Though up to 17 million visitors a year stroll along Venice’s Ocean Front Walk, in the 1920s the real action was happening right under it. That’s when rum-runners used Venice’s network of underground tunnels to shuttle their illicit wares from boats beneath the Venice Pier to the basement speakeasies lining Windward Avenue.
Of course Venice-of-America creator Abbot Kinney never imagined these activities when he dug the tunnels in 1905. Meant to be utility tunnels, they housed power lines and brought both fresh and hot salt water to the luxury hotels on both Windward Avenue and the beach.
The only prohibition at that time was an ordinance banning swimwear on Ocean Front Walk, and the tunnel leading from the basement of the St. Mark’s Hotel right to the sand allowed guests to get around (or rather under) it. By 1920, a different Prohibition ruled Venice and the rest of the USA, forcing bar owner Caesar Menotti to use the tunnels to keep his business going.
Changing the name from Menotti’s Bar to Menotti’s Buffet, he arranged for ships from Vancouver to anchor three miles out at sea, just outside US territorial waters. From there boats brought the booze to shore, where Menotti took it into the tunnels. In addition to his bar and bordello, now moved to the basement, Menotti also used the tunnels to supply the other Windward hotels.
Though Kinney, Menotti and the Venice Pier are long-gone, you can still get a taste of the 20s by visiting the Townhouse Bar, which occupies Menotti’s old speakeasy. You can still see “Menotti’s Buffet” spelled out in tile at the front door and if you look up from the street, there’s still an “M” painted on the brick wall on the east side of the building.
Once in the basement bar, if you ask nicely, you may even be shown to the back room to see the doorway to the tunnel, long since cemented over. Taking one of Vintage Venice Reel to Real’s Walking Tours is another great way of discovering Venice’s many secrets.
Jonathan Kaplan is the owner, founder and tour guide extraordinaire of Vintage Venice Tours