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A Personable Touch: Service by The Book

December 02, 1990|LAURIE OCHOA | Laurie Ochoa is a Times staff writer

It's between the salad course and the veal rollatini, early on a Sunday night, that Dan Tana brings out The Book.

"Mike," he says to his maitre d', "can you get me a better light? I can't read these names."

Mike, who fills in for regular maitre d' Jimmy Cano on Sunday and Monday nights, smiles, nods to Tana and pulls out a penlight in a quick, fluid motion. A moment later Mike's at the door, directing a couple of new arrivees to the crowded bar area. Those unfamiliar with the Tana's routine look nervously for a place to stand, arranging and rearranging their body posture.

In his booth in the center of the smoking room, Tana is flipping pages of the reservation book. "OK, look," he says. "Here's Matthew Broderick, Bruce Springsteen, Sean Penn, Dabney Coleman, Lyle Alzado, Henry Jaglom . . . Jaglom's here every night. Jimmy Woods, Glenn Frey."

Each name he reads is highlighted with a fat streak of yellow. "Irv Azoff, Sharon Gless, Don Henley, Dinah Shore . . . . See, we have a mixture. Drew Barrymore, Mitzi Gaynor, Shelley Winters, Sherilyn Fenn, Beverly Sassoon . . . whoa , that's what I mean, see? We get everyone here--the young, the old, the in, the out. Wilt Chamberlain comes in all the time, but they don't put his name in this yellow because he's not an actor . . . Marvin Davis, Johnny Rivers . . . "

Tana could, and does, go on. But a waiter, Tony, approaches just as he namedrops "Mike" Cimino. Tony wants to discuss the main course. "Tell me your symptoms," he says to Tana's guest. "Do you like red sauce? White sauce? A little lemon? A few capers?"

"My waiters are the best," Tana says when Tony leaves. "They've been here for years and they're all characters. Listen, only one of them--a part-time bartender--wants to be an actor. They're professionals."

For 26 years, waiters like Tony and stars--everyone from John Wayne to Linda Ronstadt in her Troubador days--have made Dan Tana's a quintessential Hollywood hangout. "We've fed more big producers here before they became anybody, more big stars before they became famous, all the sports bosses. And we treat them all nice. We take care of them on their way up."

Tana's eyes scan the dining room. He points to one table in a far corner. "See that guy?" he says. "He produced 'Red October.' And over there," Tana nods toward another table. "He's a screenwriter. These guys across the way--businessmen--they're regulars. The guy who just walked in? He's a big developer--big, big, big shopping centers. Now, not all these people are famous, but you never know, someday a few of their names might be highlighted yellow in the book."

Tana, a one-time soccer player who defected from Yugoslavia during the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, was an actor himself before he opened the restaurant. ("I played Nazis and communists and fascists; I always got killed and I never got the girl.") But when World War II movies gave way to Vietnam films in the '60s, Tana needed another line of work. He was promoting professional soccer out of an office in West Hollywood, just down the street from where Tana's is today, when the owners of his favorite lunch spot gave him an offer he couldn't refuse. "I bought the place with a $1 down payment," Tana says, still tickled at his luck.

At first, Tana spent his days and nights in a practically empty restaurant. "We tried to keep the place open late," Tana says, "but after 8 o'clock nobody came. Everyone told me, 'you have the wrong location, people won't come, you're right on the border of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.' "

Then Dan Tana's got its first restaurant review: a glowing report about a charming new discovery. "We never looked back," Tana says. "We started doing such a big business that I had to close for lunch and keep the place open until 2 in the morning. Everybody wanted a table."

Everybody, including Richard Burton:

"Richard Burton--you know he never came in here with Elizabeth Taylor? Anyway," Tana says, "he telephoned three times one night--he wanted to come in with seven other people right away--and we couldn't take him. There was no room. We said we could take him in two hours; we offered to split his party four and four. I mean, what are you going to do? You can't kick people out of their seats. Later that night he gets on 'The Tonight Show' and Johnny Carson says, 'Oh, it's so easy for you--everyone must roll out the red carpet.' And he says, 'Not at Dan Tana's--we can never get in there.' "

In 1978, Aaron Spelling produced a show for ABC called "Vegas," starring Robert Urich as . . . Dan Tana. Urich's Dan Tana was a P.I. who drove a flashy red convertible and solved mostly mob-related casino crimes, which often required him to interrogate scantily clad showgirls.

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