Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Basement Tavern on Main Street!
Bringing the Cool to Santa Monica
"For some reason, the cool bars in Hollywood have to be hard to find, and have no sign. It's kind of like a speakeasy kind of thing. It's kind of cool. It's like you're in on some kind of secret, you know? You tell a chick you've been some place, it's like bragging you know how to find it."
So yes the above statement (delivered by Jon Favreau in Swingers) is true for the bars of Hollywood but chances are it never cross the minds of the people of Santa Monica that we’d truly have a gosh honest cool bar in our somewhat quiet beach town. Yet seven months ago that’s exactly what happened with the appearance of the Basement Tavern @ the Victorian.
One of the best kept secrets on Main Street. Some people might not even know there’s a bar there because the Basement Tavern is hidden underneath the historic Victorian house in (where else of all places) the basement. But we all know it’s not just the location that makes something cool (and while we’re talking about it there are a lot of things that can make a bar un-cool: pretentiousness, overcrowding, overpriced drinks, really anything that shows the seams that it’s trying to be cool, thus having it pass by the state of cool to the state of un-coolness).
But Basement Tavern is cool. A speakeasy (which is yes a super hip word in the bar world at the moment but works in this case) that has live music five days a week and nary a cover charge. There’s no website so don’t even look (although there is a pretty active Facebook Page). There no Red Bull and Vodka served on the premises (Hooray to that one) instead Santa Monica casualness is mixed with high class Bourbon mixology. Oh, and there’s no sign (okay there’s one but its teeny tiny).
“The average guest is way smarter than you think they are,” notes Garner Gerson co-owner of the Basement Tavern. He and his business partner Paulo Daguiar were interested opening the basement space at the Victorian with minimum modifications but both of them were aware that it had to be a very specific concept. “We knew we couldn’t open up a dive bar, or a sushi restaurant, or a nightclub,” notes Garner. “It had to be this bar.” The bar has an ultra lounge feel that’s not overwhelming. Garner continues, “it’s a place where people can go out and feel comfortable at a great price.”
Up until a year ago the Victoria was known as the place you go to for the farmers market or to do weddings yes, but not yet the hippest kid on the block. This yellow shingled Victorian mansion has quite a history. The building, actually built in 1892 and located near the Hotel Miramar, was picked up and moved to its Main Street location in 1973. The building was then a variety of restaurants, but in 1989 Gerson’s father took over running the house and the Victorian House has been in the family ever since.
A couple of years ago Garner and his brother Garrett considered utilizing the basement space, with hope of making it into the Ivy for the Westside. Which is definitely tricky when we’re in the middle of an economic crisis and no one wants to spend seventeen dollars on a cocktail. But the Boys of the Basement took it on as a challenge. “What Paolo has done with price points of cocktails is amazing” notes Garner. The Bourbon based cocktails at Basement Tavern all run between eight to ten dollars. “This was able to happen by making specific choices, like not having cocktail service and bringing in Brad.”
Ah yes, Brad. If Garner and Paolo are the brains and the drive of the Basement Tavern than Brad Twigg is the heart and soul. (Both Garner and Paolo jokingly referred to Brad the unofficial mayor of Santa Monica.) General Manager, mixologist, and music director Twigg wears many shirts at the Basement, some of them plaid.
Originally from Maryland, Brad moved here 10 years ago and along the way has worked at most of Santa Monica’s hotter spots; the World Café, Voda, 217, Wilshire, Big Dean’s just to name a few. Working a bar definitely runs in his blood. Growing up his mother was in the bar business and rumor has it that his great grandmother was one of the first female bartenders in Chicago.
“I’ve always been a fan of Bourbon,” notes Brad. “In high school, the only thing we could afford to drink was Bourbon, bottles of Jim Beamy and Lord Calvert were $5.99 at the time. It just sort of stuck.” As luck would have it what was once an economic necessity has become the cool drink of choice. Although ten years ago this traditionally Southern drink was thought to be headed the way of the Hot Toddy, today it is gaining enormous popularity. “I’m happy to work with brands. We just brought in some new Bourbons so now we’re now up to 75 or so in total,” explains Brad with a smile.
Most of the Basement’s drinks are Bourbon based (although there are some Vodka offerings also for those looking for a more classic cocktails i.e. most (but not all) of the female patron population). One of the most is popular is the Delia’s Elixir drink using Buffalo Trace Bourbon (a Kentucky Bourbon), Agave (which Brad prefers over simple syrup), fresh Raspberries, Lemon juice. The drink is named after Delia the infamous ghost of the Victorian House. Not much is know about her other than she was once employed at the Victorian when it was a residence and that she didn’t die in the house (something that is mentioned multiple times when talking about Delia to the Basement Boys, so superstitious customers worry not).
Now to get to the plaidness. It’s best to say that Basement Tavern is now known as a “plaid friendly location.” Inspired by the Wednesday night’s Bluegrass music, the plaid started just for fun with the bartenders wearing plaid for the Get Down Boys Bluegrass performances. Then the patrons starting plaid-ing it up (and it should be noted we are also in the middle of a flannel fashion revolution) and then the Yelpers started writing about it. Needless to say you were warned.
These shirts are really just a symbol of one of the most important aspects to Basement Tavern’s feel: music. ”Brad takes the music seriously,” notes Garner. Sunday and Monday are dark for music. Wednesdays is the aforementioned Bluegrass night, Tuesdays has Christopher Hawley an Jack Johnson-esque guitarist playing during the Santa Monica Food Trucks, Thursday is Jazz Funk Fusion night, and Friday and Saturday are twists on cover bands like Urban Dread, which plays reggae covers of top forty songs. All without a cover. Most of them Westside bands. “I spend a lot of time here,” simply notes Brad. “The music we play is important.”
Only a little over six months old and the Basement is already expanding. Along with the tavern in the basement there is now a bar on the ground floor. “We thought what a fun idea to be at a bar and potentially not know there’s a bar underneath us,” notes Garner. And as of last month the bar is now offering a full service dinner menu. The cuisine is “Basement Food” aka what you want to eat when drinking Bourbon aka food you want to eat before drinking and/or after drinking: burgers with blue cheese, truffle fries, and kabobs with four different sauce choices. The kitchen will always be open, serving food till two every night.
On a larger more metropolitan level the Basement Tavern has the honor of being in charge of creating the liquor offerings for Cavalia, the equestrian show running in Burbank. But don’t think that it won’t remember its roots. On Valentine’s Day the bar will show its love for its community. Guest who present a receipt form any Santa Monica Main Street restaurant from 5 to close will receive a glass of complementary Champagne.
That is what the Basement strives to do: being big by acting with small details. And it’s definitely living the dream. “I’ve always wanted to be doing what I’m doing right now,” notes Brad.
And so coolness has come to Santa Monica. Not with huge fanfare and a glaring sign, but the way cool always should roll in - smooth to the point of not being noticed, but once it’s there you definitely can feel a change to the temperature of everything surrounding it. We’re just glad that Basement Tavern is doing it here, allowing Santa Monica to be just a little bit cooler.
Kat Thomas is a Santa Monica based writer who can't define cool, but knows it when she sees it. You can see more of her writings at edibleskinny.com