Dan Tana's Turns 50: Secrets Behind Hollywood's Star-Studded Eatery
Stars from Cameron Diaz to Harry Dean Stanton — and Tana himself — reminisce about the restaurant's storied half-century, from an infant Drew Barrymore getting her diapers changed on the bar to the 2009 sale that worried patrons
This story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
One of the first things Dan Tana, Yugoslavian expat, former soccer star and sometime actor, changed when he took over the old Dominick's in West Hollywood in 1964 was to keep the kitchen open until 12:30 a.m. Tana was mystified that in Hollywood, "There was not a decent restaurant serving until 1 a.m. You had to go to a coffee shop."
Having served as maitre d' at La Scala and Villa Capri, Tana grasped that the industry needed a place where stars could commingle in anonymity. He resisted the now-quaint custom of bringing telephones to the table, even after infuriated studio exec Ned Tanen (American Graffiti) threatened to buy and burn down the place. "I said you can burn it, but you can't buy it, because I don't care how much money you have, I'm not putting in telephones," Tana, 79, who later co-owned a soccer team in the U.K. and today lives in Belgrade, tells THR. "You come here to eat, not talk."
Hollywood took notice, and soon it was hard to book one of Dan Tana's 17 tables. It didn't hurt that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was around the corner. "It used to be down the street on Melrose, so this was the perfect place to stop and have dinner," says Angie Dickinson, who attended acting classes with Tana. Or that Variety's Army Archerd "loved the place," as Tana recalls. When Richard Burton had to be turned away and complained about it on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson noted that Dan Tana's was his favorite restaurant in L.A.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary Oct. 1 with a private party at the restaurant, Dan Tana's is as it has ever been: same white shutters, bordello-red banquettes and Chianti bottles dangling from the ceiling. It even has the same bartender: Michael Gotovac has been pouring for regulars Harry Dean Stanton and Jack Nicholson for a staggering 47 years. Notes Stanton: "It's an institution. We call it the Star Wars bar," after the film's infamous cantina scene. Cameron Diaz had her first meal at Tana's when she was 16 (she now favors the off-the-menu chicken piccata). "It was the first restaurant I ate in in Los Angeles. I'm 42 now, and it has not changed. It feels like you walked right into the moment it was conceived." Says Nick Styne, Diaz's CAA agent, "It's very much like those New York Italian places where everybody is family."
Through five decades, the menu also scarcely has budged, with its New York steak (Dabney Coleman ate so many, Tana named it after him); veal parmigiana Jerry Weintraub; and veal cutlet a la George Clooney (the actor hosted his 2006 post-Oscar party at Tana's). Other restaurants of Dan Tana's vintage — Chasen's, Scandia, the Brown Derby — are long gone because, says Tana, "their customers disappeared." Tana recognized the appeal of continuity in a town suffering from a chronic lack of it, and he conjured a Hollywood institution that has been passed like a keepsake from generation to generation: Drew Barrymore's parents brought her to the restaurant, says Tana, and changed her diaper on the bar. "We are still serving my original customers — and their children and grandchildren."
Tana spurned repeated offers (including one from maitre d' Craig Susser, who left in 2011 to start his eponymous nearby restaurant) but sold in 2009 to Sonja Perencevic, a budding restaurateur who promised not to buck traditions. "Some of our patrons were skeptical," she admits. But she kept her promise, says Tana: "I am happy that after five years, nothing has changed."