Dan Tana's, 9071 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 275-9444. Dinner nightly. Full bar. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$70.
Silvio's, 8478 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. (213) 651-1842. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday, for dinner nightly. Full bar. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$70.
It is 1967 and a young screenwriter arrives in Los Angeles. Eager to get into the Industry, he avidly attempts to be seen in All the Right Places. He inquires anxiously about the places he should patronize, and soon discovers that Dan Tana's is the restaurant of choice.
The "in room" he discovers, is the one on the right; he starts hanging out there. With its cozy bar and its dimly lit interior, red checked tablecloths and bottles of straw-covered Chianti dangling from the ceiling, Tana's is anything but intimidating.
The Italian food is substantial, familiar and fine. The waiters know what they are doing and the patrons know each other well. The young scriptwriter looks and listens; he knows that when he too is known in this quintessential Hollywood restaurant, he will have Arrived.
Fast-forward 20 years, zipping past nouvelle cuisine and California cuisine, Foodies and the pasta revolution. The Hollywood restaurant is still with us, but it has now been reconstructed as . . . Silvio's.
Silvio's has a lot in common with Dan Tana's; both are filled with important movie people who know one another (but are not the sort who are familiar to fans). Both restaurants are Italian, and each is named for its owner. Even the prices are comparable.
But what is different about the two restaurants is more striking than what is alike about them, and the differences say a great deal about what has happened to us in the intervening years.
Walk into Dan Tana's today and you feel instantly embraced; even the parking valets give you a smile and hope you have a nice meal. Inside, the room is still dim, there are still red checked tablecloths and the same dusty bottles of Chianti hang from the ceiling. The same waiters seem to be here, still mixing salads with dignity, still smiling and recommending that you have the fettucine with your whitefish instead of the spaghetti.
Even the menu is the same. Tana's food basically comes in two varieties: red and white. The red food consists of dishes like squishy spaghetti with meat sauce or even (when was the last time you had this one?) spaghetti with meat balls. There is also good red meat, like a tasty, chewy steak.
But white food is what the restaurant is most famous for--sauteed whitefish may be its best-known dish. This is a thick slab of soft flesh, a good reminder of the days when Americans all suffered from fear of fish. You can't even imagine that this creature ever had bones, and the only discernible flavor is that of lemon. Veal piccata is remarkably like the whitefish, only thinner and chewier. The flavor, once again, is mostly of lemon. The fettucine that comes with these is also white, with a creamy flavor and a texture that is strangely gritty from the sprinkling of cheese.
Desserts tend to be quite white too. There is tortoni (the first time I can remember having this since I was a kid) and spumoni and flan. But the dessert that Tana's is known for is "Giovanni's parfait." Old reviews rave about this; one even calls it "food of the gods." I was surprised to discover that it was just a sort of sundae made of chestnut puree, ice cream, whipped cream and liqueur.
This is, clearly, old-fashioned food. But Tana's is an old-fashioned sort of place: unpretentious, professional, incredibly comforting. The food isn't really very good, but if I were a young screenwriter arriving in town, I'd rather turn back the clock than face the madness of the new Hollywood as epitomized by Silvio's.
It is a Friday night and the modern screenwriter has arrived at Silvio's. He is, unfortunately, only one of many; people keep pouring through the door. "Go wait in the bar," says the hostess nervously, but when the screenwriter goes back there he discovers that it is so crowded that there is not even room to stand.
The crowd gets edgy as the wait increases. The screenwriter had an 8:30 reservation and by now it is approaching 9:30. Meanwhile, the door keeps opening to let still more people into the room and it soon becomes clear that some of them are actually getting tables. "I guess you have to be Somebody," whispers an aspiring starlet in a short black leather dress that is molded to her body.
The privileged people who have seats seem to be enjoying themselves in this big open room. They wave at one another and occasionally you can see someone point at someone else and lean across the table. You can almost hear them saying, "And that's. . . ." At Tana's the best view is from the bar, where you can watch people before they disappear into the privacy of their tables, but here even the seated are very visible.