A modern speak-easy

In a lot of ways, the new Santa Monica piano bar and supper club Angel's was born of frustration. The Wilshire Boulevard space, which looks as if it's been transported out of the days of Prohibition, is actually the product of delayed plans for another venue, the Townhouse bar, in Venice.

Both places were acquired by Louie Ryan, head of Temple Bar Concepts, which owns a clutch of bars around the Los Angeles area, including Zanzibar and Little Temple, and made its mark with the now-closed live music venue Temple Bar, which was just a few blocks south of Angel's.

Back in June 2007, Ryan bought the historic Townhouse, which features a basement that Ryan calls "breathtaking." "It's still got the Prohibition-era tunnels running out of the original speak-easy in the basement," he says. "There are all kinds of great legends there, like Jim Morrison peeing on the basement walls."

But a dispute with the city ("We thought the license for the basement was grandfathered. They say it isn't.") has kept the space closed.

So, while he deals with the logistics of opening the Townhouse bar, Ryan has channeled that same speak-easy vibe into Angel's.

The bar, formerly known as Holly's West, is small and dark, with a warm orange glow. On a recent Saturday night, two women sipped freshly prepared mojitos at the bar, while a small group huddled over plates of food in a corner booth. A couple sat near a grand piano, which was being played by a young, well-dressed man singing 1920s standards. Cocktail waitresses in cinch-waist corsets tended to the tables. A friendly bartender apologized for the lack of bustle.

It's all a far cry from the dressed-down, come-as-you-are scene generally present at Ryan's venues.

"We wanted to do something a little more refined for the area, but not snooty," he says. "I'm trying to inspire a younger demographic to want to get a little dressed up sometimes and lose themselves in the era we're presenting -- even in a beach town. We're not militant about the dress code at all, but it's an excuse to do something a little different."

But, given that it opened only about seven weeks ago, Angel's is still feeling out aspects of running a piano bar. With two musicians rotating duties, there are no set hours as to when a pianist is in the house. "It's kind of a new concept, and we're still working it out," Ryan says. "People can always call ahead to see when they're playing."

The owner is a lifelong music fan and, after 10 years of running the Temple Bar, says that he continues to be inspired by young musicians. The influence spills over to Angel's as well. After a recent set at Zanzibar, funk-rock singer Van Hunt stopped by to play a few songs on the piano.

"It was nice. His manager Randy Jackson [of "American Idol" fame] is a good friend of mine, and they're talking about doing a regular jazz night. That's kind of the scene I'm trying to cultivate."

Angel's was renovated by Nathalie Chapple. "She's a set designer, so I ask her to build me little sets that will last for 10 years or so," he says with a laugh. "Angel's was already pretty stripped down when we came in, so we were able to easily apply our style and aesthetic to it.

"I like to find places I don't have to tear apart and close down for a year. I'm a little bit more frugal," Ryan says. "I prefer to put more emphasis on the vibe of a place."





Where: 2460 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica

When: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Saturdays (closed Sundays)

Price: No cover charge

Contact: (310) 828-2115, www.angelssantamonica.com

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