At the door, a polite young man plays Eliza Doolittle, selling single long-stemmed roses to romantics. On the garden benches plopped on either side of the entrance, junior agents and actors-in-waiting take urgent cellphone calls, struggling to close a deal between courses. Fast-moving luxury cars squirt to a stop in front, disgorging aging rock 'n' rollers, industry honchos, famous faces and hangers-on, drop-ins from the neighborhood.
There is a down side. And that's the food, which, with the exception of a handful of dishes, is unfailingly mediocre. The kitchen turns out formulaic versions of classics, which, if they were well-executed, could be wonderful and appealing. One problem is that Dan Tana's is not a chef-driven restaurant with someone who really cares about Italian cuisine and makes sure that every dish that leaves the kitchen is the best it can be.
When Dan Tana's opened, you couldn't find the top-quality Italian ingredients that are almost taken for granted now: aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, artisanal pasta, the great extra virgin olive oils, San Marzano tomatoes. Now that they are available, you'd think, especially at these prices, the kitchen would upgrade its ingredients. But why fix something that's not broken seems to be the management's sentiment.
And plenty of people love the big portions, the sloppy plates and the retro taste.
With a side of pasta
Italians, though, would be hard-pressed to claim this food as their own, its qualities are so blurred and exaggerated. The house style involves great washes of tomato sauce, tons of mozzarella, and oodles of garlic and oil, which means everything looks and pretty much tastes the same.
Dan Tana's is one of the few old-school Italians still offering pasta as a side dish with the main courses. Here, it's spaghetti with one of three sauces: a slurried meat sauce, which is not all that bad; the bright red tomato sauce; or oil and garlic. The spaghetti is cooked past al dente, warmed in hot water, and plopped on the plate with zero ceremony.
Despite the food, Dan Tana's definitely has its charms. For some, it's nostalgia for the wild rock 'n' roll days when you might see John Belushi on a binge, entire bands stopping in after a concert (the restaurant is next door to the Troubadour), sitcom stars bending their elbows one too many times, all the wayward youth coming in for a bite to eat after a long ragged night. It used to be cheap, say friends who wasted much of the '70s and '80s hanging out here. But it isn't anymore, that's for sure. Every time I've gone recently, the bill averaged $100 a person.
Celebs who hang around long enough have dishes named after them, which makes deciphering the menu a pain. There's veal scaloppine Karl Malden, fettuccine Alfredo à la Mark Singer, steak and peppers Sinatra — but they're listed with no explanation whatever as to particulars.
The décor is as kitschy as can be, with straw-wrapped Chianti bottles hung from the rafters and red walls covered with drawings, paintings, memorabilia and Lakers jerseys. There's a photo of owner Dan Tana, who emigrated here from Tito's Yugoslavia, with the soccer team he owns in the old country.
It's a little shabby, but cozy, like L'Ami Louis in Paris, but enshrining L.A. in the '70s rather than Paris in the '30s — and without the fabulous food.
The booths are standard-issue red Naugahyde and some of them are fenced off with curlicues of white-painted wrought iron. But after you wait and wait — not because the maitre d' gives your table to someone more important, but because people tend to stay long at the table, having fun — sliding into one is a giddy-making experience, especially since you've probably had two or three drinks by that time.
I watch one night as a guy wearing a hugely expensive Rolex and a pinkie ring leads his party to a booth with the confident air of one who's certain that this, indeed, is the place. He takes the oversized menu and holds it up, pointing out salient dishes, and proceeds to order for everybody. Calling back the waiter, he adds, "and a double order of garlic bread."
Probably two minutes later, the basket of garlic bread arrives, neatly tucked under a cloth. When his friend reaches inside to take a piece, cheese strings span the distance from the basket to his plate. The house garlic bread is oily, garlicky and covered in gooey mozzarella.
Mama mia, mozzarella!
Then there's mozzarella marinara, a block of fried mozzarella buried in tomato sauce. The appeal of mozzarella and tomato is pretty much universal, so this is satisfying, but much better to share. Eat the whole thing and you're going down for the count, it's so heavy.
The best appetizer is something called pimiento and anchovies: lipstick red, thick-fleshed roasted peppers with plump anchovy fillets on top. That's it. The peppers are full-bodied and flavorful, and the anchovies are firm and meaty, packed in salt instead of oil. It's basic and very good, because, for once, the ingredients are top-notch. Italian food is so straightforward and simple that unless you're working with the best products, it falls flat.