Welcome to Last Call , where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
There’s a bar, and then there’s a bar. The bar at Hollywood red-sauce joint Dan Tana’s is that second kind. Mike Gotovac has been handling the drinks at Dan Tana’s for more than 50 years, and in that time, his bar has become hallowed grounds for West Coast drinkers, a place where both Clint Eastwood and a WeHo party boy can feel comfortable pulling up a stool and slaking their thirst with one of Gotovac’s notoriously strong one-ingredient martinis. We asked Gotovac how to drink, how to beat a hangover, and how to stay alive.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Mike. How did you first end up at Dan Tana’s?
Mike Gotovac: I’ve been here exactly 50 years … I couldn’t find a job, I had no skills, didn’t speak the language. In Croatia, I went to school for forestry. A friend of a friend was managing this place, he told me to come by and he would give me a job. So, in 1968, I came here, and they said, “Take your jacket off and start working.”
I was a waiter for a while, but there was an older bartender who couldn’t handle the bar, so they asked me if I wanted to go behind the bar. I said, “I don’t speak English, I don’t know how to make drinks.” And they said, “Don’t worry, we’ll teach you!”
So, they taught you both how to speak English and how to make drinks?
A lot of people taught me: the manager, the employees, the customers. They were great. The customers would tell me the names of drinks and how to make them. I was a fast learner.
Other than making the drinks and speaking the language, what do you think makes a great bartender instead of just a good bartender?
First, it’s your personality, how you present yourself to the customers. You don’t judge people, how they look, who they are. Big stars or average persons, you treat everybody equally and you be nice to the people. Be patient. It’s all your personality. How you handle people. You can find in my bar, sitting, the richest man in the world talking to a homeless person and buying each other a drink. It’s unbelievable, this place.
People ask what I do for a living and I say I kill people. My nickname is Dr. Kevorkian Slow Death. I feed them alcohol, I feed them cigarettes, I feed them Viagra.
Over all those years, how have you seen your customers change?
Everything changes: what people eat, what they drink, how they behave behind the bar. In my opinion, the older generation was more classy. They weren’t demanding, they weren’t in a hurry. They wanted to take their time, relax, and have a drink. But generation after generation, people are getting more pushy. More demanding.
Do you think people were better at handling their alcohol before?
In the old days, people handled their alcohol much, much better. This new generation, I can say that they don’t know how to drink. They want to get drunk too fast.
"My policy, I tell everybody: It’s a bar, not a church. It’s OK to get a little bit over the line. If you want peace and quiet go to church or a library—don’t come to my bar."
What’s your advice for how to be a good drinker?
I tell every customer. If you have a drink, have a glass of water. If you just drink one drink after another, after three drinks you’re going to be on the floor. I tell every customer: “Slow down. I’d like to have your money, but I want you to come back. I want you to walk out of my place happy and healthy and come back again.” Some people listen to me, probably 75 percent of people; some don’t.
Do you have a blacklist? People who aren’t allowed back?
My policy, I tell everybody: It’s a bar, not a church. It’s OK to get a little bit over the line. If you want peace and quiet go to church or a library—don’t come to my bar. If people get out of hand we ask them nicely: “Please, finish your drink and no more for tonight. You can come back anytime you want.”
Maybe in my whole life, there have been three customers I’ve had to ban for good. My customers make fun of me! “Why don’t you 86 that guy?” I say, “I don’t 86 people, I tell them to go home and come back.”
This is a classy place, it’s not like you have students doing shots…
We all drink shots! I drink shots! Sometimes I drink 20 shots a night!
Twenty shots a night! How are you still alive?
I stay on my feet and I move. At home, I never drink. I might have a glass of wine. When I work, I drink with customers. My favorite food is fish and chicken, sometimes lamb.
Do you think bartenders should keep your secrets? Is it important that what happens here stays here?
That’s most important! I tell people, when I walk out of these doors, I forget everything. I tell them, if I get mad at you, if I’m mad, or you’re mad, go home, sleep it off, come back tomorrow, and it’s a new day. That’s my policy. That’s why the bar is always busy.
If somebody is bothering people?
My first thing is, if you sit at my bar, I’ll tell you: “Sir, you can do whatever you want to me. You can call me names, you can call me whatever you want, you can give me a hard time. I get paid for that. I won’t get mad. But you bother my customers and I’ll ask you to leave.”
I protect my customers.
Can you share any stories about Hollywood personalities from the past, maybe long ago, without betraying any confidences?
In the old days, the big, big stars used to hang at the bar. Now, they want to get seated right away. Today, music people like to hang at the bar. They still like to drink and have fun.
One of my favorite customers just died. Harry Dean Stanton. He was my favorite. He used to come here all the time. Actually, he’s the one who taught me how to make most of the drinks. Whenever he came in and I was working, we’d take a shot together.
Warren Oates was one of my favorite customers, he used to come in to drink. Robert Mitchum, John Ireland. Clint Eastwood was always at the bar in the 70s. Great drinkers.
And music people came to the bar all the time like Joni Mitchell, The Byrds. The Eagles were my favorite. I love the Eagles. We started the same year. I’ve had a lot of drinks with them, did shots.
"I don’t like mixed drinks. I mix them in my stomach. I drink wine, beer, and shots of brandy."
Harry Dean Stanton taught you to make drinks? Any secrets you can share?
Well, in the old days it was all gin martinis. Nobody drank vodka, only gin. People kept saying they wanted dryer martinis. So, I thought, hell I won’t put any vermouth in the martini, just a glass of gin, cold. And people still gave me a hard time, saying it’s not dry enough. And I don’t like shaking martinis. If you shake them, the ice melts.
Now everyone drinks vodka martinis. The newest thing is everyone is drinking dirty vodka martinis with olive juice. Now, it’s 80 percent vodka martinis, and things like lemon drops and peach martinis, all kinds of flavored things.
What’s your drink of choice?
I don’t like mixed drinks. I mix them in my stomach. I drink wine, beer, and shots of brandy.
Do you worry that today in LA, people are forgetting how to have fun? Focusing too much on having a long life instead of a good life?
No, no, no! The young people come here and they drink like a fish! They enjoy their life; they do shots!
You have a reputation as something of a jokester behind the bar.
I don’t tell jokes. I just listen to what everybody is saying at the bar and come out with something a little sarcastic, it’s not telling jokes. If somebody comes in and gives me a hard time I’ll say, “Why don’t you get a life? Get a wife? And get away from me!”
A lot of people will sit at the bar and write down my lines to use them in movies. They tell me they use my lines.
Do you have a trick for fixing hangovers?
I don’t think such a thing exists. Just drink a lot of water. There is no cure, just water, water, water.
Do you have any plans to retire?
One day at a time. One day I’m going to call and say I’m not coming back anymore. I don’t want to make a big thing. People would want to have a party.
Thanks for speaking with us.
For more on Dan Tana's, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to Hollywood.