Veteran bartender Mike Gotovac has been a perennial presence for over five decades behind the bar of West Hollywood hotspot Dan Tana’s. (He celebrated his 50th anniversary at the iconic restaurant in August 2018 with his colorful visage emblazoned on the rectangular, layer cake.) Sadly, he lost his battle with coronavirus and died on Thursday after an insurmountable battle. He was 76 years old.
It’s the end of an era where the vibrant Hollywood night life scene and the lives of countless friends he made over the decades will never be the same. His longtime fans witnessed his transformation from a novice, budding young bartender to the grizzled, distinctively mustachioed septuagenarian with an acerbic wit for the ages and the warmest of hearts despite his gruff, no-nonsense exterior. In a proverbial entertainment town full of celebrities, he was the star. He was truly the last in a long-line of old-school bartenders that could whip up a half dozen drinks in a matter of seconds while zinging gut-busting wisecracks with equal dexterity.
He was born and grew up in bucolic Split, a seaside village in Croatia where he developed an unwavering, life-time passion for soccer (for years he would coach local children’s soccer teams on the side). He ultimately immigrated to Los Angeles in 1967 without much but the crucial desire to succeed. A friend residing in the tight-knit Croatian community in San Pedro set up with a job at Dan Tana’s, where the manager was also of Croatian descent. He landed the job in 1968 and the head bartender who was nearing retirement took him on under his wing. Months later, he would become the bartender despite his limited English and minimal cocktail knowledge (his customers would assist him in the makings of a great cocktail). Some regulars would even visit the bar six times a week — the true sign of a regular — and Mike was the reason why. He could serve a stiff, bone-dry martini like nobody else coupled with the admonition (obviously good-naturedly) to “Shut up and drink.”
Over the years, he would serve drinks and chit chat with up and coming bands playing the Troubadour next door (The Eagles wrote their hit song “Lyin’ Eyes in a corner booth). And in his younger years he would hop over the bar, drop by the Troubadour for couple shots, and then race back to Tana’s to resume his duties. Even decades later, he never lost his vitality and zest for life, making customers both new and longstanding welcome in the tiny restaurant bar he held court over. He was one of the few bartenders who would take shot after shot with customers while not skipping a beat. And he never had a bar back nor the use of an assistant. If he hadn’t seen you in years, he’d holler vociferously, “How’s your sex life?” He was quite the fount of kinetic energy, whether doling out heaps of saucy veal parmigiana molten with gooey mozzarella, slipping you an extra drink here, or plying you with an extra slab of creamy cheesecake there. Mike was the reason why a plethora of his ardent fans described the restaurant as a real life Cheers.
After all, regulars there had their regular seats, where they met friends old and new and some they had not seen in years. The restaurant’s bar was full maybe 20 minutes after opening every day due to the guy behind the bar. Longtime customers from Italian food rich cities such as New York and Chicago would still make Tana’s and a visit to see Mike their first upon landing at LAX.
It goes without saying it was that kind of quintessential joint that made Hollywood much more manageable, homey and friendly, where customers would come for the off-color jokes (“You’re homeless and hopeless”), hearty helpings of rich food, copious drinks and the unabashed camaraderie of Mike the Bartender, who would orchestrate a lively bar scene seamlessly. Free flowing conversation was always the order of the day. He was larger than life. Yet, those who met him were the better for it. Every year, he would host a lavish Thanksgiving dinner: opening his home to regulars without a home to go to, who would drop by for a wonderful meal, drinks and laughter with Mike and his family. “Many close customers didn’t have family in L.A., so I invited them to my home every year,” he says. And he was a true family man spending as much time in his off hours with his grandchildren as possible. When I once inquired what he liked to do for fun, he said, “I used to go to Rams game when they played at the Coliseum in the ‘70s and ‘80s, drinking huge beers, and enjoying the game with friends.”
Mike had a tremendous impact on the bar scene in Los Angeles (and perhaps even worldwide) in making a career out of simply serving people delicious, stick-to-the ribs Italian-American food and those superb drinks. But what we might ultimately remember him by is his unwavering friendship with people who visited his bar whether you were rich, poor or somewhere in between, which is quite hard to come by in the City of Angeles and is surely a testament to his loyal customers who became his close friends.