When you ask loyal customers what keeps them coming back to the iconic Dan Tana's restaurant in Hollywood (it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014), some point to the classic red-sauce Italian cuisine, while others mention the stiff drinks and rambunctious party atmosphere. But to many die-hard regulars, the main reason to visit the restaurant is endearingly cantankerous, mustachioed, longtime bartender Mike Gotovac.
Quick-witted, with acerbic jokes aplenty, Gotovac is nearing his 50th anniversary bartending for the old-school joint. His longtime fans over the years have witnessed his transformation into the grizzled septuagenarian with the softest heart around. In a town full of celebrities, he's the real deal.
An immigrant to L.A., Gotovac landed here without much money in his pocket but the desire to succeed. He came to Los Angeles in 1967 from the small, bucolic beachside town of Split, Croatia. A friend living in San Pedro got him in touch with Dan Tana's manager (also of Croatian descent). Gotovac landed the job in 1968, starting off as a waiter, and within months became the bartender despite his limited English and cocktail-making knowledge.
“Being successful as a bartender requires fast moves, great concentration, and thinking about what you're doing when making drinks for customers,” he says.
The retiring bartender quickly showed him the ropes; loyal customers took it upon themselves to help Gotovac learn English and mixology. Many of these early customers would become some of his closest friends and would spend Thanksgiving with him. “Many close customers didn't have family in L.A., so I invited them to my home every year,” he says.
Now Gotovac efficiently whips up extra-dry martinis or super strong old-fashioneds in rapid-fire succession while delivering a joke or two, making it all seem easy. (He handles the drinks for the entire restaurant without missing a beat.) If he hasn't seen you for some time, he may welcome you back with a shot of Pelinkovac, an uber-bitter Croatian liqueur. Or he may warmly shout, “How's your sex life?”
He seamlessly orchestrates a lively bar scene that just seems to work, where strangers strike up conversations, even becoming fast friends. It's just that kind of place, much to his credit.
For decades, Gotovac was the veteran conductor of this eccentric symphony up to seven days a week; in recent years, he has cut back to two. He's nearing his 75th birthday, yet he keeps returning because interacting with customers (as well as taking shots with them) still brings him great joy and the management has treated him quite nicely over the decades, he says.
On his days off, he loves spending time with his three grandchildren — a complete change of pace and much-needed respite from hours holding court behind the bustling bar. He's an avid soccer fan and used to play soccer on his days off. “I used to go to Rams games at the Coliseum in the '70s and '80s, drinking beers and enjoying the game with friends,” he recalls.
Gotovac has touched the lives of generations of Dan Tana's patrons, some of whom started visiting when they were children and subsequently brought their own kids. In the fickle, fly-by-night L.A. restaurant scene, he remains an intrepid fixture.