The worst date of my life took place at Dan Tana’s, where a high-school crush and I had wandered after a set by McCoy Tyner a few steps away at the Troubadour. My date didn’t like jazz, as it turned out; she spent a lot of time sighing that she would rather have gone to a disco, which neither of us was old enough to have gotten into anyway. She was a regular at Dan Tana’s, she informed me — her father was an entertainment attorney — and, sure enough, she was greeted like a princess at the door. We were led through a thick, blue cloud of cigarette smoke to her family’s usual table, from which she proceeded to enumerate the résumé, romantic dossier and current income of what seemed like two-thirds of the people in the room.
Then as now, clumps of straw Chianti bottles hung from the ceilings, a soundless television over the bar played the Lakers, and paintings blanketed the blood-red walls. I ordered spaghetti à la Caruso, trying to impress her with my worldliness — I didn’t know it was made with chicken livers, which I hated. She ordered a salady thing that had been named after a family friend. The waiter laughed when I tried to order wine, and then served us Sprite in wine glasses. The bill came to $20 more than I had in my wallet. She groaned and pulled out the credit card her parents had given her for emergencies. She did not want me to walk her home.
Dan Tana’s is, of course, a West Hollywood institution, holding down its spot on Santa Monica Boulevard since 1964 and hosting perhaps more famous people per square inch than anywhere else in town, as well as people whose fame rests on coming to Dan Tana’s a lot. If you are part of the family, you may get a dish named after you — veal Jerry Weintraub, scallopine Karl Malden, braciola Vlade Divac, chopped salad Nicky Hilton, steak Dabney Coleman — although if I were the late Jerry Buss, I might have sued to get my name off the rubbery shrimp scampi.
Dan Tana was the name Robert Urich assumed in the TV series Vega$. Dan Tana’s was frequented by both Axl Rose and Springsteen. Even the Dan Tana spinoffs Craig’s and Doma are full. The modest awning and the red-checked tablecloths assumed an outsize presence in my imagination, as one of the places, like Hyde or Totoraku, that just weren’t for me.
But it turns out that you can sneak in to Dan Tana’s with just a phone call, as long as you’re willing to eat early or late, and the insistent manliness (you have never seen so many high-fives) turns out to be more cheerful than bro. Everybody crowds into booths that are just a little too small. Everybody silently admires the Jerry West and Magic Johnson jerseys on the walls. Everybody drinks — cocktails mostly, well-made well Manhattans, martinis and whiskey sours, with the occasional bottle of Chianti tossed into the mix. I don’t particularly like the Old Fashioned here, the pre-Cocktailian kind filled out by a couple of squished maraschino cherries, but I like that somebody remembers my drink every time I come in.
I think this is the part of the review where I’m supposed to crack wise about the food at Dan Tana’s: the dry breadcrumbs on the clams casino, the bricklike stolidity of the fried mozzarella marinara, the mushiness of the chopped salad or the almost puddinglike softness of the famous sauteed whitefish. I could probably go on a bit about regional Italian cooking and how this isn’t it, or about the reconstructivist version of this white sauce/red sauce American Italian cooking at places like Carbone in New York. I know that stracciatella soup isn’t necessarily supposed to taste mostly of the grated cheese that is spooned onto it from a repurposed beer mug, that Chicago-style chicken Vesuvio is supposed to be a bit less slippery than Cantonese velveted shrimp, and that James Woods may not be the ultimate authority on what goes into chicken Florentine. The grilled steaks and chops are ordinary. And weirdly enough, I don’t care.
If you have been going to Dan Tana’s since the ’70s, you have your own protocol. If you haven’t, you get a Caesar salad, tossed to order across the room, that is cold, juicy and slicked with a powerful emulsion of garlic and cheese; or you get a Tita Cahn salad, named for Sammy Cahn’s widow, which is an improbably delicious chop of asparagus, lettuce and broccoli. Whether you’re from St. Louis or not, you’re getting the fried ravioli with marinara sauce instead of the dry calamari. The garlic toast is just the table bread with cheese broiled onto it, but you’re getting that too.
This isn’t quite Angelini Osteria, but you do OK with the meat-stuffed cannelloni or the penne arrabiata, although you should be warned that al dente isn’t quite the thing here, and a side of pasta inevitably comes with the meat.
I still haven’t figured out why a chicken dish named after the producer Sidney Beckerman became a staple in Los Angeles red sauce restaurants, but the baked dark-meat chicken with garlic, melted onions and freshly made potato chips is oddly delicious — as are the potatoes Beckerman, which is more or less the same thing without the chicken. The chicken parmigiana, crisp and annealed under a thick layer of marinara sauce and melted cheese, is exactly what you want when you come to a place like Dan Tana’s, and it shouldn’t surprise you that the eggplant parm and the veal parm provide almost exactly the same sensation.
And you’ll end with a dish of cappuccino ice cream that has crunchy candy things floating around in it, because Dan Tana’s is not about denying yourself things. The self-recrimination will come later, coinciding with the moment you get the bill.
Serving red-sauce cuisine to Hollywood for over 50 years
9071 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 275-9444, dantanasrestaurant.com
Appetizers $8-$22; pasta $23-$40; main courses $29-$66; desserts $8-$16.
5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Sundays. Full bar. Valet parking. Credit cards accepted.
Fried ravioli; Caesar salad; potatoes Beckerman; chicken parmigana; cappuccino ice cream.