Fred Astaire ate there once a week and ran a tab; John Belushi dined there the night he died. Dan Tana’s was an insider’s place when it opened in 1964, and it’s an insider’s place now. Tana’s never changes; where there have been improvements over time, they have been so small and imperceptible that the old crowd never notices–and that’s the way they like it. It reminds some of New York and others of Europe, but there’s nothing that European about it, and in New York it would be just another Elaine’s, with good food.
Dan Tana’s is sui generis–an L.A. landmark whose look, feel and ethos are so un-California that it could exist nowhere else but here. It is the exception that proves all the rules: a restaurant that is open late in an early town, where, instead of organic leaves and obscure mineral waters, people go to eat huge steaks and drink stiff martinis. It’s an Industry favorite, but being a star or a top executive won’t get you in without a reservation, and it caters to both the old guard and young turks.
At times, Tana’s seems like some strange English gentlemen’s club whose admission requirements have long been lost. You just have to fit in, and if you don’t, you wouldn’t like it there anyway. Walk in early on any given night, and you’ll see a smattering of Hollywood grandees, like the Wassermans at the top table, and regulars like the William Shatners in one of the discreet booths. A little later, around 7:30, the middle-aged execs–the Katzenbergs and Gubers–arrive, followed by, say, Larry King and some agents from William Morris grabbing some pasta before a show at the Troubador next door. You won’t see one of the Penn brothers or Matt Dillon till at least 9, and rockers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers blow in much later.
Yet Tana’s is resolutely untrendy. It will never be trendy. It’s small. It has red-and white-checked tablecloths; big, comfortable booths; and chianti bottles hanging from beams lit year-round by strings of Christmas-tree lights. The waiters, captains and busboys are all seasoned professionals, nor absentminded actress-models or resentful would-be directors with goatees.
Tana’s didn’t really hit its stride until the sexy excess of the ’70s, when rockers mixed with Industry swingers. (Regulars still recall seeing customers snorting coke off the bar and having sex in the wine room.) But despite all that, it is still one of the few places left that carries the tang of an even earlier time–the L.A. that appears in Raymond Chandler novels or the movie Chinatown. “It is the last colorful restaurant in L.A.,” says screenwriter and regular Lionel Chetwynd. “If you put everybody in white tie, it would be The Thin Man.”
This Runyonesque quality is also no small part of the restaurant’s success. It has long been a favorite of granite-faced men accompanied by Neanderthal types in bulging suits, sometimes decorated by spectacular bimbos. As one regular explains, the wise guys get a kick out of seeing the young stars, who are thrilled to be in the presence of big studio execs who themselves are excited by the nearness of the wise guys.
Indeed, Tana’s is reputed to have the best steaks on the West Coast, thanks to a “man of respect.” This gentleman, a visitor from Chicago, complimented Dan on his steaks some 15 years ago, then told him that they could be even better if he used the very best beef, and he knew where to get it. So Dan tried the beef, which comes from Kansas City, and it was and is superb. To this day, it arrives fresh in big hunks from K.C., and the chef cuts off huge steaks as needed. Because the meat is so expensive, Tana’s makes virtually no profit on its steaks, but it would never use another source and would never dream of changing the portions. It’s just the Tana Way.
On first entering Dan Tana’s, everything is pitch-black–at least until your eyes adjust; then the lighting reveals itself to be an extraordinarily flattering brothel red. The walls are decorated with photographs of the owner, numerous bits of sports memorabilia, gifts from regulars and watercolors by Dan’s ex-wife Andrea. Just inside the door, next to several restaurant awards, there’s a picture of Dan with actor Robert Urich, who starred in the TV series Vegas. The show’s producers were regulars, so Urich’s character was named Dan Tana. There’s also a large poster from Bob Rafelson’s remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice–the sexy one with Jessica Lange on the kitchen table pulling her skirt up to her waist. One of Dan’s daughters wanted him to take it down, but Rafelson is an old friend. Anyway, the picture confirms the slightly naughty, Rat Pack spirit of the place.
When the restaurant opens at five o’clock, you can hear the soothing classical music that’s always on in the background, but by six it’s been drowned out by the sounds of glass, metal and human voices. For all the din, the acoustics are still unexpectedly good–one reason Tana’s is such a great date place and Valentine’s Day is booked solid a year in advance.
There are other reasons. Two are the little booths on the nonsmoking side tucked away in their own alcove. Princess Katya Galitzine, a Russian sculptor who used to live in L.A., saw a couple smooching during one of her first visits to the restaurant and knew right away that someday she too “just wanted to be kissed there.” (She was.)
Then there’s the dim lighting, which seems to encourage May-December liaisons. But most important, there is the attitude of the staff. In the kitchen, their crude language–like that of all old-style professional waiters–belies an intense romanticism, and out on the floor, they do everything possible to make a date go well? especially when the couple is young and coming to Tana’s is obviously a big deal. There’s no hovering, no leering, no condescension, but the boy will feel like he’s one of the machers at Table 1.
The two maitre d’s play a vital role in making sure that the Tana Way is maintained even when the owner is not around. Jimmy is at the front from Tuesday through Saturday, while Sunday and Monday, Michael, the manager, takes his place. Michael is a Yugoslav, like Dan. He has a full head of bouffant white hair and a distracted air, as if he were thinking about the accounts or worrying about a late delivery of Pellegrino. Jimmy is of Mexican extraction and erupts into a torrent of Spanish when crossed.
Jimmy was born into the business. His father is maitre d’ at Musso’s, and he himself was recruited from the old Brown Derby. He is slim and good-looking, and there’s a definite chemistry between him and some of the female customers, though, like any true Latin lover, he is the soul of discretion.
The most important thing about both maiter d’s is that neither knows who anybody is. Jerry Seinfeld was surprised not to be recognized one night and asked Jimmy, “Do you know who Jerry Seinfeld is;” Without a trace of apology, Jimmy said no. As he likes to explain, “I don’t watch TV except for sports, and I don’t go to movies.” Of course, Jimmy and Michael have people they consider VIPs, but only because they are regulars.
Occasionally, Dan himself or one of his daughters will whisper in Jimmy’s ear that so-and-so is an immensely powerful or famous person and ought to be accommodated if at all possible. But there are many, many tales of Tana maitre d’s putting celebrities in their place. One Sunday evening, White House chief of staff Alexander Haig phoned the restaurant to say that President Nixon wanted to speak to John Wayne, who was dining there that night. On hearing that the president of the United States was calling, the maitre d’ said, And I’m George Washington and slammed down the phone. Shortly afterward, a carload of L.A. sheriffs deputies arrived with a message that it really was the president. And he wanted to speak to Mr. Wayne immediately.
Perhaps the most famous story involves John Travolta–which is ironic, given his “Let’s go to Dan Tana’s line at the end of Get Shorty. As legend has it, Travolta was at the height of his Saturday Night Fever fame. He turned up on a busy night, date in tow, with no reservation, and was told that he could have a table in two hours. “Do you know who I am?” Travolta asked the maitre d’. “NO,” came the reply.
“I’m John Travolta.”
“Well, for you, Mr. Travolta, it will be three hours.”
On the other hand, no celebrity is ever hassled at Tana’s. Autograph hounds and paparazzi cannot stand up without a waiter or busboy intercepting them like a Patriot missile. That’s the way things are done there. That’s why three generations of Barrymores, from John to Lionel right down to Drew, have patronized Tana’s.
Regulars always take precedence when it comes to reservations and seating. And while a considerable number of the regulars are rich or famous, many of them are neither, and you end up with a strange democracy that could exist only in L.A. You see it most clearly at the bar. It opens at five with the restaurant, and the regulars take their places while the staff sets up under bright white spotlights. Some stay till closing time, nine hours later, but the bar regulars generally divide into two shifts. The first often includes a tubby, womanizing agent, a successful lawyer known for his ponytail, a woman who runs an upscale safari company, a beauty in her late fifties who was once the world’s highest-paid model, a sloe-eyed actress and a handsome Yugoslav who everybody says is a gigolo.
The second shift is slightly tipsier, slightly crazier and slightly more diverse. An X-rated comedienne called Glitter. Luis the 911 operator. A smooth African-American banker named Robert. A movie producer with a sideline in coke. A professional golfer. A rich kid in his late twenties who was a hockey star in college. Then, on different nights, the Irish exiles, the Yugoslavs, and the barmen and maitre d’s from the big hotels and restaurants around town who come in after their own establishments have closed.
It is the kind of old-fashioned bar where Mike the bartender knows most of his customers’ names and remembers a face for a decade. Mike is a tall man with a handlebar mustache. He loves a peculiar Yugoslavian liqueur with an unpronounceable name, and halfway through the evening, he’ll have a shot or two with the regulars. As a kid in Croatia, he was always in trouble with the authorities, mainly, he says, because he was a practicing Catholic. Mike dropped out of high school, but he sent two children to college here in America.
Jimmy hired Craig, an actor, to take Mike’s place on Sundays and Mondays. “He told me he’d never poured a drink in his life,” Jimmy recalls. “I told him I could teach him that, but I couldn’t teach the personality. So I brought him in, set up some bottles of water and told him, ‘Look at me and pour a shot with your right hand and then your left, without looking at it.’ I can teach anyone how to wait on tables in two hours, but it’s the personality that makes you an asset to the place. For example, Mike is an excellent bartender, but more important, he’s rough and tough and rude and crude, and people like that.”
Despite the presence of the TV above the bar, the banter is continuous and gets raunchier as the evening draws on. The set is always silent, and Mike controls the clicker. Invariably, it is tuned to a sports channel. The staff is obsessed with sports, and a fanatical devotion to soccer is one thing they all have in common, whether they work in the kitchen or out front, no matter where they were born.
Dan was a Yugoslavian soccer star before he defected in the ’50s, and he is currently director of a soccer team in London called Brentford, so he sets the tone. Basketball comes in a close second to soccer, especially since the sport is huge in the former Yugoslavia. One regular customer named Robert–a rugged-looking writer in his fifties–goes into the kitchen every day to question Mate, the chef, about his odds for the evening games. Mate (pronounced mah-TAY) is a Croatian. He speaks very little English, but he’s an expert on the NBA and the NHL.
Tana’s has always been a favorite of professional athletes and team owners. Vlade Divac was a regular (with a dish named after him), and Magic Johnson celebrated his return to the Lakers there. Wilt Chamberlain accumulated a goodly portion of those 10,000 women at the bar, and there are signed and framed Lakers and Rams uniform shirts on two walls in the nonsmoking room. Dan says that one of these days he’s going to take down the Rams shirt because he is disgusted by their departure from the city.
Dan gave up soccer for golf long ago, but he’s in great shape for a man in his early sixties. He is tall, about six feet, and broad-shouldered. His solid build, his big, bald head and his thick white mustache make him look bearlike and cuddly when smiling, fierce when angry. It’s partly his eyes, with their faint suggestion of the Central Asian steppe. If you were casting a movie and needed someone to play a partisan or a bandit king, you would want him to have Dan Tana’s eyes.
He was born Dobrivoje Tanasijevic in Belgrade in 1933. His father owned two successful restaurants in the city but made the mistake of supporting the monarchist partisans rather than the communists during the war. When peace came, both restaurants were nationalized by Marshal Tito, and though Dan’s father stayed on as manager, his son had no intention of joining the business. Instead, he became a teenage soccer star for the country’s top team, Red Star Belgrade.
Dan defected from Yugoslavia to Belgium in 1952 when the team was on a tour of that country. He stayed there for six months, playing for the soccer team Anderlecht, then went to Germany to play for Hannover, one of their top teams, then moved to Canada, where he led a Jewish soccer club called Hakoah. He finally came to the States in 1956 when he joined a Yugoslav-American soccer team in San Pedro.
The new arrival took classes at Jeff Corey’s famous acting school in Malibu–“to practice my English”–and now he laughs at the notion of a “defector from a communist country taking classes from a man who had been blacklisted.” As an actor, he soon started to get small parts in movies, mainly as “Germans, gangsters and Russians. I played communists, fascists and criminals. I always got killed, and I never got to kiss the girl.” He appeared in The Enemy Below with Curt Jurgens and Robert Mitchum and also in Rin Tin Tin, The Untouchables and Peter Gunn.
When not working on movies, Dan worked in restaurants and clubs. For a while, he was a partner at Peppermint West, the city’s first strictly-for-dancing nightclub. (“It introduced the twist to Hollywood,” he says.) But soon after he married Andrea Wiesenthal (they are now divorced), he left Peppermint West to become the maltred’ at La Scala. It was there that he first decided to start his own restaurant.
When Dan Tana’s opened in 1964, it was just a neighborhood spaghetti joint with Mussolini’s former cook as first chef. With the help of Industry friends and by keeping the restaurant open long after his competitors had closed, Dan gradually transformed Tana s into an institution.
“I never expected it,” Dan says of his success. “I thought I’d have a better chance of winning an Oscar. But that’s show business for you.” (By the ’70s, in fact, he was able to take time off to produce films in Yugoslavia, one of which won a prize at Cannes.)
Dan is always beautifully turned out in suits or jackets made for him by Douglas Hayward, the London tailor who dresses Michael Caine. On his lapel he wears a tiny brown teddy bear; his daughter, filmmaker Gabriella Tana, gave him 1,000 of them a few years ago. His manners are old world: He is one of the few men who can carry off kissing a woman’s hand. He does it swiftly, smoothly and without hesitation, the same way he lights your cigarette. It’s one of the things that gives him his tremendous charm and enables him to get along with anybody and every body He speaks Russian, German and Italian and has the air of a man who has embraced America but in the past has played by the rules of a much harsher society. Everyone who works in the restaurant has the same quality.
Dan is a serious gambler and impulsively generous. He once won $100,000 at the track and shared it with the staff. In return, he enjoys ferocious loyalty from friends and employees. On August 1, 1980, the restaurant was all but destroyed by a mysterious fire while Dan was vacationing in Yugoslavia. He flew back and was told that it would take seven months to a year to rebuild.
He still enjoys telling the story of what happened next: “Usually, it takes seven weeks to get a permit to start building, but it only took us a couple of days.” It didn’t hurt that then governor Jerry Brown was a regular at the time, along with his then girlfriend, singer Linda Ronstadt. “On the front door, there were all kinds of notes and flowers: ‘Please don’t change it, leave it the way it was. This is our home.’ People asked, ‘Do you want any money?’ It was very heartwarming.”
Work proceeded at an incredibly rapid pace. “We got a builder. He was Yugoslav. He said, ‘I will have a heart attack, but I’ll do it as quickly as I can.”‘ Every day, the staff came in, made the workmen lunch and helped with the repairs. “It was like a family,” Dan says. In seven weeks, Dan Tana’s reopened.
The Kitchen at Tana’s is suprisingly small. The “hot line”-the stove, grill and fryer–is jammed into an incredibly tight space, and between the line and the worktable is a corridor wide enough for only two men to pass at a time, as long as one of them is not Big Nino, the deputy chef. If the bar is Tana’s heart, then the kitchen is its soul.
Favorite customers (and a few Tana family members) who always eat the same thing or have contributed their own recipes sometimes have dishes named after them. This has replaced metal nameplates on the backs of chairs, a system that provoked too much jealousy and was abandoned after the 1980 fire. Actor James Woods loves the veal florentine, so it’s now called Veal Jimmy Woods. The menu offers Steak Dabney Coleman and Chicken Karl Malden. Producers Sidney Beckerman and Dino Conti have Potatoes Beckerman (fried German style with onions) and Swordfish a la Dino Conti (grilled with olive oil, basil and garlic).
There is constant tension between the kitchen staff and the staff out front. When a dish is ready, one of the cooks puts it on a butcher block for pickup. If the waiter isn’t right there, chef Mate bangs on a little bell. It drives him crazy if waiters don’t pick up a dish within seconds, and he slams on the bell with a wooden order spike again and again. When the place is busy, you can’t hear the bell unless you’re standing outside the kitchen door. In any case, the waiters refuse to be rattled by Mate, and they keep smiling even as he rants.
Sometimes a customer sends food back for no good reason, possibly to show off to a date. Mate goes ballistic when someone sends back one of his lovingly cut steaks, and it’s the waiters who have to bear the brunt of his anger. But they stand their ground and insist that he give them another steak.
Friends often pop in to see Dan in the office upstairs and then stop by the kitchen. Like many of the regulars, they know just about everyone. Dan’s golfing buddy, Roger, a Beverly Hills dentist, has treated Mate, who suffers frequently from toothaches. Mate is remarkably thin for a chef; he doesn’t like to eat very much, and he drinks only mineral water with lemon juice. (While researching this article, I worked at Tana’s for a month, and one day Mate yelled at me for eating my lunch outside on a step while reading the paper. “Come inside and sit at the table,” he said. “And put the paper away. Eat like a man.” It was one of the longest things I ever heard him say.)
In contrast to Mate, his deputy Nino is an enormous man, strong as an ox. Nino comes from Split in Croatia, but he is half Serb. Though it is hard to believe from looking at him, he was once a top waterpolo player. He has a fearsome voice, but when he shouts he is almost always just kidding around.
In the kitchen, Mate is clearly in charge. At one time, he did all the cooking himself, and he is still such a control freak that he stays long beyond his shift to make sure no one is screwing up. He comes in at 10 or so every morning and starts to concoct the marinara and meat sauces, which are made fresh every day and take hours to prepare. If it is Thursday, he lovingly makes osso buco, a favorite of many of the regulars. He is assisted in the mornings by Paco, who cleans and cuts an enormous amount of whitefish, squid and chicken before setting to work peeling garlic.
Tana’s serves only dinner, so the first shift usually arrives around lunchtime. Mike the bartender comes in around two to make sure that everything is clean and in its place. If it is Monday, he curses Craig for moving things around, even though Craig has been bartending on Sundays for seven years and knows exactly how Mike likes things organized. Abel, who comes from Sonora, has been waiting tables at Tana’s for years, and he or Danny the busboy starts setting the tables in the early afternoon.
Around three, Mate takes a break and has a late lunch in the dining room. One of his deputies, usually Daniel or David, comes in around the same time to make alfredo sauce, fry breaded eggplant slices and see that things are ready to go at five.
Some nights it gets busy right away. But even if it doesn’t, you can feel the rhythm of the kitchen speeding up by seven. Between seven-thirty and eight, the orders start flooding in on pink slips of paper that the waiters stick on a spike. If they include salads, the waiter shouts “una gringa!” (one green salad) or “dos Cesares!” (two Caesars) to Filomeno in the back. Regulars rave about the salad dressing at Tana’s, and it is Filomeno who prepares it according to a secret Dan Tana recipe.
All four cooks on the line are equally responsible for the orders. If one puts a pan on the stove and has to turn away to deal with something else, the next guy watches it for him and takes it offwhen it’s ready, all without a word being said. As they bend to take stuff out of the ovens or reach to put a steak on the grill or throw a handful of salt over another’s arm, not a single movement is wasted–they could be gymnasts or a team of Navy Seals.
To the outsider, the language of the kitchen and the wait staff is a raucous Esperanto. Listen carefully, and you realize you are hearing Spanish and Serbo-Croat mixed with heavily accented English. The Yugoslavs all speak some Spanish, and the Mexicans and Central Americans have picked up some Serbo-Croat. Mostly curse words, of course, but other phrases, too. Danny the busboy, who is Mexican, will often shout “Gospedi Sedek!” at Nick the waiter, pointing at the slightly too long sleeves of Nick’s tux. It means “Hey, Mr. Country Boy” in Serbo-Croat. And they both double over laughing.
One might expect that a restaurant owned by a Serb who employs members of every Balkan ethnic group–from Bosnian Muslims to Macedonians–would be racked with enmities. But under Dan Tana’s benevolent but absolute dictatorship, and with money steadily pumping in, everybody gets along fine.
Nick the waiter is a 23-year-old refugee from Croatia whose ancestry is mixed Serb and Croat. He got out as a crew member on a cruise ship that docked at Long Beach. He and his best friend jumped ship after finishing out their contracts, then called Dan Tana, whom he knew from the island of Hvar in the Adriatic, where Dan has a summerhouse. Dan gave him a job and put them up until they found their own feet.
Another young Yugoslav exile named Dushko works as a busboy. His father was a leading journalist in the old Yugoslavia and lived for a while in London. Dushko speaks heavily accented but very rapid English and talks to anyone who will listen, particularly about films, though he has a Frenchman’s contempt for “Hollywood” movies. He’ll drop off some plates in the kitchen and ask, “Tell me, do you know this film with Julie Christie?” only to have Nino the cook cut in with “Get the foutta here, I’m sick of you talking. You’re like a sports commentator–talk, talk, talk. Get out of my kitchen!”
The war in the Balkans and the breakup of Yugoslavia have been painful for Dan. His beloved vacation villa is on a beautiful island that is now part of Croatia. He designed the house himself and over the years has made it available to hundreds of friends. (When Wilt Chamberlain arrived on the island accompanied by two gorgeous Swedish girlfriends, he was the tallest man the islanders had ever seen.)
But Dan has returned to the house only once since the war ended. It was a difficult experience. All of his non-Croat friends were gone-their houses confiscated and given to the Croats. His own place is sacrosanct only because he is an American citizen. The local mayor was still friendly and took him out to lunch, but during the meal a nearby diner said very loudly, “What the hell is that damned Serb doing here?”
Conventional restaurant wisdom holds that the owner of a restaurant must be there all the time. But Dan’s duties with UEFA, the European soccer federation, and with the Yugoslav World Cup team take him away for weeks at a stretch. When he returns, things tighten up, the pace in the kitchen quickens, and the service seems slightly more polished. Even customers can feel the difference in the air. Dan comes through the small, crowded kitchen several times a day. They are casual visits–he doesn’t check the sauces because he and Mate have worked together for nearly two decades–yet he notices everything. If Dan thinks people are getting sloppy, he becomes an avenging angel, all geniality extinguished, eyes flashing. “Clean this up! Put that away! What the hell do you think you are doing?” (I saw him do this only once, but everyone in the kitchen was fearful and subdued. A half hour later, the city health inspector arrived for a spot check.)
Still, Dan’s absences are just as important to the smooth running of the restaurant. If he were there all the time, the staff would be too nervous. When he’s away, the place breathes and stretches and trundles right along. For Mike the manager and Jimmy the maitre d’, the Tana Way is almost second nature. But without Dan at the helm, the personality of the place, its whole culture, begins to undergo subtle, almost undetectable changes, like a ship veering ever so slightly off course. In the short term, it doesn’t matter; in the long term, it could be dangerous. Dan knows this, and he always comes back within six weeks. “When I’m in town, I’m in the restaurant every night–even if I eat somewhere else,” he says. When he’s away, he calls every day.
Though Dan has produced eight movies, he says that “the hardest thing of all is running a restaurant. That’s why I’ll never open another one. You can’t duplicate it.” Though he’s been asked many times to give his name to a franchise, he always refuses. “If you really want to be successful with a restaurant, you can only have one. It’s like a wife. You can have a lot of mistresses, but only one wife.”