Frank Panza – Last Of The Great SoCal Bartenders

Waxing sentimental is definitely my default setting and Santa Anita plays to it in spades. It’s not the chandeliers upstairs, the dusting of new snow on the backdrop on the San Gabriels opening day or even the fact I grew up nearby on a street named after Johnny Longden, the jockey who wrecked his horse into the rail in the 1960’s and was subsequently ko’d by an angry bystander. Santa Anita always gets to me because of the day a ghost named Mike Shaughnessy walked into the 100 to 1 club across the street and g to scatter his father Ed’s ashes on the back stretch (his dying wish). With a quiet Hail Mary and a quick kick into the terra firma he 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.

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 just 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 Beach resident Frank Panza, the long-time bartender there. 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.

Let me say Frank is an absolute gentleman of the first order, with a set of rare mannerisms and principles that are a happy reminder of a simpler time when quiet grace was the norm and a gentleman wouldn’t think of leaving the house without a tie. He was kind enough to meet me at Memphis in Costa Mesa to bounce some of my frivolous questions off of. Here’s his take on the state of the bar biz and some memories of the track.

Celeb you wish would come back and belly up to the bar-
”Frank Sinatra. Oh, he was beautiful, class act. I met him through Harry James and we were pretty close. He came up as a singing waiter and bartender. He never forgot about the people in the restaurant industry. Never”.

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”.

Celeb you would least like to see again-
“Well, I’d rather not say, but everyone knows who I’d be talking about. Musician guy”.

Changes in bartending/bartenders-
“I think a lot of the old time class is gone, you’re supposed to cater to people. 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 too. Nobody drank vodka back in the day”

Jigger or free pour? –
“I’ve been using a jigger all my life, I like to free pour too but at the track you have to use a jigger. Most places today, well, people want to see a free pour”.

Longest shot you’ve ever see win-
“We just had one come in at 130 to one, big score.”

Best/nicest horse owner? –
“I’ve never had any problems with any of the owners; they’ve always been nice to me. I really can’t single one out, they’ve all been great.”

On bartending-
“It’s like being on vacation. You’re socializing with people every day. You never know who’s going to walk into your place, and you meet some great, great people.”

How do you handle difficult customers?-
“Kill them with kindness I say, don’t let them get to you. Bartending is too much fun to ruin it. And there are way more nice clients than not.”

Fave to make? Do you have one? –
”Oh yes. I used to make scotch Old Fashioneds for Eva Gardener. And I loved making them for her, she was an amazing woman.”

This one’s from Memphis’ very own Ricky Yarnell. What’s you Old Fashioned recipe?-
“Just sugar, bitters, water and whatever bourbon they want, twist and a cherry. I pour a lot of brandy Old Fashioneds as well”.

If you could travel back to one year/era, when would it be? –
“I loved the 1960’s when we would do 60,000 people on Saturdays. 60,000 every Saturday, Big, big days. 30,000 during the week. Oh, the ambiance was beautiful, it was unbelievable.”

Did the Turf Club get busy too? Or was it always pretty exclusive? –
“Oh, yes. We had busy days. That was before off track betting. Oh, it was great. Women used to dress up with the big hats and minks, and the men wore suits and tuxedos. It’s a different time now.”

What’s the best quality a bartender can have? –
“First of all you got to be honest. Second of all you have to be gracious to people, give them service. And be professional, show up to work on time.”

Drink red? Bucket or wine glass?
“I have to use a wine glass.”

How did you get started there?-
“I was working on the Sunset Strip at a place called Villanova. Curling Catering was doing the catering at the park and Bob Curling, their bar manager, used to come into my shop. I called him and said I was sick of working nights, wanted days. He said come to work Saturday, you got a job. That was it.”

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