Have you ever felt that you didn’t “live up to” a restaurant?
I know I’ve felt that way. Maybe because I don’t speak French or don’t own a Brioni suit. I don’t tie my sweater around my neck by the sleeves like a member of the Armani crowd, with my sunglasses perched atop the hair I used to have. Or maybe my Midwest area code gave me away when I made my reservation.
So it’s refreshing for me to seek out restaurants from time-to-time where I don’t feel like a dork – old school spots, restaurants that have stood the test of time, places that are decidedly UN-HIP.
That was the very notion I had in mind in creating Buca in the mid-1990s. The Italian restaurants that were opening around the country all wanted to be sleek and cool, with glassed-in wine cellars and marble show tables… and I felt for the most part that they just ended up being phony and “EPCOTY.” Worse, they seemed to go out of their way to intimidate.
I wanted BUCA to break the mold – to be a restaurant that people would “look down on” rather than have to “live up to.” Thus the whole tasteless vibe and kitsch of “State Fair pillow décor.”
(I knew I’d succeeded when I visited an early Buca and saw a woman point to one of our décor items and say to her husband, “I would NEVER have that piece of crap in my house)!”
So perhaps you can imagine several years later how spooky it was for me to walk into Dan Tana’s in Los Angeles, on Santa Monica Blvd. OMG, it was Buca! IT WAS BUCA, created long before … in 1964, with red-checked tablecloths, curved red Naugahyde booths, Chianti-colored walls. I’d been to plenty of red-sauce joints, but this was so spot on that I felt like I must have been there before and gotten hit on the head on the way out.
Even crazier for me was the fact that Dan Tana’s was packed. When I asked for a table, all I got was a look of sympathy.
So here was a restaurant that was resolutely un-trendy – but unable to scrounge up a single table for a walk-in. Here was a restaurant where the headliner was spaghetti and meatballs– and who was eating it in the back booth? “Good grief, is that Meg Ryan?”
I had to return. So well in advance of my next trip to Los Angeles, I made a point to get a reservation.
And into Dan Tana’s we went.
Settled in a booth, I began to wonder, “Am I in New Jersey? Is this Queens… the Bronx?” I was in a world were “salad” meant “iceberg” and “pasta” means “spaghetti.” A world with a flickering TV over the bar and two really big, BIG guys standing there in nylon jogging suits, with multiple gold chains around their necks, watching the NCAA finals on TV… the same guys that, when it came time to settle up, pulled out a cantaloupe-sized wad of bills and peeled off the payment.
And, “Joanne, do you think those are hookers at the bar?”
We went back two more nights, and I began to peel back the Dan Tana’s “onion.”
You won’t find garganelli, crudo or Asiago polenta on the menu – hell, they’ve never even heard of angel hair. What you will find is spaghetti and meatballs, “bricks” of lasagna, “Chicken Parm,” Veal Scaloppini and Milanese, Shrimp Diavolo, Caesar Salad tossed tableside by tuxedoed waiters (not waitresses)… linguine with clam sauce…
… and a SINGLE STEAK: a 16 oz. New York Strip… called “the Dabney Coleman” (remember him from TOOTSIE, ON GOLDEN POND, and NINE TO FIVE?).
And they grill a killer bone-in veal chop, too.
The food is red-sauced, unpretentious, democratic and DAMN GOOD.
But here’s the thing: This place has a “cult status” that I’ve never seen before. I think it owes to Dan Tana’s great food, authentic feel, and truly welcoming hospitality – that and the fact that celebrities who want a break from the paparazzi… Leonardo de Caprio, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Brad Pitt… flock to the dimly-lit interior.
And yes… that was Meg Ryan.
So DO GO. And reserve a month in advance, even for a weeknight.
You can wear your jogging suit.
9071 Santa Monica Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90069
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In 2005 in one evening I saw Heath Ledger dining alone at a corner table and Jeremy Piven severed our dinner with some humor, just when Entourage was about to launch. Not sure if he was genuinely working there or if he was practicing for a role.