Not that it’s terribly profound, but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like Italian food. Actually, I only mention it because of an “event” yesterday on the Santa Monica Pier. After nearly four years and millions of dollars in construction, Ristorante Al Mare finally opened for business.
With spectacular views and rooftop dining, Al Mare is also the only gourmet restaurant on the pier. (The Lobster isn’t technically on the pier.) It’s the latest venture of Franco Sorgi and Paolo Simeone, owners of the popular Trastevere restaurant on the Third Street Promenade.
Over the past few years, Al Mare’s historically landmarked building received such a top-to-bottom makeover that it would make Joan Rivers jealous. Located just west of the carousel, its 9,100 square feet are divided between three levels of dining area, which can seat 260 and accommodate live music.
This development is a considerable upgrade for the pier, which not that long ago many locals worried was, to quote Bette Davis, “a dump.” In fact, decades past the pier was becoming a gang hangout.
Hopefully, the impressive Al Mare revitalization, and others, will strike a happy balance between new and old on a pier that, for over a century, has seen a wealth of changes.
In 2009, the pier celebrated its 100th anniversary. Few realize today it was originally two piers. The one that cars come down was relatively narrow and opened Sept. 9, 1909. It was built primarily to carry sewer pipes beyond the breakers. (Not exactly advanced sewage treatment.)
In 1916, however, came the shorter, wide adjoining “Pleasure Pier” to the south, also known as the “Newcomb Pier.” It featured attractions such as the Hippodrome, a roller coaster and the Whip. In 1922, the carousel was built with its beautiful 44 hand-carved horses. (It was rebuilt in 1990.)
To say that the pier has a rather colorful history is to say that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is rather tall. One of the prime examples of the pier’s shady past is Anthony (Tony) Cornero.
Often referred to as “The Admiral” or “Tony the Hat,” Cornero was a former big time L.A. bootlegger and local crime boss. Calling himself an “entrepreneur,” in the 1930s, Tony ran legal gambling ships off Santa Monica Bay safely in international waters. (Or so he thought.)
For a quarter, passengers could take a water-taxi from the pier 3.1 miles out to sea. It was there that “The Rex,” a palatial gambling ship, and three others like it, were anchored and open for business.
Nightly, the Rex entertained approximately 2,000 gamblers. It was estimated that Tony’s operation grossed $300,000 per day. The Rex was staffed with a crew of 350, including waiters and waitresses, gourmet chefs, a full orchestra, and, oh yes, for “security,” a squad of Tommy Gun-wielding thugs. Yikes.
The glamorous trend was so popular that it found its way into contemporary fiction. Famed detective novelist Raymond Chandler portrayed the lavish gambling ships, run by a charismatic gangster a la Cornero, in his best-selling book “Farewell, My Lovely.” (Later to become a movie.)
But Tony’s “party” ended on Aug. 1, 1939, when California Attorney General Earl Warren sent 250 officers to raid the ships. Warren calculated that they were in California water by “artfully” measuring from Point Dume. But Tony didn’t immediately wave the white flag.
Reportedly using water canons, Cornero sustained a dramatic nine-day standoff, which the press dubbed, the “Battle of Santa Monica Bay.” Finally, however, he surrendered, after which hundreds of slot machines and roulette wheels were dumped into the ocean. (From below, I wonder what the fish thought.)
Undeterred, Tony then hatched a plan to develop desolate Nevada tumbleweed, Las Vegas, into a luxury gambling oasis. But without the mob. That slight miscalculation was the probable cause of Tony’s mysterious death in 1955. So, in a sense, the mega, billion-dollar glamorous Vegas of today got its start on our quaint little Santa Monica Pier.
But back to Al Mare, which, given the food, ambiance and live music, I have a feeling locals will make a favorite nightspot. The restaurant also will likely be popular with tourists from all over the world. I can just imagine the tales abroad of Al Mare’s sumptuous food and spectacular views.
Alas, they won’t be able to talk firsthand about “Admiral Tony’s” legendary gambling ships. Today’s tourists are 65 years too late. Of course, by now those water-taxis would cost a hell of a lot more than a quarter.
For information about Ristorante Al Mare, call (310) 458-4448. Jack can be reached at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.