In 1964, Dan Tana, a sometime actor and journeyman professional soccer player from Belgrade, Yugoslavia (born Dobrivoje Tanasijević), got himself mixed up in opening a restaurant. The year before, an art-gallerist friend named Chuck Feingarten had taken over Domenico’s Lucky Spot, a longtime lunch place a few doors down from the Troubadour nightclub, on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
The restaurant was housed in a lilliputian 1929 bungalow, and it boasted a distinctive lucky-horseshoe neon sign. But Feingarten and his business partner hadn’t been so lucky and wanted out: one year was enough to convince them that they no longer needed to be in the restaurant business. The 31-year-old Tana, who’d also worked as a maître d’ at La Scala, understood the impulse. “My father and grandfather owned a restaurant, and my mother warned me to never open a restaurant,” he told me recently, talking on the phone from his home in Belgrade. “It was the last thing on my mind!”
Out of a sense of kindness or recklessness, Tana offered to take the little place over—for a dollar down, with payments spread out over the coming years, totaling about $30,000. Lawyers on both sides of the deal concurred that it was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard and walked out of the meeting, refusing to be witness to such an agreement. The deal was struck anyway. Associates told Tana his venture wouldn’t last more than three years. It turned out to be the luckiest move he ever made.
The restaurant that began simply as Tana’s and evolved into Dan Tana’s is turning 57 in October, an anniversary that feels as inevitable as the Santa Ana winds in Los Angeles. With its aura of immutability and permanence, its unending production of chicken parm and New York strip steaks, and its clusters of Chianti bottles dangling from the ceiling, Dan Tana’s is as much a part of the Hollywood landscape as fan palms, Botox, and tanning salons.
When Tana—a handsome charmer with a big block of a head and a brush mustache—sold the place, in 2009, it was to a Croatian, Sonja Perencević. “She didn’t change anything,” he told me. He remains the genial spirit of Dan Tana’s, where continuity has been everything.
The 2020 anniversary was observed with anxiety and nervousness. The coronavirus pandemic visited havoc upon the restaurant industry; in May of 2020 it struck Dan Tana’s in an intensely intimate way, claiming the life of Mike Gotovac, arguably the most revered bartender in L.A., a gruff and gregarious Croatian who had been pouring martinis and Manhattans at Tana’s since 1968. (Gotovac was 76.) Tributes poured forth from the Los Angeles Times, Eater, and LA Weekly.
In the summer of 2020, when Tana’s installed red booths, red-checkered tablecloths, and a red carpet in its backyard and adjoining alleyway for outdoor dining, the reservation line was again ringing off the hook. It was as if, in an uncertain time, the nostalgia, comfort, familiarity, and starry glow of Dan Tana’s felt more essential than ever. Since then, through the ups and downs of surges, mask and vaccine requirements, reversions to takeout and delivery only, and then back again, Tana’s has weathered it all. (The place is open every day.)
Dan Tana’s is as much a part of the Hollywood landscape as fan palms, Botox, and tanning salons.
In terms of overall Hollywood storiedness, you could say Dan Tana’s is to restaurants what the Chateau Marmont is to hotels. As the late Pulitzer Prize–winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold put it a few years ago, this tiny, unassuming Italian trattoria crams in “more famous people per square inch than anywhere else in town.”
It’s the place where Fred Astaire ran a tab, where the infant Drew Barrymore had her diaper changed on the bar, where the Eagles huddled to write “Lyin’ Eyes,” where Cameron Diaz had her first dinner in Hollywood, where Harry Dean Stanton was the resident barfly for five decades. It’s been compared to Toots Shor’s and Elaine’s, described as something out of Mickey Spillane or Damon Runyon, a real-life Cheers.
“It’s an institution,” Stanton once remarked. “We call it the Star Wars bar.”
That gets to the magic of the place. It has always drawn all kinds: the famous, the infamous, and the unfamous. George Clooney, Quincy Jones, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jerry West, and Joni Mitchell might be in the room, leaning over calamari or cheesecake. But the appeal of Dan Tana’s is that it’s a clubhouse for all, from studio heads to summer interns, Beverly Hills matrons to honeymooners from Beverly, Massachusetts. Everybody is treated—more or less—the same.
Plenty of L.A. restaurants have been around longer—Cole’s, Musso and Frank, Pacific Dining Car, Formosa Cafe, and Barney’s Beanery, to name a few. Other Hollywood spots radiate more power—the Grill on the Alley, the Palm. In the past there were show-business hotspots with a degree of sparkle that Tana’s has never had—Chasen’s, the Brown Derby.
Unlike, say, Spago, Dan Tana’s is no culinary temple; it played no role in the rise of California cuisine. But somehow Tana’s might top all of them, at least in terms of durability, unending buzz, and sheer improbability: After all, we’re talking about a 17-table red-sauce joint.
“I don’t think there’s a restaurant in the world like the one we had,” Tana said.
Arthur Avenue for Expats
In 1952, Tana was a striker on a Yugoslavian soccer team that traveled to Belgium. “We played and I stayed,” he said of his defection. He made his way to L.A. “I was single and foolish,” Tana told me. “Thank God I was single and foolish.” While playing in the California League, Tana worked shifts at a StarKist tuna factory; he took acting lessons and landed bit parts in television shows such as The Untouchables and Peter Gunn (playing a maître d’). “I always got killed and never got the girl,” he once said. By 1964, he had hung up his cleats and was working to establish an American professional-soccer league.
When Tana bought Domenico’s that year, he didn’t set about making a movieland playpen. Instead, he created a no-nonsense restaurant that would come to remind East Coast expats of something on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Mainly, Tana wanted a place whose kitchen stayed open after hours, then a novelty in Los Angeles. There was only one problem, Tana told me: “After six o’clock, nobody came.”
Lunch service kept Tana’s afloat—barely. Through his acting, he was able to send word to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But, Tana said, “It was like, ‘Who are you to open an Italian restaurant?’” In January 1965, Art Ryon of the Los Angeles Times gave the fledgling restaurant a brief shout-out in his Round About dining column: “Try “Tana’s.” Ryon mis-identified Tana as Italian American and misrepresented business as “peachy.”
“I had no money,” Tana said. “When somebody ordered a steak I had to run to the market to buy a steak. It was a miracle that it survived.” Yet customers trickled in, including a small core of regulars from the bohemian end of Hollywood. There were the upstart producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, two renegades who would make the Monkees a household name (and bring Easy Rider into the world), along with their wives, Toby and Judy. They met up at Tana’s with their screenwriting and acting friends Carole Eastman and Jack Nicholson.
It’s the place where Fred Astaire ran a tab, where the infant Drew Barrymore had her diaper changed on the bar, where the Eagles huddled to write “Lyin’ Eyes.”
Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates might be at the bar. “It became an automatic place for us to meet,” Toby Rafelson told me. “It was dark and cozy, and Dan had a natural instinct for how a restaurant should look and feel.” They rarely called Tana’s by its name. “We just called it ‘the restaurant,’” she said.
In the early days, diners sat in high-backed wooden booths. Tana didn’t yet have the money to buy the restaurant’s signature red vinyl half-moon booths, which provide sight lines and opportunities for serendipitous interaction. When a man Tana knew decided to swap out the red carpet at the Mercedes dealership he owned, Tana took it for the restaurant.
The walls became the blood red of a rare New York strip. In time, artwork by Tana’s wife, Andrea, was added; their daughters, Gabrielle (now a film producer) and Katerina (an interior and landscape designer), became the Eloises of Dan Tana’s. “We’d have Shirley Temples at the bar,” Gabrielle Tana told me. “I remember being taught how to fold napkins like birds-of-paradise.”
The proximity to the Troubadour club, a home away from home for many a Laurel Canyon and Greenwich Village guitar picker, meant that another contingent of early Tana’s adopters were musicians. Gene Clark of the Byrds parked his sports car on the sidewalk in front of Tana’s one night, availing himself of a V.I.P. spot without the bother of a valet. It made getting in and out of the restaurant problematic but was presumably good advertising. (Later, it was rumored that Clark and David Geffen nearly came to blows at Tana’s over some unresolved matter, an incident that Geffen has denied.)
In early 1966, unbeknownst to Tana, Ryon turned up at an empty Tana’s with five friends, essentially following his own advice from the year before. It was maybe six o’clock, and the group ordered drinks at the bar. The reservation book was empty, so Tana decided to head home. He instructed his Florentine chef, Michele Diguglio—who was said to have once cooked for Mussolini and was brought to America after the war by General Mark W. Clark—to put some complimentary stuffed mushrooms on the bar. “Boss,” Diguglio protested, “we can’t even pay the bills!”
The next day, Tana was astonished to discover a receipt for $150 from this party. They had obviously stuffed themselves. The Sunday, February 6, 1966, edition of the Los Angeles Times contained Ryon’s effusive notice about Tana’s. “On Monday, we served 250 dinners,” Tana told me. “I owe everything to Art Ryon.”
The elevation of Tana’s from overlooked trattoria to starry bolt-hole had begun. “Bob Mitchum, Glenn Ford, they all came,” Tana remembers. A full list of boldfaced names, from Shelley Winters to Wilt Chamberlain, that have regularly tucked in at Tana’s is impossible. Think of a person; chances are, he or she went and kept coming back.
As giddy as Tana might have been about the restaurant’s success, it was like a runaway train, and he feared derailment. “One night I came in and every table was a celebrity,” Tana remembers. “I told the maître d’, ‘If you do this again, I’ll fire you! Celebrities—they’re here today, gone tomorrow. We cannot just be a celebrity restaurant. We’re a restaurant for everybody!’”
A de facto policy of no deference, no preference toward icons, idols, and ingénues was implemented—which only made the place more attractive to exactly those sorts of people. “We had the crème de la crème of the world,” Tana told me. “People were calling from Moscow, from Tokyo.” One night, during the Nixon era, the phone at Dan Tana’s rang and the caller claimed to be from the White House. The harried manager who picked up the phone reacted as anyone might: he said, “Fuck you” and hung up.
This happened several more times before Tana himself grabbed the receiver and found himself in conversation with General Alexander Haig, who was, in fact, calling from the White House on behalf of the president. Nixon, it turned out, wasn’t looking for a reservation. He was looking for John Wayne, who, sure enough, was sitting in a booth. The urgent matter had to do with what wagers to place on that weekend’s college-football games, a pastime that Nixon and Wayne were fond of.
Another evening, Wayne spotted the blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman, of High Noon fame, having dinner across the room and asked Tana to introduce them. The red-baiting Wayne and the bleeding-heart Foreman could not have been further apart politically; Wayne had turned down the lead in High Noon, calling it “un-American.” Tana proceeded gingerly. As he remembers it, “Wayne went over to Foreman, who was sitting with Lew and Edie Wasserman, and said, ‘Sir, we have different views on what is best for America, but I know we both love America, and that’s what’s most important.’” Thus a Hollywood cold war was ended. Perhaps one day James Woods and Brad Pitt can achieve détente at Tana’s over lobster fra diavolo.
George Clooney, Quincy Jones, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jerry West, and Joni Mitchell might be in the room, leaning over calamari or cheesecake.
In 1978, the prime-time detective show Vega$ premiered, with Robert Urich playing a private eye whose name, Dan Tanna, was inspired by the actual Dan Tana. (Tana gave his blessing.) “The whole United States was calling the restaurant to talk to Bob Urich,” Tana recalls. “After that, we were going crazy.” For the next four decades, night after night, the crazy never let up.
The menu itself documents this; it’s a Social Register of a certain kind of Old Hollywood. There’s a salad named for Sammy Cahn’s wife, Tita; a veal cutlet named for the late producer Jerry Weintraub; a ground-sirloin steak named for Mace Neufeld, who managed Don Knotts and produced The Captain and Tennille variety show. An enduringly popular dish called Potatoes Beckerman is one of house-made potato chips with onions and garlic honoring Sidney Beckerman, the late producer of Marathon Man. (The food writer Colman Andrews once remarked, “I did notice Beckerman himself at the restaurant one evening dining on grilled swordfish instead.”) There’s even a salad for Nicky Hilton, perhaps the youngest honoree.
The roll call of names is oddly comforting, and the monikers that are no longer familiar feel like answers to a pub quiz. You do halfway wonder when, say, Ryan Murphy or Shonda Rhimes might get an entreé named after them.
Which raises the question, Who shows up nowadays? When I floated the name Dan Tana’s to a 50-year-old movie-producer friend not long ago, he said that he still goes all the time; in fact, he’d made reservations for a table of industry pals—agents, writers, fellow producers—later that week.
More than 50 Years … and Still a Wait
The food? Ruth Reichl, the best-selling memoirist and former editor of Gourmet, once described the restaurant as “unpretentious, professional, incredibly comforting”—words that also apply to what comes out of the kitchen. Anything beyond that in terms of culinary ambition would skew the delicate alchemy of Dan Tana’s; to expect more would be a category mistake. When I ask the artist Ed Ruscha, a regular since the 1970s, about it, he responded enthusiastically: “The food is not too bad!” It’s a place where the food, if anything, is probably better than it needs to be.
Constancy is a hallmark. Chef Diguglio left after a year and Tana passed the toque to a fellow Yugoslav, Mate Mustac, who’d worked on Italian cruise ships. Mustac stayed for 40 years, handing off to another Yugoslav, Neno Mladenovic, who had worked as Mustac’s assistant for a decade. Mladenovic remains in charge, still implementing what Diguglio established in 1964. “When you try the chicken parmigiana 50 years ago and today,” he has said, “it’s the same.” Sumner Redstone believed Tana’s New York strip to be the best steak in America, and the actor Dabney Coleman put away enough of them that the dish is named after him. (It’s a full pound of beef, for 70 bucks.)
There is broad consensus that the stalwart classics served at Tana’s—such as veal scaloppine, broiled whitefish, fried ravioli, and fettuccine Alfredo (named for Tana’s daughter Gabrielle)—are Platonic ideals.
“The bar has its own mystery to it,” Ruscha said. And, indeed, for many Tanaphiles, the bar is the place to be. From 1968 until 2020, it was ruled over by Gotovac, a pro who remembered your name and your drink. (The place is known for presenting you with your standard cocktail before you ask for it.) Ruscha, whose wife, Danna, is Tana’s goddaughter, remembers one night at the bar when a veteran Emmy Award–winning actor became so falling-down drunk that Harry Dean Stanton, stationed at the bar as usual, fetched a shopping cart, put the actor in it, and pushed him up Santa Monica Boulevard. “He was taking him home!,” Ruscha said. Another night at Tana’s.
There’s a salad named for Sammy Cahn’s wife, Tita; a veal cutlet named for the late producer Jerry Weintraub; a ground-sirloin steak named for Mace Neufeld, who managed Don Knotts.
Over the years, the restaurant turned away far more patrons than it ever served—there aren’t enough seats to meet the demand. Being a Hollywood personality doesn’t necessarily get you to the front of the line. John Travolta once reportedly appeared without a reservation and blew his stack when the maître d’ proved impervious to his charms. “You’re supposed to recognize me!,” Travolta whined. The maître d’ told him, “You’re supposed to know who I am. I’m the one who seats the tables!”
Richard Burton was turned away and carped about it to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Carson smugly noted that Dan Tana’s happened to be his favorite restaurant. When Tana, an able golfer who enjoyed L.A.’s municipal courses, was invited to try for membership at the Bel-Air Country Club, a member on the admissions committee warned him, “You can’t ask our members to patronize your restaurant.” Another committee member chimed in, “Don’t worry, they’ll never get in anyway!”
The restaurant’s Web site bears the motto “For over fifty years & there’s still a wait.”
Tana resisted the urge to open other Dan Tana’s to accommodate the demand. “I turned down millions of dollars,” he told me. Tana didn’t want an empire. He liked his little place on Santa Monica Boulevard just as it was. (When a 1980 fire torched it, he built it back pretty much exactly as it had been; Linda Ronstadt made calls to Governor Jerry Brown to expedite the permitting.)
But Tana did have other things going on. Around 1970, he moved the family to London, partly for his daughters’ education, but also to pursue a side career in soccer; he ended up becoming an owner of Brentford F.C., a London team that, after a 74-year wait, is competing in the Premier League this season. He got into film production in his native Yugoslavia and established, for decades, a trilateral life of shuttling among L.A., London, and Belgrade.
“I’m not exaggerating to say that thousands of people told me they’d buy it if I ever wanted to sell,” Tana told me. When he finally did sell Dan Tana’s, in 2009, it wasn’t to a celebrity chef or restaurateur or a longtime maître d’. (That last would have been longtime lieutenant Craig Susser, who opened the popular Craig’s, in 2011.) Instead, Tana sold to a friend, Perencević, who barely had any restaurant experience. The changeover was seamless; some customers might have no idea it ever happened. Whenever he visits L.A. he’s back at Tana’s for as many nights as they can stand him, often joining the Ruschas for dinner. He remains a fixture, even in absentia.
Perencević is as low-key and straightforward as Tana is boisterous and big; as an actor, the restaurant was his stage. Perencević said Tana offered support when the pandemic tightened its grip. “I almost cried when Dan said, ‘If you need help, I’m going to come,’” she told me. “This is a really hard time, and we have to help each other to survive. We never fired anyone, we never furloughed anybody, and, honestly, nobody left. We’ve just tried to find a way to survive. I hope we’re going to succeed. I think we will.” She cites the name of the original restaurant on the premises, Domenico’s Lucky Spot. “That’s it,” she said, explaining the fairy-dust magic of Dan Tana’s. “The place is lucky.”
“The beauty of Dan Tana’s is that it has never changed,” Toby Rafelson said. “To go there today is to enter a time warp. It’s like the Good Place—where you are most comfortable, familiar, bathed in this glow from the past.” Needless to say, the regulars hope it remains that way, as Perencević said she intends, coronavirus or no.
But L.A. is ever changing, and, as Ruscha, who documented the restaurant in his 2019 video piece, “L.A. Restaurants,” pointed out, places like Tana’s are fragile. “It’s this little wooden building,” he said. “It’s just prime for some huge development, some multi-story, mirrored building.” But for now, Dan Tana’s, with its familiar green horseshoe sign, remains. Despite the complications of coronavirus restrictions, it still offers something hard to come by in a city as huge and diffuse as Los Angeles: a sense of community, even a sense of home.
These days, Tana spends his days in Belgrade, riding out the pandemic like the rest of us. He watches soccer matches, reminisces, speaks frequently with his family, and does it all with the same zest he brought to running a tiny hole-in-the-wall that became, improbably, one of the most storied restaurants that ever was. “I wouldn’t trade my life with any person living or dead,” he said with a hearty laugh. “I’ve had the best life that any person could have.”
Richard Burton was turned away and carped about it to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.
Does he ever miss the hurly-burly—the crowded bar, the swirl of uniformed waiters, the booths packed with rock stars, Hollywood idols, blue-chip artists, sports heroes, movie moguls?
“I don’t miss anything that I’ve done,” Tana said, before begging off to watch a match already in progress. “I don’t go backward, I go forward. Maybe I’ll become an astronaut next! I continue to live.”
Mark Rozzo is an Editor at Large for Air Mail