Long before restaurants like The Ivy and Mr. Chow drew paparazzi in droves, an old school Italian restaurant with red booths and red sauce called Dan Tana’s attracted rock stars, movie legends, starlets and wannabes. Very few people have witnessed the restaurant’s progression since it opened in 1964 on the eastern doorstep of Beverly Hills – other than Mr. Tana himself – but native Croatian Mike Gotovac can nearly make the same claim. He’s manned the menu-free bar since 1968, and he’s seen thousands of faces over the years, some famous, others anonymous. We met at the restaurant on December 21, and he shared several insights.
Why did you move to Los Angeles?
I left my home in ’64. I ran away from the Communist system. I was in Germany for three years, and everybody’s dream is to come to America, everybody around the world, so I decided to come to Los Angeles.
Did you know anybody here?
Not really, no. I was 24 years old, so I decided to make a move, and I moved to L.A.
When you moved here, was this the first job that you had?
I came in ’67, in October, and I landed my job here, June ’68, accidentally.
What did you do in between?
In between I was working in shipyards, Starkist cannery, as a longshoreman, painting homes, whatever you can find. You don’t speak English, don’t know anybody, so whatever you can get. The manager who was working here was Croatian, and he was buying a house in San Pedro, and the real estate guy was a friend of mind, so he said I was a waiter from Europe and was looking for a job, so I came in here, and that’s when I get my job. Actually, the first six months here, I was a waiter, then they made me a bartender.
What was the first drink you ever remember making?
Oh god, I didn’t know any drinks, because in Europe, we don’t have cocktails. It was very tough in the beginning. My English was bad, and I didn’t know anything about any cocktails, any whiskey, anything. This old guy bartender was getting ready to retire, and he said, “Mike, come behind the bar, and I’ll teach you how to tend bar.” So slowly I picked it up and learned how to tend the bar.
What was his name?
So he taught you how to bartend?
Yeah. When I started working here, the bar was empty. There were a few customers, and we used to sell like 80 dinners a night, and by 1970, it was a big boom, the bar expanded, the restaurant expanded, we’d do 180 dinners a night. We’ve been busy ever since.
What was the turning point when it started to get busy every night?
I guess the people who worked here. They hired a new manager. He changed the menu, and he knew a lot of people in this town for many years. Dan Tana knew a lot of people in show business. The food became great, people kept coming in here, and some newspaper guy was here, he loved the dinner, and he wrote a story in the L.A. Times. The place got packed. And the Troubadour had great shows. You know, the club over there? All music people, they’d go see a show, and they’d come here before or after seeing a show.
Do you see a lot of music?
Over there? I used to go there, but if you work nights, you don’t have time to see live music. I was working seven days a week, then I cut to six, then to five. I didn’t have time to see live music, but I met all those people. They’d come into the bar and have drinks with me.
All the different musicians?
All different. Eagles, Elton John, Roy Orbison, Ricky Nelson. Country music. Anybody who went to the Troubadour would come here, so I got to know them.
So you got to know a lot of them?
Yeah, lots of them, but you’re busy. I was three, four deep behind the bar, so I wouldn’t have time to have a lot of conversations with those guys, who have a drink or dinner, then go back to perform, but I met them, a lot of musicians, a lot of singers, a lot of movie stars, all those guys.
What’s your favorite thing about bartending?