Savvy bar hoppers can slip through hidden doorways and whisper secret passwords to gain entrance into exclusive clubs known for masterfully crafted cocktails. But if you’d like to catch a glimpse of L.A.’s historic speakeasy days, you need to look a little deeper.
During prohibition, the (literal) underground network of illegal alcohol and speakeasies that permeated the city’s downtown was not the work of mobsters like Al Capone, but rather a government racket run by the mayor and police chief. Now most of the subterranean evidence of this corruption has been hidden away. “There are no more functioning tunnels downtown,” says Richard Schave, downtown LA historian and owner of Esotouric tours. “The city closed them all up.”
But there is one place to see the last vestiges of this bygone era. When prohibition hit, the King Eddy Saloon—a long notorious dive bar later frequented by Charles Bukowski and Edward Burroughs—quickly pivoted from bar to … piano store. But the booze still flowed beneath the floorboards. “It’s the only authentic speakeasy location downtown,” Schave says.
The basement remains littered with prohibition-era artifacts, including the entrance of a now closed-off tunnel beneath the 5th St. sidewalk, a staircase to nowhere—likely once a secret entrance from the King Edward Hotel—drilled-out safes and a collapsed service elevator. The walls still boast original murals of beer kegs and an ironic portrait of a police officer wagging his finger at a drunk (photo above).
The King Eddy’s current owner plans to restore it to its former glory, keeping the historic features intact. In the meantime, the best way to see this hidden piece of history is on one of Schave’s tours. Esotouric’s “Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice” and “The Birth of Noir” tours both visit the old speakeasy.
Of course, once you’ve seen this rare slice of L.A., you’ll likely have a thirst for a backroom beverage. To get a proper craft cocktail with a prohibition-era vibe head to one of the city’s modernday speakeasies.
The Varnish is a classic choice with an unmarked entrance at the back of Cole’s Restaurant. Or head to the depths of Koreatown, where Lock & Key awaits behind a puzzle of faux locks and doorknobs, and the R Bar—marked only by a red “R” outside—requires a password to get in. Hint: You can find it on the bar’s Twitter and Facebook pages.
Travis Marshall is a Los Angeles-based adventure-travel writer who gets his kicks island hopping tropical archipelagos, scuba diving with sharks and exploring the California backcountry.
MORE SUMMER TRAVEL QUESTS
31) Visit an Authentic Speakeasy