Dan Tana’s Restaurant

Monday, March 28, 2005

Make It in Dan Tana’s, You Can Make It Anywhere

The restaurant is always packed, and if you’re not a regular, sometimes you might just fuhgeddaboutit.

March 27, 2005 Make It in Dan Tana’s, You Can Make It Anywhere

By HOOMAN MAJD

LOS ANGELES

ON a Monday night at Dan Tana’s restaurant, two generously proportioned men with pronounced Brooklyn accents stood waiting at the bar for a table to be ready. Wearing a velour jogging suit accessorized by a few gold chains, the slimmer of the two unfurled a roll of hundreds to pay for his drinks. The other, wearing gabardine slacks with an oversize rayon shirt, never looked away from the N.C.A.A. tournament playing on the muted televison hanging above the bar.

It would be a typical scene in any one of a dozen restaurants in Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx; but Dan Tana’s is located just outside Beverly Hills on Santa Monica Boulevard and Brad Grey was sitting at a nearby table. Mr. Grey, the newly minted chairman of Paramount Pictures, was eating dinner with his former partner, Bernie Brillstein, a founder of the production and management firm Brillstein-Grey, in a booth with their wives. Dabney Coleman, meanwhile, would walk through the door shortly, followed by Marko Jaric of the Los Angeles Clippers.

With its red-and-white checked tablecloths, plastic floral arrangements and hanging Chianti bottles, Dan Tana’s hardly seems like one of the most sought-after reservations in town. But for 41 years that is exactly what it has been. Over time, regulars like Lew and Edie Wasserman have given way to Rick Yorn and his brother Pete; Johnny Carson to Jay Leno; Julie Christie to Cameron Diaz. And while 30 years ago Drew Barrymore was getting her diapers changed in one of the leatherette banquettes, these days you might see Leonardo DiCaprio seated a few tables away from Clint Eastwood, who could be next to Rupert Murdoch, whose table might be later occupied by George Clooney.

Dan Tana’s is a rare place, regulars say, where generations mingle, where people go to go; not to be seen. "It’s one of my very favorite restaurants," said Sumner M. Redstone, the chairman of Viacom and therefore Mr. Grey’s boss’s boss. Mr. Redstone goes to Tana’s, as some of the regulars call it, as much as three times a week when he’s in Los Angeles. He was, in fact, just about to dig into some takeout the restaurant had sent over. "I take everyone there and they all fall in love with it," he said. "It’s the first restaurant I took my wife Paula to."

Known for its steak, which comes in only one cut – New York strip – and is served with a dish of pasta as a side, Dan Tana’s has not changed its menu since it opened in 1964, when salad meant iceberg and pasta was spaghetti. "It’s like Arthur Avenue," said Mr. Brillstein, referring to the old Italian Bronx neighborhood of his native New York. "Great food," he explained, as he finished off a cannoli, "and an eclectic crowd."

"You can bring anyone here: even the head of a studio," he said, gesturing toward Mr. Grey.

Mr. Tana, a Yugoslavian soccer star, defected to the West in 1953 with hopes of playing soccer in the United States. Instead, he found himself in Hollywood playing bad guys in movies including "The Enemy Below" (1957). (He also lent his name to the lead character in the television series "Vega$.")

Mr. Tana is neither Italian nor even from New York, yet he has created what many people view as a shrine to their old East Coast stomping grounds.

"It reminds me of my old neighborhood in New Jersey," said Rick Yorn, the talent agent.

Mr. Coleman, who has come to the restaurant so regularly since it opened in 1964 that the steak is named after him, said, "It’s the best New York saloon in L.A."

Mr. Coleman arrives on the later side, about 10 p.m. – just as the younger crowd begins to fill the room. Though Los Angeles is a town where even the most popular restaurants can be deserted by 10:30 p.m., in true New York style the kitchen at Dan Tana’s takes its last order at 1 a.m.; the restaurant is open until 2.

But even non-New Yorkers find themselves seduced by the pull of Dan Tana’s. "It’s like eating in your living room," said David Naylor, a video and commercial producer who has been dining there two or three times a week since the mid-70’s. "I like the fact that when I walk in the door I’m handed a glass of Dewar’s on the rocks."

Famous for dating Julie Christie, Joni Mitchell, and Linda Fiorentino, among others, Mr. Naylor has taken them all to Dan Tana’s.

"I’ve seen it all," he said. "From the drug-taking in the wine room, to fights where plates of pasta fly across the room. It was one of the only places between Hollywood and the West Side where you could get a decent meal and where there were no paparazzi."

This lack of paparazzi, who long ago gave up trying to penetrate this fiercely protected turf, and the fact that no one at Dan Tana’s seems at all interested in trading on the famous and powerful people they serve every day, is according to regulars one of its most singular charms. So is the fact that celebrities don’t necessarily get first pick of the scant 20 tables. Craig Susser, the maître d’hôtel, who has worked there for 18 years, said he has to turn away four or five people for every reservation he makes and that the restaurant gives first priority to regulars.

"Our best clients are the regulars who come at least once or twice a week," Mr. Susser said. "Even a studio chief might not get a booth at the last minute if they haven’t been in for a while," he added.

Mr. Naylor once brought Martha Stewart, who is a friend of his, because she wanted to know where he ate on a Saturday night. Ms. Stewart suggested that he use her name to get a reservation. "I had to explain to her that that doesn’t work at Tana’s," he said with a laugh.

So how do you become a regular, or at least someone who can get a table once in a while? Mr. Susser said it’s simple. "You just have to be patient and flexible," he said. "If you can eat at 10 o’clock instead of 8, you’re more likely to get in. Or if you’re willing to sit in the back room instead of ‘front-side’ " (where the bar is). It also helps if you’re generous; Phil Spector once left a $500 tip on a $50 tab.

When Mr. Tana opened his restaurant he played up the role of the glad-handing proprietor, assiduously greeting the famous and the not-yet famous who flocked through his doors. Today, however, he spends much of his time in London and Belgrade, where he has been on the board of professional soccer teams.

Still, like a parent who has left the teenagers alone for a weekend, he always comes home, for about a week every month. When he is in town he is at his restaurant, usually standing at the bar, talking to the regulars.

"I’m as much at home there as any restaurant, and I’ve been to a lot of restaurants," Mr. Redstone said. "He’s a great host."

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