Speakeasy reclaims its secret space in Carlsbad

Editor's note: Details are still emerging, but after our story was posted on Friday, July 7, and The Charles Kenneth opened that day, the speakeasy was closed down later that night. A manager at Land & Water Company, the restaurant above the speakeasy, said the team is working with officials to reopen, but a date has not been provided.

Update: Newly opened speakeasy back on ice

For more than a dozen years in the 1920s and '30s, Carlsbad's most famous building had a secret.

In the concrete-walled cellar of the ornate Twin Inns hotel and restaurant, proprietor Eddie Kentner ran a hidden speakeasy for thirsty guests during the Prohibition era. Now, nearly 100 years later, another speakeasy has opened in the same spot.

The Charles Kenneth, a 44-seat cocktail club accessible only via password, opens Friday night, July 7. The underground bar is named for Charles Kenneth Ruiz, the late grandfather of speakeasy proprietor Rob Ruiz.

The 39-year-old Carlsbad chef holds a 20-year lease on the historic building, which has been home to his all-organic, sustainably sourced restaurant, The Land & Water Company, since 2014.

Ruiz discovered the vacant space four years ago while remodeling the interior of the 130-year-old building. As a boy growing up in Oceanside, he'd heard tall tales about the speakeasy but his doubts were put to rest when he found old liquor bottles, coins, mason jars and other items during the cleanup.

A rustic version of the Charles Kenneth opened in November 2015, but closed just two months later because of paperwork related to its liquor license. Now, a new and much-improved Charles Kenneth is back to stay.

The Charles Kenneth

What: Speakeasy cocktail bar with 44 seats

Where: Secret downstairs location at The Land & Water Company restaurant, 2978 Carlsbad Blvd., Suite 110, Carlsbad

Hours: 6:30 p.m. to midnight Sundays-Thursdays. 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Admission: Via password only on the website

Online: thecharleskenneth.com

Speakeasies have been a hot trend in the U.S. for the past 10 years as diners and drinkers seek out new hospitality experiences. Most are what Ruiz calls "the Las Vegas glitz" version with elegant fixtures, luxurious seating and faux antique decor.

The Charles Kenneth, by contrast, aims for authenticity. While the bar has air-conditioning and a modern bar set-up, the modest chairs, tables, 1920s-era lamps and furniture are exactly what guests would've encountered in the old days. A Victorian saloon mirror behind the bar dates to 1878, Ruiz said.

The walls are decorated with three portraits of Ruiz's grandfather, a decorated Navy captain and fighter pilot who served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. There's also a portrait of Gerhard Schutte, the Carlsbad land speculator who built the ornate Queen Anne mansion in 1887.

After the Schuttes sold out in the early 1900s, the building became a hotel and restaurant known as the Twin Inns. Two giant chicken sculptures once flanked the building's entrance promoting its famous fried chicken.

The building's original plans don't show the basement space, Ruiz said, but when Prohibition went into effect on Jan. 17, 1920, Kentner imagined a new use for the three-room area.

The two back rooms housed a bar and gambling tables. The front room, known as the "slaughter room" where the chickens were killed and plucked, had a small window, where a lookout was stationed on weekend nights to watch for the police.

If he spotted anything, he could flip a switch that rang a bell behind the bar. That gave the staff time to hide the liquor bottles in a crawl space and flip over the table tops. If police did arrive, they'd find visitors sipping tea and only tins of tea leaves behind the bar, Ruiz said.

During its heyday, before the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Twin Inns speakeasy is said to have hosted many famous celebrities, including Babe Ruth and Amelia Earhart.

Cory Volkening, 30, is bar manager at The Charles Kenneth. The Encinitas native said much care has gone into creating a retro experience for visitors. Each guest will get a history tour when they arrive and the space has a posted list of 1920s-style rules. Guests must dress sharply and refrain from flash photography. Gentlemen must remove their hats and must not approach ladies without an introduction by the bartender.

There's no beer or wine at The Charles Kenneth. As during Prohibition, cocktails are the specialty. Mixed drinks were all the rage at speakeasies because the syrups, bitters, tinctures and liqueurs masked the acrid taste of the moonshine and bathtub gin, Volkening said.

Ruiz said he's heard a "loud roar" from speakeasy fans who were eager for the return of the Charles Kenneth. In the two months it was open last year, there was usually a 100-person waiting list on weekend nights.

He'd hoped to have it open sooner but getting it historically right was important. His restaurant is named after the first business established on the spot in the 1880s, the Carlsbad Land and Mineral Water Company.

Ruiz is famed for his passion about preserving history, protecting family-run farms and saving the world's declining fisheries. Last year, he was one of 12 people honored with the 2016 World Oceans Award. The prize, given by the London-based Blue Marine Foundation, honored his three-year campaign to save Mexico's endangered vaquita porpoise and to promote the use of shrimp caught without the use of entangling gill nets.

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