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SOCAL STYLE: Restaurants

Old Faithful

September 07, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Right after my suave friend Harry moved back to town after a dozen years away in exotic locales, he would regale me with tales of cozy late dinners at Dan Tana's in West Hollywood. It has been a fixture on Santa Monica Boulevard since 1964, when its namesake, a former Yugoslav soccer player and ex-maitre d' at La Scala, followed his dream and opened his own place.

I'd gone to Dan Tana's once when I first arrived in Los Angeles and was catching up by eating at all the old classics. It was smaller and cozier than I expected. But I just didn't get it: I thought it was about the food. Harry was quick to disabuse me of this idea: "I'm not defending the joint, but I would never go to a restaurant for the food." Which, I came to learn, is why he fits in so well at Dan Tana's. And I don't.

To appreciate Dan Tana's, I had to set my prejudice--that a worthy restaurant should at least attempt to serve good food--aside. So, with Harry as my guide (his name has been changed to preserve his standing at the restaurant), I went back a couple of times.

Harry had told me that the first (and only) time he'd been back to his old stomping grounds, the door had barely cracked when Mike, the mustachioed bartender, yelled out: "Harry, where the hell have you been?" This time, we get one of the swell red leatherette booths in the main dining room. And Tony, the portly, courtly waiter with wavy silver hair, unfolds a napkin and slips it onto Harry's lap: "Are you with us again?"

Yep, the same old crowd is here, Harry says, nodding toward the throng three-deep at the bar, a party that's been marooned there for 15, 20, 30 years. Some come every night and stay till closing. There's a gravelly-voiced female bookie, a riverboat gambler-type dazzling in chunky gold rings and black cowboy hat, assorted blowsy blondes who could have stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel, beefy gentlemen in gold chains and the young and the hopeful looking for a toehold in Hollywood--an impressively eclectic group of barflies. This may be the last bastion for the drinking and smoking crowd. There's nothing politically correct about this place, which is part of its appeal.

Tony is back with the menus and a basket of warm, salty bread. We've been trying to find a wine to order from a list that impresses more for its shameless markups than for its interesting selection. Few vintages are listed either. I know, I know: Dan Tana's isn't about wine either.

Painted a deep red, the restaurant is decorated with red-and-white checked tablecloths, sports memorabilia--including a portrait of owner Dan Tana on horseback--and Chianti bottles strung from the rafters. A Vlade Divac Laker jersey is framed in the non-smoking room, one of two small dining rooms. Here, there are two of L.A.'s most romantic tables, set off in their own alcoves where you can see starry-eyed couples clinking glasses, peering out shyly at the celebrity-studded crowd.

A well-muscled guy in a custom-tailored suit and ponytail is ushered to a booth by himself. He must be somebody. Yes, but at Dan Tana's, being somebody doesn't necessarily mean being a celebrity. More likely, he's a regular who has kept the faith through thick and thin. "It's not about how many movies you've made, but how many steaks you've bought," Harry whispers.

Harry's favorite appetizer is roasted peppers crisscrossed with anchovy filets on a bed of iceberg lettuce: good. A Caesar salad--pungent, flecked with anchovy and nubbles of cheese, tossed with cold, crisp, bite-sized pieces of romaine lettuce--would be just about textbook perfect, if it weren't overdressed. Tough fried calamari wouldn't win any prizes though.

Later, offering me a bite of his sauteed squid, Harry warns: "You're not going to like it." He's right. The rubbery calamari in wine sauce has a distinctly gamey tang, yet Harry manages to consume the huge plateful. I do, however, like my New York steak. Nice and thick, the flavorful Kansas City beef is beautifully charred (although a touch more cooked than the medium rare ordered) and so peculiarly tender that it must have been massaged by a bevy of Heidi Fleiss' girls. The two triple lamb chops are excellent.

Entrees come with a side of fettuccine Alfredo or spaghetti with your choice of sauce. (You can substitute a plain green salad.) Heavily coated in cream and grated Parmesan, the thick, chewy fettuccine is a clumsy version of the classic dish. Spaghetti in Bolognese sauce, basically an ordinary ground beef and tomato sauce, isn't much better. Even aglio e olio, usually a sure bet, is marred by acrid garlic and neutral-tasting olive oil.

Main-course pasta, ordered on or off the menu, has its problems. "You really want it al dente?" the waiter will ask dubiously. (It's going to take a lot longer because it's not pre-cooked). And from a list of favorite dishes suggested by friends and acquaintances, I try everything from chicken Vesuvius and veal piccata to egg-dipped whitefish and an utterly bland osso buco.

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