Diatribe With Dave: Talking with Frank Panza, Legendary Bartender at Santa Anita Park's Turf Club
Waxing sentimental is definitely my default setting, and Santa Anita Race Track plays to it in spades. It's not the dusting of new snow on the San Gabriels on opening day or the fact I wear a suit and tie there no matter what (in deference to my Grandmother Lola, who would otherwise rise from the grave and kick my ass.)
It's not even the fact I grew up on a nearby street named after Johnny Longden, the jockey who wrecked his horse into the rail in the 1960s and was subsequently ko'd by an angry bystander. My attachment took root the day a ghost named Mike Shaughnessy walked into the 100 to 1 Club across the street and rescued me and my dear friend Kieran Scott's crumbling efforts to scatter his father Ed's ashes on the back stretch (Ed's dying wish). After ruminating over our Bloody Marys, Mike was kind enough to escort us into the backfield for the necessary ritual. With a quiet Hail Mary and a quick kick into the terra firma, Kieran's father was laid to rest and our accommodating specter quite literally disappeared into the mists of history.
Depending on the race, that push through the flat on the backside can be lackluster at times. But when those beautiful beasts break that far turn and start to stretch and lean and really work and the crowd goes up...well, that'll get you every time and, with a nose full of sour mash, that's when I think of Ed and the day we did right by him. It's worth the drive for sure, and Santa Anita is a beautiful Art Deco track with a magnificent view and one-of-a-kind story to tell. I have some advice for those that may venture there for the first time. First: no matter what your ride is like, knuckle under and roll through the valet. It's gonna save you a long, long walk. Second, ditch the jeans and T-shirt and just pony up the extra few bucks for the Turf Club. It's a great space and, at the risk of sounding elitist, you won't have to hang out with the riff-raff (although I'm a big fan of riff-raff). Third, belly up to the bar and introduce yourself to Laguna Niguel resident Frank Panza.
Frank's been there 50+ years and has probably seen/heard almost everything. He makes a mean drink and has done so for the likes of John Wayne, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and.well, you get the point.He's an absolute gentleman of the first order, combining a wry smile with a set of mannerisms and principles that are a happy reminder of a simpler time when quiet grace was the norm and a man wouldn't think of leaving the house without a tie. I look forward to him pouring me a Jameson and soda opening day like I look forward to the breath of life itself, and he was kind enough to meet me at Memphis in Costa Mesa to answer some of my frivolous questions.
His years at the track are a humble testament to the times he has seen and he does not sing his own praises or put on airs. It's a rare quality. Here's his take on the state of the bar biz and some memories of the track.
|Photo by Dave Mau|
|Panza: They don't make 'em like they used to...|
Frank Sinatra. He was beautiful, class act, easy to wait on. I met him through Harry James and we were pretty close. He never forgot his roots coming up as a singing waiter and bartender. Never forgot about the people in the restaurant industry. Never.
Celeb you would least like to see again:
Well, I'd rather not mention his name. Nobody liked him anyway, but everyone knows who I'd be talking about. Singer guy.
What is the great American cocktail? Sazerac? Old Fashioned? Manhattan?
It would have to be the Manhattan. I make a lot of them, it's a classic.
Changes in bartending/bartenders:
I think a lot of the old-time class is gone. You're supposed to cater to people. I do, you do, and that's what it's all about. Treat them right. I've been in a lot of places where you can tell they just don't care. All people drink is vodka now as well; nobody drank vodka back in the day. We had a bottle of it that sat behind the bar for years and never got touched. Less mixed drinks too.