturdays. "It's the best mix of demographics."

But will wedding guests and barhoppers respond to Gerson's repeated usage of the word "speak-easy" to describe his new space? Or is that merely a marketing gimmick designed to cash in on a hunger for haunts hidden away from tourists?

Perhaps a bit of both, it turns out.

"We want to really give people a great speak-easyish experience like Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco," Gerson said.

For better or worse, "speak-easy" has become a catchall for any bar that is slightly difficult to locate. Basement Tavern at the Victorian, not a true speak-easy, such as the now-closed basement bar the Spot downtown, falls under an existing liquor license at 2640 Main St., in place since 1977. No password is required, and you'll find much more than classic cocktails on the menu (Corona beer, for example, is offered alongside food from neighboring restaurant La Vecchia Cucina).

That said, the experience of finding the place and then ducking down into the basement bar might come close enough to approximating a speak-easy for Westside residents who are hesitant to drive downtown for the Prohibition-era vibe of the Edison or the Varnish.

To find Basement Tavern, you'll have to enter around back, pass by the wafting stench of trash bins, navigate alongside a loading dock and then descend down a flight of stairs near an open kitchen, "Goodfellas"-style, into the dimly-lighted cellar decorated with a taxidermied deer head, pine floors, exposed cast-iron piping (painted red), turn-of-the-century scales, dark green couches and an entire wall of chalkboard.

Gerson's partner in the endeavor, Paulo Daguiar, stressed that the still-developing scene at the bar is markedly different than the aforementioned downtown bars, which emphasize cocktails and high-end mixology.

"Sometimes I feel uncomfortable ordering at downtown bars," the Brazilian-born bartender said Monday. "We want to make sure it's comfortable for anyone to order at the bar.... A girl can come in and order whatever she wants. It doesn't have to be bourbon."

Accordingly, the drink menu at Basement Tavern reflects the split personality of the hidden haunt: one part masculine meeting room for grooms-to-be drinking Delia's Elixir (a Bourbon-based cocktail with lime juice and agave nectar) and one part beach bar courting casual young women from nearby colleges with $3 Budweiser.

"We serve bourbon more to evoke the idea that it's a speak-easy," Gerson said. "What we're more about is the discovery of finding this place. The few guests we've had already feel like it's their local spot."

calendar@latimes.com

Basement Tavern at the Victorian

Where: 2640 Main St., Santa Monica

When: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays through Sundays

Price: No cover (free lot parking with validation)

Info.: ; http://www.thevictorian.com

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