By: James Bartlett
The PBS history series “Lost L.A.” recently looked at Prohibition and went hunting for hidden tunnels and speakeasys that still exist under some of the city’s bars.
One of the bars featured was The Townhouse in Venice, where owner Louie Ryan revealed the staircase that once lead to its illegal drinking joint – now called the Del Monte Speakeasy – and continues to keep locals happy. Back in those days though, a grocery store was the “official” business above ground.
Describing himself as “young at heart,” Ryan, 55, has lived in Venice Beach for over 23 years, but was born and raised in Dublin. He moved to American in 1985 “on a prayer,” and is happily married to Netty, with whom he has three children: son Liam and daughters Alanna and Maya.
“I still call Ireland home,” Ryan insisted, explaining that he first met Netty in New York
“Right away I loved the hustle bustle there, and I knew I wasn’t going back to Dublin.”
He recalls that at the time the economy was really bad in Ireland and “people were trying to leave in droves. America was the land of opportunity and I approached it that way.”
Arriving aged just 20, Ryan threw himself into what he called a “New York rock and roll fairytale,” and got a job at The Scrap Bar in Greenwich Village.
“It was a wildly popular place and the decor was very “Blade Runne,’ drawing all the rock stars of the time through the doors. The owners really liked me and it wasn’t long before I became a lead bartender, manager and eventually a partner.”
Still looking to explore, Louie and Netty made the move to the west coast in 1990, and now alongside The Townhouse they own The Virgil in Silver Lake, Hatchet Hall in Culver City and three coffee shops named Menotti’s.
Named in honor of Cesar Menotti, the man who ran The Townhouse before prohibition kicked in and he was forced underground, the coffehousesy are located beside The Townhouse and in Culver City and Hollywood.
The rest is history it seems, but Ryan credits his childhood in Dublin for his work ethic and business sense.
“I grew up in the back of a dressmaking shop, where me Ma tailored clothes for a living. I helped out there from an early age and learned the tricks of the trade,” he recalled.
As a result, Ryan can sew well – something that he laughingly admitted was an early surprise to his wife – and now he also has a routine that he says he sticks to five days a week.
He wakes up at 6 a.m. and makes a French press of – what else? - Menotti’s fresh coffee, which he shares with the family as they talk about the upcoming day. He drops 13-year-old Maya at school, then goes to the gym. Returning home, it’s time to “see what the day has in store.”
Netty and Louie work as a team, and early in the week they meet with the managers of the different businesses to discuss what’s coming up. That takes care of most operational things, and Louie indicated that he likes to spend more time at home, making dinner and “hanging out” with his family. “I still visit all the places quite frequently though,” he added.
Though he found it hard to choose, he says The Townhouse is his favorite bar – at least at the moment.
“It truly is the holy grail of bars,” he says. “It opened in 1915 and has survived Prohibition, the Great Depression and two World Wars. If the walls could talk, they would tell stories of Charlie Chaplin sitting at the bar, secret shows by The Doors, and gangsters, villains and crooked politicians frolicking underneath the sidewalks.”
It was at one of his former bars where he says he had his most memorable moment:
“Stevie Wonder told me that he loved what I had done with the décor, and then told his driver wanted to drive home that night! He is a funny guy.”
He’s also spent time with another musical legend.
“It was equally thrilling to get to know Prince, and being invited to his house several times where I played pool with him and had the pleasure of seeing him play a private show up close. What an honor!”
Even with such a busy life, Ryan still tries to get back to Ireland as often as he can.
“I visit once a year at least,” he said, “But I wish it was more frequent. I miss the people, the banter and the craic. There never a dull moment in conversation, and you are always taken ‘as you are.’ Authenticity is hard to find in this modern world, especially in L.A., but at home it runs rampant. Nothing like a season in the pub or a take-away at your cousin’s house around the table to remember who you are and put you back in sync.”
When he’s not working, Ryan likes to go a long way away – but not quite as far as Ireland.
“A perfect day for me is working in the greenhouse at my property in Costa Rica. My wife and I love it there, and we have built a very special place there that soothes every morsel of the mind, body and soul. We have fish ponds, chickens, organic eggs, vegetables and fruit galore. It a very special place.”
Retirement to Central America isn’t on the agenda just yet though.
“There is definitely a hotel in my future in Costa Rica, just so I won’t be bored down there, and there are plans to open more coffee shops here.” He also has his eyes “on a new project on the Venice boardwalk.”
Referring back to Irish authenticity, he addeds that “we have been fortunate to be able create places that foster a community and attract an unpretentious, diverse creative clientele. Who wouldn’t want to keep doing that?”
Though his eldest daughter Alanna is a third-grade teacher so won’t be going into the family business, Liam “has a natural gift, so I assume the legacy will continue,” he saids, adding that “It’s been such a fun ride so far.”